JFK 50 Years Later: The NFL’s Darkest Weekend
A version of this story appears in the Nov. 25 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine.
By Tim Layden
There was a fight, though not a fight in the strictest sense. It was a beating. One member of the Eagles knocked out another and then leaned over him and pummeled his face and skull so fiercely that his own hands were reduced to bloody mitts. The man beneath him, the bigger man, drifted in and out of consciousness, and the Philadelphia teammates who saw him that evening would never forget the damage. His head, one man would say, was swollen “like a pumpkin on a little baby’s body.” His nose and mouth were battered to a pulp; at least two of his teeth were knocked out; and his blood was spilled in such volume that the floor of a stately old Philadelphia landmark looked like the floor of a slaughterhouse.
It was 50 years ago this weekend, on the eve of a game between the Eagles and the Redskins, two teams with four wins between them, buried at the bottom of the Eastern Conference of the old 14-team NFL. The Redskins had taken a train north from Washington on Saturday afternoon, while the Eagles had checked into the Sheraton Motor Inn at 39th and Chestnut, where they always bedded down the night before home games, at Franklin Field. The skeletal details of the weekend were like those of so many teams’ weekends before and after: meals, meetings and fitful sleep in preparation for the violent spectacle on Sunday afternoon.
But everything else about that weekend was . . . different. The course of U.S. history had been altered; a collective innocence had been shattered; and a nation was left staring at its televisions in disbelief.
On that Saturday evening 26-year-old Ben Scotti, a fiery 6' 1", 184-pound defensive back from Newark, beat up 30-year-old John Mellekas, a 6' 3", 255-pound defensive tackle from Newport, R.I. They had argued about something, though the substance of the disagreement—and whether it was a disagreement at all—remains in dispute, made ever hazier by the aging of those who witnessed it and the manner in which they used their heads as young men. “There’s not much doubt that what happened between Ben Scotti and John Mellekas was due in some part to the emotion of the moment,” says Pete Retzlaff, a tight end and wide receiver for the Eagles from 1956 to ’66. “To the emotions of that whole weekend.”
Scotti, who likens himself to Rocky Marciano, hit Mellekas so hard that he sliced a tendon in his right ring finger on one of Mellekas’s teeth. Mellekas doesn’t remember being hit by any punch—only waking up in a hospital room with his wife at his side and Scotti in the room next door. Their fight would follow the two men into old age, boilerplate inserted into every story that tried to encapsulate the nationwide pain and confusion of that singular weekend. Scotti would say he regretted the incident, but he would retell it with a pugnacious zeal. Mellekas so disliked the notorious role he was assigned in history that he wouldn’t talk about it with anybody, even his five children. He and Scotti would go on to do much with their lives, in very different ways. But they would never escape that night.
And none of it would have happened if President John F. Kennedy hadn’t been shot to death while riding in the back of a limousine that Friday afternoon in Dallas, and if NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle hadn’t decided to forge ahead with a full schedule of regular-season games two days later—plunging the NFL into the strangest, darkest weekend in its history.
* * *
Early on the afternoon of the fourth Friday of November 1963, Philadelphia and Washington were practicing for their game that Sunday, each team’s 11th game of a lost season. Three years earlier the Eagles of quarterback Norm Van Brocklin and linebacker Chuck (Concrete Charlie) Bednarik had won the NFL championship, and they had followed that up with a contending 10-4 season. But the heart of that team was gone, and these Eagles had won just five of their past 23 games. The Redskins hadn’t won a league title since 1942 and hadn’t had a winning season since ’55. They would go to Philadelphia with only three wins in their previous 18 games.
The Redskins held their practice on a field by the Anacostia River, a few hundred yards from two-year-old D.C. Stadium, where they played home games. The team had just begun position drills at various spots on the field when coach Bill McPeak blew his whistle and called the players together. Everybody up, everybody up! Pat Richter, a 22-year-old rookie wide receiver and punter—and the team’s first-round draft choice, from Wisconsin—walked toward the gathering with a sense of foreboding that sticks with him five decades later. “It was eerie,” he says. “You looked around at the roadways and it was quiet, and you sensed that something had happened, but you didn’t know what it was.”
The players recall the silence that descended as they processed the unfathomable. Yet everyone remembers that the practice continued.
