Steelers' Rooney recounts NFL's 'mistake' amid JFK tragedy
Steelers chairman Dan Rooney still regrets the weekend a half-century ago in which the NFL decided it was too important to America to shut down.
On the day an estimated one million Americans stood in line for countless hours to pay their respects to a young and charismatic president as his body lay in state in Washington, D.C., the NFL played as usual — in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Minneapolis, Green Bay and Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles.
The games stubbornly went on even as America shuddered to a seismic and grief-stricken halt, still disbelieving that President John F. Kennedy was gone, the victim of an assassination 48 hours earlier in Dallas.
No one watched the NFL that day, except those in attendance, because CBS refused to show the seven games — to this day, the last NFL regular-season games not televised.
Then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle later called the decision to play on Nov. 24, 1963, the worst misstep of his tenure — “Obviously, it was a mistake,” he said in a 1994 interview — and Rooney doesn't disagree.
On one of the saddest days in American history, the NFL's policy should have been Never on Sunday, Rooney said.
“I said, ‘We've got to shut it down,' ” Rooney recalled. “(Rozelle) said, ‘I'm going to talk to (the Kennedy people).' I said, ‘Fine, but we still need to shut it down.' ”
The rival American Football League didn't take the field; NBC said it wouldn't show the AFL games as it aired wall-to-wall coverage of the assassination. But Rozelle was a former University of San Francisco classmate of Kennedy press secretary Pierre Salinger. Salinger advised Rozelle that Kennedy would have wanted the league to keep playing, if only to offer a much-needed diversion from the anguishing news.
Rooney said he and Rozelle almost never disagreed on anything. The vision of the league's future that the then-young Steelers team executive and the imaginative commissioner shared helped shape the NFL for decades to follow. It was just about at that time — in the early 1960s — that the NFL was beginning to achieve a higher profile, getting more games on national TV as it began taking on baseball and college football for the American sports fan's primary loyalty.
But Rooney and father Art Rooney Sr., the Steelers' founder, were anguished when Rozelle, with precious little time to make a decision about the Sunday games following the Friday afternoon assassination, chose to play on.
Dan Rooney believes that if either Washington or Dallas had been home that weekend, the NFL would have shut down. But the Redskins were scheduled to play in Philadelphia, the Cowboys in Cleveland.
“I thought it was a mistake,” Rooney said. “But you have to remember that Salinger was very much involved (in the Kennedy administration). Saying what he did, that Jack (Kennedy) would have wanted it, it would be good for the country. I think that's (what influenced Rozelle). … I told him, ‘I don't agree, but I'll back you whatever you do.' ”
Most of the major college games were postponed. Pitt vs. Penn State was moved back two weeks, a delay that ultimately cost the once-beaten Panthers a bowl bid. But, stunningly, North Carolina State chose to play what became a 42-0 rout of Wake Forest on Friday night, only hours after Kennedy was assassinated.
Rooney felt even more strongly that the NFL should have gone dark when alleged Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was gunned down in Dallas, less than an hour before the Steelers kicked off against the once-beaten Bears. So did many players.
“You did what you were told to do, but later we all said we shouldn't have played,” former Steelers running back Dick Hoak said.
It was one of the biggest games in the Steelers' mostly futile existence to that time — both teams were in contention for the NFL title game — yet Rooney listened on his portable radio not to the game broadcast but to news reports as he stood high atop the Forbes Field press box.
“Everybody to a man was shocked,” Rooney said. “Everybody took it hard. Shocking, that was the biggest thing, the shock. … And the second shock was Oswald. I had a little radio, and I'm listening to it and I hear this, and I was, ‘Oh my! What in the world is happening?' ”
Despite the circumstances, the Steelers played very well. The Bears (12-1-2) won the NFL title that season yet trailed the Steelers, 17-14, until Roger LeClerc kicked a late, tying field goal — and only after former Pitt tight end Mike Ditka dragged a half-dozen tacklers with him on a first-down catch.
The Steelers felt Ditka should have been ruled down. Earlier in the game, Hoak similarly broke loose on an apparent touchdown run only to have the officials blow the play dead. Multiple game accounts relate how the above-capacity crowd of 36,465 — some of whom paid only $3 for non-reserved seats — booed numerous calls all afternoon.
“I remember (Steelers players) Ernie Stautner and Red Mack were chewing out (Bears owner-coach) George Halas, telling him, ‘You've got the officials in your pocket, George,' ” Hoak said.
The tie was one of three that season by the Steelers (7-4-3), who would have played the Bears again for the NFL title had they beaten the Giants in New York to end the season. Instead, the Giants avenged an earlier loss in Pittsburgh by winning 33-17.
But what is mostly remembered isn't how the Steelers played Nov. 24, but that they played at all.
“It was a different time back then,” Rooney said, recalling how the NFL didn't hesitate to shut down following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
For the NFL, it might have been its darkest day.
“It was a very difficult time,” Rooney said.