Remembering The Day President John F. Kennedy Died

JFK Playing Football

By David Coulson

Executive Editor

College Sports Journal

 

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — A few evenings ago, I was showing my oldest daughter the contents of a file of school-related items of mine that sits in a cabinet in her upstairs room.

 

One of the items, lying near the top of the substantial stack of belongings, jumped out at me.

 

It was a small, unlined index card, dog-eared and yellowed from its original white color. Two holes were punched in it to allow a blue cord to be inserted and tied. On the front of the card, written in permanent black ink was the following information:

 

 

 

David Lynn Coulson

5157 W. Mission Street

PM

 

It was my student identification card from Teague Elementary School.

 

I was immediately transported back to the most memorable day of my kindergarten year of school.

 

I told my daughter that I was wearing that very card around my neck on Nov. 22, 1963 when I heard the shocking news.

 

I was five-years-old, 50 years ago today, but despite my young age, it was a day that is clearly burned into my memory banks.

 

 

With my mother working part-time at Grand Central Toy Store in Fresno, CA., I was across the street from my house in an unincorporated barrio of Fresno called Highway City.

 

A neighbor named Betty Lairson watched over me in the small, tidy living room of her family’s house on these fall mornings as I waited to catch the bus outside her place to take me to the afternoon kindergarten class at Teague.

 

The radio was on in Betty Lairson’s house that morning when the news caught even the ear of a precocious, active child.

 

President John F. Kennedy had been shot as his motorcade traveled the streets of Dallas, TX. and even a five-year-old boy was aware of at least some of what that meant.

 

Some time later, the news was updated to inform us that President Kennedy had died at Parkland Memorial Hospital.

 

There would be no bus arriving that day. School had been cancelled.

 

I remember a subdued car ride with my dad in our 1957 yellow Chevy sedan to pick up my mom from work. I remember watching countless hours of television that weekend as the events of the assassination unfolded on our black and white set.

 

Scenes such as the plane carrying the dead president landing at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Friday night, the people lining up for miles to few his body, lying in state, at the Capitol Rotunda on Sunday and all of the events during the funeral on Monday come back with surprising clarity.

 

On the way to church on Sunday morning, a news flash came on the radio to tell us that Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been shot by Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas city jail facility as Oswald was being transferred to a county facility.

 

We learned later that Oswald had died from the shot to his abdomen, leaving an everlasting hole in explaining the events of that horrible weekend.

 

Usually, our Saturdays and Sundays during the fall were filled with football, but the only thing on this weekend was continuous coverage of the assassination.

 

Most of the college games set for Nov. 23, 1963 were postponed.

 

Like it is this season, Harvard and Yale were scheduled to play on Nov. 23 at the Yale Bowl. It was to be the 80th meeting in this historic series.

 

Kennedy, of course, had been a huge football fan and was an alumnus of Harvard. He had made his final trip to Harvard Stadium just five weeks earlier, watching the Crimson battle quarterback Archie Roberts and Columbia to a 3-3 deadlock.

 

“Every [college] game in the country, for the most part, waited for us to make the decision,” legendary Yale coach Carman Cozza, an assistant at Yale in 1963, told the Boston Globe this week. “It’s something I will never forget.”

The game was finally played a week later in a semi-filled Yale Bowl, with the Bulldogs besting the Crimson 20-6 on a somber day.

Another big rivalry game was also delayed that Saturday. Lehigh and Lafayette postponed the most-played series in college football for a week, with the host Engineers beating the Leopards, 15-8, on the following Saturday at Taylor Stadium.

It was one of only two postponements in series history, the other coming in 1904, when Lehigh president Henry Drown passed away and his funeral was held the day the Lehigh-Lafayette game was scheduled.

William & Mary was scheduled to go on the road and play Richmond in the oldest rivalry of the south, but the assassination of Kennedy delayed that game until Thanksgiving Day.

Amazingly, one college game was actually played on Friday night, hours after the assassination.