The players who encircled McPeak that afternoon are old now, from their early 70s into their mid-80s. Some of their memories have been lost to age or repeated concussions or both. Yet during interviews with 21 players from both teams, the sharpest recollections were of those first moments on Friday afternoon, in the minutes and hours after Kennedy was shot in Dallas while riding in a motorcade at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time. McPeak, who was 37 and six years removed from his last game as a defensive end for the Steelers, said something to the effect of “the President’s been shot and killed.” The players recall the silence that descended as they processed the unfathomable. “I remember thinking, How could this happen?” says Lonnie Sanders, then a rookie defensive back. “How could that happen in this country?” Yet everyone remembers that the practice continued.
Back in the stadium defensive tackle Ed Khayat and cornerback Johnny Sample sat in whirlpools, nursing injuries. A groundskeeper ambled in, a cheerful guy who was always busting chops. He said, “The President’s just been shot.” At first Khayat and Sample didn’t believe him.
Eagles players recall practicing slightly earlier in the day on a rutted, unlined plot of land called River Field, near a set of railroad tracks adjacent to the Penn campus. They took a bus there every day from Franklin Field. “I remember getting back into the locker room at the stadium,” says former defensive back Irv Cross. “Nate Ramsey came running into the room. Nate was a practical joker, and he was saying some dude shot the President. It didn’t seem possible.”
Linebacker Maxie Baughan left practice quickly and was driving to an autograph-signing session at a downtown car dealership (for which he was paid $50) when he heard about the assassination on his car radio. He went ahead and signed in a daze. “That was good money,” he says. “What could I do?”
* * *
The events of Nov. 22, 1963, occurred so long ago and have been so thoroughly dissected (like those of Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 7, 1941) that the emotional impact of the assassination has been lost in the haze of deconstruction. Yet those emotions are worth evoking. In the autumn of ’63, the country lived in an idyll of hope and naiveté, much of it represented by Kennedy. We are a different people now—unspeakable tragedies (New York, New Orleans, Newtown) unfold live on television and the Internet, avidly consumed by an anxious populace. That transformation began when Kennedy died.
In the mid-afternoon, Redskins players left the stadium and drove to their homes through a ghost town. “I lived in an old hotel with Eddie Khayat,” says Billy Ray Barnes, a running back in ’63. “Just riding over there, it seemed like we were the only ones on the dang road even moving. It was just unreal.”
Offensive lineman Vince Promuto saw blank faces by the side of the road. “It was like everybody was in shock,” he says. “Nowadays you hear stuff every day, things blowing up and people shooting each other. That wasn’t the case in 1963.”
Eagles offensive tackle J.D. Smith went home to his wife, Melanie, in suburban King of Prussia, and together they alternated between watching coverage of the assassination on TV and looking out their windows at the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike. “Usually the roads were jammed,” Smith says, “but there were hardly any cars at all.”
Redskins receiver Bobby Mitchell was overwhelmed by the news. Mitchell had been traded by the Browns in 1962, becoming one of the first African-American players on the Redskins’ roster. (Mitchell is often portrayed as the man who integrated the team, but four African-Americans were on the roster at some point in 1962. “I was represented as the first black player because I was the star,” says Mitchell. “Conversely, I caught the most hell.”) Mitchell was befriended by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the President’s younger brother and a future U.S. senator, who would also be assassinated, in 1968. Mitchell and his wife, Gwen, frequently visited RFK and his family at their home in Virginia. “When Coach McPeak told us the news, my mind immediately went to Bobby,” says Mitchell. “I knew how he felt about his brother. I just thought, Oh, my God.”
A few months earlier, Mitchell and Gwen had been invited to a state dinner at the White House. Mitchell’s recollection of the event is that the only other black man in attendance was Sammy Davis Jr., with his wife, Swedish actress May Britt. When President Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, appeared, the Mitchells stood in the background. JFK saw them and approached. “He shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you for what you do,’ ” says Mitchell, and he laughs. “Jackie shook my wife’s hand. She’s never washed it since.”
Years later Rozelle would call the decision to play on that Sunday the worst of his 29-year commissionership.
