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On This Date in Sports November 24, 1963: The NFL Plays On

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the NFL plays its seven games as scheduled. The AFL meanwhile postponed their games, in respect to a National period of mourning. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was conflicted and consulted with former classmate Pierre Salinger, to make the decision to play. He would later regret the decision and called it the worst of his career.

It was the news that hit America like a thunderbolt, President John F. Kennedy the 35th President of the United States had been assassinated while driving in a motorcade in Dallas on Friday November 22nd.  When word of the assassination came into the offices of the American Football League, Commissioner Joe Foss was not in the office. Instead deputy commissioner Milt Woodard was in the office and made the decision himself. The decision was mostly applauded by players and owners who were not in the mood to play. The game’s originally four games scheduled to be played that weekend, were moved to the end of the season, moving the end of the regular season.

When NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination, he was conflicted and made a phone call to Pierre Salinger, the President’s Press Secretary. Salinger and Rozelle had been classmates at the University of San Francisco and told the Commissioner, that “Jack would have wanted them to play”. However, all Rozelle had to do was ask the players and owners and he would have known that nobody wanted to be on the field that Sunday.

No team had a harder time getting ready for the games after JFK’s assassination than the team from the city where he was killed. As the entire city was coming under a microscope, the Dallas Cowboys were preparing to fly to take on the Cleveland Browns. With anger and hostility expressed to Dallas, the Cowboys city name was never mention during player introductions at Municipal Stadium. That did not stop fans from booing them throughout the game. The Cowboys who were described as being in a stupor by Coach Tom Landry all weekend lost to the Browns 27-17, falling to 3-8 on the season while the Browns improved to 8-3.

Most of the league felt similar to the Cowboys, as most players minds were elsewhere as they took the field. In Milwaukee, the Green Bay Packers improved to 9-2 on the season with a 28-10 win over the 2-9 San Francisco 49ers. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings edged the Detroit Lions 34-31, resulting in both teams sitting at 4-7 after the game. At Yankee Stadium, the Eastern Conference continued to tighten as the St. Louis Cardinals stunned the New York Giants 24-17 resulting in both teams sitting at 8-3. At the bottom of the East, the Washington Redskins beat the Philadelphia Eagles 13-10, improving to 3-8, while the Eagles dropped into last at 2-8-1. At Forbes Field, the Chicago Bears stayed atop of the Western Conference at 9-1-1, playing the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 17-17 tie. It was the second of three ties the Steelers would get that year as they sat at 6-3-2 after 11 weeks. Elsewhere the Los Angeles Rams edged the Baltimore Colts 17-16 at the Coliseum, improving to 4-7, while the Colts slipped to 5-6.

The decision to play on the Sunday after the JFK assassination would be looked upon with regret by Pete Rozelle, who later called it the biggest mistake in the 29 years he served as NFL Commissioner. Making the decision to play even worse, was that accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald himself was killed by Jack Ruby that afternoon being transferred from the Dallas Police headquarters to jail. As a result of the continued coverage of the assassination and the Oswald shooting none of the NFL games aired on television that day.