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NFL – Throwback Thursday: Rozelle’s Regret

19 Oct

Politics and football are crossing paths in a big way these days with NFL players staging National Anthem protests over police brutality and other issues, but there was a weekend in 1963 when there was enormous political controversy in the game. It was on Sunday, November 24th of that year when NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle decided to play a full slate of games even though President Kennedy had been assassinated 2 days earlier. The Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles, who clash on this week’s NFL schedule, also met on that infamous Sunday, and their game that day is the subject of this week’s Throwback Thursday feature. The NFL was in full competition with the American Football League at the time, and the AFL cancelled all their games that Sunday out of respect for the fallen president. Rozelle made the decision to have all of his league’s games go on as scheduled, although none were televised since the country’s major networks were all carrying non-stop news coverage of the aftermath of the assassination, including Jack Ruby’s murder of suspect Lee Harvey Oswald at the Dallas police station that Sunday morning. Rozelle later stated that the decision to let the games go on was the biggest regret he had during his long term as commissioner. He certainly drew a lot of criticism for making that call. In his defense, Rozelle sought the counsel of Kennedy’s press secretary, his old University of San Francisco classmate Pierre Sallinger. Sallinger advised him to go ahead and play the games, citing that the country needed some semblance of normalcy. The game itself was played in Philadelphia. Had it been scheduled for the nation’s capital, it certainly would have been difficult to play with the president’s funeral taking place there. It wasn’t much of a game either. Both teams were Eastern Conference bottom feeders that year, and the players, still in shock over the weekend’s events, didn’t have their hearts, or their heads, in the game. The Redskins won, 13-10 by virtue of a pair of Bob Khayat field goals. Washington’s Norm Snead and the Eagles’ Sonny Jurgensen each threw a touchdown pass, to Dick James and Timmy Brown respectively. Ironically, Snead and Jurgensen were traded for each other following the ’63 season. That game, and the rest of that weekend’s NFL slate, are likely the least watched games of the modern NFL era, since only fans who attended them in person saw the action.

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JFK’s funeral procession on November 24, 1963

 

 

 

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