Players from both teams, and from the other 12 in the NFL, awaited word from Rozelle on whether the seven games scheduled for Sunday would be played. There was no template for such a decision; the country had never buried a sitting president in the television era. Some college football games were played that Saturday, others were not. The NBA and NHL continued playing on the weekend, yet the fledgling American Football League called off its games. Rozelle sought the counsel of White House press secretary Pierre Salinger, who had been his University of San Francisco classmate. Salinger advised Rozelle to play the games, and Rozelle gave the go-ahead on Friday night.
“I’ve never questioned it,” Salinger told SI’s Peter King in 1993, nine years before he died. “This country needed some normalcy, and football, which is a very important game in our society, helped provide it.”
As the story of the Kennedy assassination weekend has been recounted over the past half century, a certain narrative emerged: NFL players were marched like gladiators to the Colosseum to distract the masses as the President lay in state and the man accused of killing him was gunned down in the basement of a Dallas police station. There was some truth to this. “There was an empty feeling,” says Retzlaff, “and I didn’t feel like we should go out and play football under the circumstances.”
Yet they were employees, under contract and powerless. “There was no activism among athletes at that time,” says Richter. “This was something the commissioner said to do, so you did it.”
Some players saw nothing wrong with this. “I wanted to play,” says Sanders. “I thought it would be relaxing for us, and maybe it would help the mood of the entire country.”
Baughan agrees. “I thought it was the right thing to play,” he says. “There was nothing [the fans] could do but sit at home and mope. They couldn’t change what happened.”
Against this emotional backdrop, the Redskins boarded a train at Washington’s Union Station on Saturday, and the Eagles convened at their team hotel.
* * *
What exactly happened in that hotel that night? This much is agreed upon: There was palpable tension among the players. “We were still shocked and dismayed about the President,” says J.D. Smith. “We didn’t know what was coming next.” Many Eagles were angry that the game was going forward, but few expressed it openly.
After the players met with coach Nick Skorich as a full team, they broke up into smaller groups. Sometime after that there was a disagreement between Scotti and another player, and then between Scotti and Mellekas. The rest of the story is less certain. Baughan recalls an argument involving Kennedy, and, he adds, “Scotti worshipped Kennedy.” (Scotti says he had been introduced to the President in Washington two years earlier, when he played for the Redskins. On the day of the assassination, he says, he went into a Catholic church and lit a candle “for the repose of the President’s soul.”)
Scotti, now 76, says that a cluster of players was talking about taking up a collection for the family of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, who had been killed by Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Scotti says that as he spoke, a teammate interrupted and said, “If it wasn’t for your friend Pete Rozelle, that guinea bastard, we wouldn’t be playing tomorrow.” Scotti, who is of Italian descent (though Rozelle was not), took offense and threatened to fight the player, who, Scotti says, then backed down. However, Scotti continues, Mellekas stepped in and also called Rozelle “a guinea bastard.” (Teammates would later recall that Mellekas sometimes teased Scotti in the Eagles’ locker room and that Scotti did not take kindly to it.) Shortly afterward Scotti and Mellekas left together, presumably to settle their differences.
That matches the version of events in a story written by Milton Gross of the New York Post a few weeks later. However, Gross’s only direct quotes are from Scotti. The writer asserted that the details of his piece “have been verified to me at the league offices.” Gross died in 1973.
According to Scotti, this is what happened next: “We go upstairs to the laundry room at the hotel. It was a little room, just about the size of a [boxing] ring. He’s a big guy, 250. I’m 184, but I’ve got a 19-inch neck and 16-inch arms. It was him and me, let’s go. I hit him a right hand, and he’s out. Then I hit him a left and another right and then moved in on him.”
It didn’t last long. Teammates and coaches had heard the ruckus and rushed in to stop Scotti. Some say the fight took place in a coatroom and others say it was in a ballroom off the lobby, but they all remember the scene. “Scotti had John Mellekas down on the floor, and he was punching him and poor John’s head was swollen up twice as big as it was supposed to be,” says Baughan. “We all got on top of Ben and pulled him off, or I think he would have killed John.”
Scotti, the son of a New Jersey Teamsters business agent, played football at Maryland alongside his younger brother Tony. Even in the hypermacho world of pro football, he was recognized as a tough guy. “Ben was an interesting individual,” says Tom Woodeshick, who was a rookie fullback with the Eagles in ’63 and roomed with Scotti, a five-year veteran, on the road. “He used to have me stay after practice for extra tackling practice before we played Cleveland. Then the Browns would run play-action, and Ben would run up and hit Jim Brown, and his man would catch a touchdown pass in the end zone. All Ben wanted to do was beat the s--- out of people on the football field.”