North Carolina State and Wake Forest went on with their contest and the Wolfpack stormed to a 42-0 Atlantic Coast Conference victory.

The Big Ten was moving forward with an entire slate of games that Saturday until then-Michigan Governor George Romney (yes, Mitt Romney’s dad) stepped in.

Among the other games cancelled were the annual Pitt-Penn State battle and a Big Eight contest between Kansas State and Oklahoma State. Pitt and Penn State waited two weeks to play, while the KSU-OSU game was abandoned.

Nebraska went on with its home game against Oklahoma and won the Big Eight crown with a 29-20 victory. 

One remarkable thing I discovered while researching this weekend was that you can purchase a DVD copy of the Nebraska-Oklahoma game from a local television broadcast that day.

Auburn went ahead with its game against Florida State and won 29-20, while Florida dispatched Miami, 27-21. 

Fans turned out to get three hours of distraction as Arkansas took down Texas Tech, 27-20, Bowling Green beat Xavier, 26-15, BYU stopped Colorado State, 24-20, LSU shutout Tulane, 20-0, Maryland dumped Virginia, 21-6, Tennessee toppled Kentucky, 19-0, Utah edged Utah State, 25-23, and Vanderbilt pummeled George Washington, 31-0.

Future I-AA powerhouse Marshall hosted Ohio, but was blanked, 17-0.

Current FCS team The Citadel was already in Mississippi for a game with Southern Mississippi, so the game went on as planned and the Bulldogs lost 37-12.

In the defense of many of these schools, road teams had already arrived at host sites and many of the teams had no open dates later in the season to reschedule games.

As many as 14 major college football games may have been played that weekend, as listed by the website Sports-Reference.com, though some of those games were surely postponed.

NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle made one of his biggest blunders, telling his 14 teams to play on in a highly criticized decision. Seven games were played, though none of them were televised.

Four of the seven games were surprisingly sold out.

In an old book about the 1963 football season called “Clouds Over The Goalposts,” White House press secretary Pierre Salinger was quoted as telling Rozelle: “Jack would have wanted the games played,” a sentiment also shared by Kennedy’s attorney general and younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy.

The forward-thinking American Football League made a more prudent decision and postponed its complete slate of games.

Three National Basketball Association games, New York at Baltimore, Boston at Philadelphia and Los Angeles at San Francisco, were scheduled for the night of the assassination and all three were postponed by NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy (no relation to the president’s family).

But flying under the radar as a second-tier sports league, the NBA allowed games between the host New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons and the Cincinnati Royals at the St. Louis Hawks to be played on Saturday. 

A day later, the Hawks and Royals met again in Cincinnati, with the teams splitting their home-and-home series. New York won its forgettable game against the Pistons.

Rozelle was on hand in Yankee Stadium that Sunday as the New York Giants took on the St. Louis Cardinals, before a sellout, standing-room-only crowd in excess of 63,000, a game won 24-17 by the Cardinals.

One of my favorite columnists, Red Smith, then writing for the New York Herald-Tribune put the moment in impeccable perspective in the next day’s edition:

“In the civilized world, it was a day of mourning. In the National Football League, it was the 11th Sunday of the business year, a quarter-million dollar day at Yankee Stadium.”

The Dallas Cowboys played that Sunday in Cleveland, losing an uninspired game to the Browns, 27-10, before a crowd of over 55,000 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

The Washington Redskins were also on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles at historic Franklin Field. Neither team wanted to play, but the Redskins churned out a lackluster 13-10 victory.

The rivalry contest between Penn and Cornell wasn’t played that Saturday at Franklin Field, but was held on Thanksgiving Day on Nov. 28, 1963, three days after President Kennedy’s funeral. Cornell captured that game 17-8.

On Tuesday, Nov. 26, I was wearing my name tag, waiting for the bus and preparing for school to reopen. Life began to get back to normal, though it would never be the same.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *