Football's Forgotten Choice

September 23, 2001

Ross Woodard was a 23-year-old resident of St. Cloud, Minn., when
he spoke on the phone with his father, Milt, in Dallas on Nov.
23, 1963. The old man, then assistant commissioner of the AFL,
was happy to hear a loving voice, considering the angst he felt
after having canceled that week's four AFL games following the
death of President John F. Kennedy the previous day. "I made a
tough decision," Milt told Ross, "and I'm wondering if I'll have
a job on Monday."

Woodard kept his post, along with a place in history that, though
largely forgotten, would have been appreciated by Pete Rozelle,
then the NFL commissioner. Rozelle sent the NFL back to work two
days after Kennedy's death, a decision he would regret and one
that has been revisited often in the aftermath of last week's
events.

Rozelle and Woodard faced different circumstances then. Woodard
was on the spot because nobody could contact AFL commissioner Joe
Foss, who was doing his regular duty as a member of the Air Force
reserves. Woodard talked with the AFL's team owners before
deciding. Rozelle spoke not only with NFL owners but also with
White House press secretary Pierre Salinger, whom he knew from
their student days at the University of San Francisco. Salinger
told Rozelle that Kennedy would have wanted the NFL to carry on.

The games ended up being lifeless events. Players walked about
with bowed heads and somber faces. "It was hard to stay focused
that weekend," says quarterback Earl Morrall, whose Lions played
the Vikings that Sunday. "There was so much going on in the
country." In Cleveland, Browns owner Art Modell told his P.A.
announcer to introduce the visiting team as only the Cowboys, in
fear of a hostile reaction toward anyone from Dallas, where
Kennedy had been shot. "I was afraid of how people would react
to us," says former Cowboys president Tex Schramm. "I also
remember that during the game we learned Jack Ruby had shot
Oswald. Everybody's mind shifted to that."

Sportswriter Red Smith was relentless in his criticism of
Rozelle's decision. When Smith saw Rozelle in the press box
during that week's Eagles-Redskins game, Smith said, "Now which
one is the big league?"

Woodard, who died at age 84 in 1996, never faced such abuse. "My
father made the best decision based on what he thought was
right," says Ross. "I know he was very proud of that one."

--Jeffri Chadiha

B/W PHOTO: HERB SCHARFMAN While the NFL played on in 1963 (above), the AFL chose to sit

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