Scotti took that same attitude into the business world after he was cut by the 49ers in 1965, at 28. He went to work as a promoter for San Francisco–based Autumn Records. “The job was to take records around to radio stations and get them played for your artists,” says Jerry Moss, who also started in the music industry as a promotions man and later founded industry giant A&M Records with Herb Alpert. “Ben was very good at it.” The job sometimes involved a light touch and sometimes a slightly heavier one. Scotti could provide either.
In 1974, Scotti and his brothers, Tony and Fred, started Scotti Brothers Records and later Scotti Brothers Pictures, which was associated with the fabulously successful television show Baywatch. According to a 1998 story in the The Washington Post, the brothers sold their company for $545 million in 1997 and a year later made a bid to buy the Redskins. Ben Scotti retains his sharp edge to this day. “[Tony] was the business genius of the operation,” he says. “I was the muscle.” Scotti has two sons: Anthony, who works for J.P. Morgan, and Ben, a lawyer with former FBI director Louis Freeh’s global risk-management firm. Both live in Dallas.
And what of John Mellekas? He had never been quoted about the fight. I called his home on an October afternoon, and he answered. I identified myself and asked if we could talk about his football career, but I also told him I was going to ask about ’63 and Ben Scotti. “I don’t talk about that,” Mellekas said abruptly. “I lost everything with that. My family. . . . I lost everything. Leave it out. Goodbye.”
Two days later I contacted Mellekas’s son Steve, 46, a Connecticut State Police lieutenant and the second youngest of John’s five children. He explained that his dad is a sweet, stubborn man who despises being associated with that night in Philadelphia. More than once Steve has tried to get the story from his father and never picked up more than a nugget or two. In junior high school Steve found Gross’s piece about the fight in an anthology of sports stories, and his father was deeply unhappy about it. But Steve also said the family would be thrilled if John’s story were told. I tried John again the next day, and, haltingly, we found some conversational ground.
Mellekas, 80, grew up in Newport and played football at Arizona. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Bears. George Halas flew out to Phoenix to sign him. Mellekas was a backup swing tackle for Chicago in ’56, spent a year in the Army (where he was on the Fort Dix team with Rosey Grier, among others) and then played four more years with the Bears. He loved it, teaming up with legendary linebacker Bill George and towering defensive end Doug Atkins. Mellekas met Martha Tsopelas, three years in the U.S. from Greece, at a Greek church in Chicago in 1958, and they were married just over a month later in Newport. “She was in the choir,” says Mellekas. “She was lucky I came along. No, not really. I’m the lucky one.”
Halas shipped him off to San Francisco after the 1961 season, but Mellekas says Papa Bear told him he was welcome back in Chicago anytime. When the 49ers cut him in ’63, Mellekas instead signed with Philadelphia. “Stupid me,” he says. “I was too proud to ask Mr. Halas for another chance. That was my mistake.” He made the Eagles and played defensive tackle. Where Scotti was explosive, Mellekas was nimble—a former basketball player who used quickness and speed to make plays.
Now it is Mellekas who brings up the Scotti incident. “I wasn’t even going to play that week,” he says. “I had a broken ankle.” He pauses. “I’m sorry if I was rude to you the other day,” he says. “I just never wanted my kids and my grandchildren to have to read about this. I don’t have a side of the story to tell.”
But he does. “I remember the meeting,” says Mellekas. “They told us we were going to play, and I figured we would. I really didn’t care one way or the other. [Scotti] said I called [Rozelle] a guinea. I would never use that word. I’m [of] Greek descent. I’m not a troublemaker. I never dealt with a person like [Scotti]. We walked out into the hallway, to the landing, and the next thing I remember I woke up in the hospital. That’s all I know.”
According to Steve, “My father always said, ‘I don’t know what he hit me with, if it was a fire extinguisher or maybe a soda can.’ ” (John remembers a soda machine in the stairwell.)
