Fifty years ago today, our nation watched in horror as a young president was gunned down while riding in a car to give a speech. John F. Kennedy was an athlete and a sports fan.
In the hours to come, dozens of college football teams across the country faced a decision: cancel their games or play them. If such a tragedy happened today, it’s unlikely any of them would take the field. In 1963, however, there was little outside pressure one way or another. The decision rested in the hands of athletic directors and school presidents.
Seventeen games were played. 44 were not.
Just two of the games scheduled to be played in the eastern part of the country took place: Rutgers vs. Columbia and Maryland vs. Virginia. The Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry went on as scheduled. Programs from postponed games like Princeton-Dartmouth and Kansas-Missouri had already been printed and carried the November 23, 1963 date. Today, programs from all of the games scheduled for that weekend are highly sought after by collectors of college football memorabilia. Only a few are currently on eBay, all priced at about five times what a normal program might sell for.
The NFL was in the middle of its season and commissioner Pete Rozelle made a decision he would later regret. Rozelle decided the league would go forward with plans to play its regular Sunday schedule.
“We’re going to play the damn game,” Packers’ coach Vince Lombardi told his players. Two years before, Lombardi had called in a favor to Kennedy to let Paul Hornung out of an Army commitment so he could play in the league championship game against the Giants. “Paul Hornung isn’t going to win the war on Sunday, but the football fans of this country deserve the two best teams on the field that day,” Kennedy is quoted as saying.
The day after the assassination, the Dallas Cowboys left for Cleveland where ‘Ray Renfro Day’ was postponed but the game went on. On the public address system, the Cowboys were never referred to by their city name on the orders of Browns’ owner Art Modell. Players were told to keep a low profile and many said fans heckled them just for representing the city where the President had been shot.
Programs from that weekend, including the one at Municipal Stadium involving the Browns and Cowboys, are also coveted.
The young American Football League opted to postpone its games.