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Tough Call

AFL didn't play after JFK was killed, but Rozelle felt it was best for NFL to go on

November 23, 2003|Hal Bock | Associated Press

The date is etched in American history -- Friday, Nov. 22, 1963.

Forty years after President Kennedy was assassinated, NFL owners remember how two pro football leagues reacted differently to the horror of events in Dallas that day.

In 1963, there was a spirited battle going on between the established NFL, led by Commissioner Pete Rozelle, and the upstart AFL, with Medal of Honor winner Joe Foss in charge.

Except for their constant duel over players, the leagues barely acknowledged each other, even returning mail unopened. On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, however, both were thrust into making a very difficult decision.

When Kennedy was murdered, both leagues had teams on airplanes, heading for Sunday's game sites. Also traveling that day were Foss and Lamar Hunt, who had moved his AFL team from Dallas to Kansas City that season.

"We were to play the New York Titans in New York City on Sunday," Hunt said. "I was flying in for the game."

With Foss out of town, assistant commissioner Milt Woodard was in charge of the AFL office in New York. He moved swiftly when he learned of the president's death, contacting Foss and the league's owners, then announcing the postponement of the Sunday schedule.

Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills remembered his conversation with Woodard.

"I said, 'Milt, we cannot play these games.' I lobbied hard and seriously not to play," Wilson said.

"Some of the others were on the fence, but I thought it was a slam dunk. The president had been assassinated. It was a terrible tragedy. I felt so strongly, I might not have played, even if the games had not been called off."

Wilson's opinion prevailed. There would be no AFL games with the nation mourning its slain president.

"By the time I landed in New York, I found out the games had been canceled," Hunt said. "I thought it was the right decision. It was a wise one for the AFL not to play."

Bud Adams, who later moved the Houston Oilers to Tennessee and renamed them the Titans, recalled Foss' military background as part of the reason for the AFL decision.

"Joe was a Marine pilot and a real hero," he said. "This was the commander in chief being killed. We had to honor him. It was as simple as that."

Meanwhile, Rozelle weighed his options for the NFL.

Football could offer a diversion to a country in shock. There was some precedent for that. During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt encouraged baseball to continue with its schedule. But would playing football games two days after the assassination be viewed as a lack of respect?

Owners called Rozelle. Art Modell, whose franchise then played in Cleveland, was one of the first.

"I told him, 'Pete, I want you to cancel Sunday's games,' " Modell said. "I tried to impress on him the need to cancel our games. He said, 'Let me think about this.' "

Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers also called quickly.

"I thought we shouldn't play," Rooney said. "Pete said, 'We've got it under consideration.' "

Rozelle (who died in 1996) was in his third year as head of the NFL and was a decisive leader. Earlier in the year, he suspended two of the league's top stars, Paul Hornung and Alex Karras, for betting on games.

This decision would not be as simple.

In the end, Rozelle was swayed by two men: presidential press secretary Pierre Salinger and, according to Modell, Oklahoma Coach Bud Wilkinson.

Rozelle and Salinger had been classmates at the University of San Francisco years before. When the commissioner reached his old friend, Salinger encouraged him to play the games, saying the president would have wanted that.

Joe Browne, a longtime NFL vice president, talked frequently with Rozelle about the decision.

"It was clear that he had placed a great deal of faith in his phone conversation with Pierre Salinger in the hours after President Kennedy's death," Browne said.

"When Salinger, as a White House official, told Pete that it would be best for the country that we play, that put Pete's decision over the top."

Then there was Wilkinson.

On the day after the assassination, Oklahoma was scheduled to play Nebraska, the last meeting in that rivalry for Wilkinson, who was retiring as the Sooners' coach. Wilkinson was also chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness.

Modell said Wilkinson contacted Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, and the slain president's brother advised him to play the game, suggesting it might bring relief to a grieving country.

Rozelle decided to move ahead. The NFL games would go on.

Adams said AFL owners were stunned by Rozelle's decision. "We couldn't believe the NFL was going to play," he said.

The decision meant Hunt would get to see a football game on Sunday after all. He went to the concierge in his hotel and purchased tickets for the New York Giant-St. Louis Cardinal game at Yankee Stadium.

Some of the NFL owners were not thrilled with the idea of going ahead with games.

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