Martha Mellekas spent three days in the hospital with her husband. She says that on one of those days Scotti’s parents led her next door to the room where Ben was recovering with both his hands in casts. Ben, she says, apologized tearfully for beating John. “He was crying and saying he didn’t know what happened,” says Martha. “Then a few days later he was bragging in the newspaper. I just know I’m thankful that my husband didn’t see that thing coming, whatever he hit him with, because if he did, my husband would have killed that man and he probably would have gone to jail.”
If that thing didn’t happen,” Mellekas says of the fight, “I would have played maybe three more years.
Scotti says he doesn’t remember apologizing to Martha, “but it might have happened. I just can’t tell you I remember it.”
Skorich suspended Mellekas and Scotti the day after the fight. Scotti says he and Mellekas shook hands after meeting with Skorich later that week; Mellekas says he doesn’t remember that meeting or shaking hands with Scotti. By the end of the week Scotti was waived. Mellekas paid a $500 fine, rallied from the ankle injury and facial damage and played on Dec. 1, against Pittsburgh. He finished out the season and retired. “If that thing didn’t happen,” he says, “I would have played maybe three more years.”
But his initial response to me, that he “lost everything” in the fight? Well, that’s not true. John Stavros Mellekas went back home to Newport and worked 33 years as an elementary school gym teacher and helped coach a junior high football team. From 1967 to ’83 he and his family operated a Greek restaurant and bar called The Odyssey. His five children—three daughters and two sons—have given him nine grandchildren. “He’s a real old-school, top-notch guy, with a wonderful reputation around town,” says Rick McGowan, who was a sportswriter at the Newport Daily News for 35 years until his retirement in 2011.
Mellekas goes back to Chicago every year for team reunions and follows the Bears on television. “I’ve had a great life,” he says. “Except for one interruption.”
* * *
They played the games that Sunday, like every other Sunday. They played in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and New York City. Every stadium was packed. “There were, at Yankee Stadium yesterday, 63,800 who went through the turnstiles,” wrote Stan Isaacs in Newsday. “Nobody twisted anybody’s arm.” It was perhaps the very first inkling of the real power of the NFL. Or perhaps people just needed a place to gather. A sellout crowd of 60,671 filled Franklin Field to watch the Eagles host the Redskins. A bugler played taps before the game, and Eagles flanker Tommy McDonald recalls feeling tears roll down his cheeks.
“It almost felt like we were all in church, not in a football stadium,” says Betty Lou Tarasovic, wife of Eagles lineman George Tarasovic. “It was crowded, but there was none of that raucous feeling you usually have at a football game. It was solemn. I remember right after the game started, the announcer said that Oswald had been shot in Dallas.” (Oswald’s murder by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby, at 11:21 CST in the Dallas police headquarters, had been shown live on national television. None of the NFL games that day were broadcast on network TV.)
The Redskins scored 13 points in the first half and held on for a 13–10 victory. “It was a lousy-played game,” says Mitchell. “We were all out of it, just going through the motions. I can’t hardly remember anything about it.” That seems to be true for all the players, who can’t relate a specific memory.
It was a lousy-played game,” says Mitchell. “We were all just going through the motions.
Years later Rozelle would call the decision to play on that Sunday the worst of his 29-year commissionership. But the Eagles remember another response. During the 1964 season Robert Kennedy visited the team. “He told us we did the right thing by playing,” says Baughan. “He said that’s what his brother would have wanted.” It’s an absolution that many of them have carried into old age.
The Redskins returned to a devastated capital on Sunday evening. Kicker Bob Khayat, Ed’s younger brother, who had booted two field goals at Franklin Field, walked out of Union Station to find a line that snaked for miles. Citizens were waiting for their turn to file past the casket of the slain 46-year-old president in the Capitol rotunda. “I got in the line,” says Khayat, who would later become chancellor of Ole Miss. “I don’t know why. I just felt so deeply vulnerable and sad. So I got in the line.”
More than a year and a half later, the 49ers played an exhibition game at Brown University Stadium in Providence. Some of the players visited Mellekas a few days before the game at his house in Newport, the same one he lives in today. They batted around stories from their one season together while Martha made dinner. Among those who didn’t visit was Ben Scotti, who would soon be cut by San Francisco and begin his lucrative second career.
As Scotti boarded the Niners’ team bus a day later, he saw Mellekas standing nearby with two of his small children. The men made eye contact but did not speak. They have not spoken since, bound together yet divided by a wound 50 years deep.