Playing after assassination was regrettable

PRO FOOTBALL

November 21, 1993|By VITO STELLINO

Like most Americans over the age of 35, Art Modell will never forget the moment he heard the awful news on that Friday afternoon 30 years ago tomorrow.

"I can remember that like it was yesterday, not 30 years ago," the Cleveland Browns owner said as he recalled Nov. 22, 1963 -- the day President Kennedy was assassinated.

"I was driving to practice at League Park when I heard the news on the radio," he said.

As soon as Modell -- the only NFL owner of that time who is still running his team -- could get to a phone, he called commissioner Pete Rozelle and suggested he postpone the seven games the NFL had scheduled two days later on Sunday, Nov. 24. The NFL was then a 14-team league.

Rozelle, though, listened to the advice of presidential press secretary Pierre Salinger, who felt the president would have wanted the games to go on. Modell said Rozelle also was influenced by Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson, who decided to have his team play that weekend.

Another reason Rozelle went ahead was that Dallas and Washington were on the road.

By contrast, AFL commissioner Joe Foss called off his league's games.

There is evidence the Kennedy family was in favor of the games being played. King Hill, who was the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback at the time, told Sports Illustrated that Robert Kennedy visited the Eagles a couple of weeks later and thanked them for playing.

But Rozelle was to regret the decision. It was severely criticized, and he has since said it was the worst mistake of his career.

"Red Smith [the late syndicated columnist] never forgave Pete. He reminded him for years and years that it was a terrible mistake in judgment," Modell said.

The fans showed up for the games that weren't televised. Three were sellouts, and only one game that wasn't sold out -- Detroit at Minnesota, which drew 28,763 --attracted fewer than 45,000 fans. The Baltimore Colts, who were flying to Los Angeles when they got the news, played in the Los Angeles Coliseum before 48,555 fans.

The fans were somber, though.

The Cowboys played at Cleveland, and Modell asked the public address announcer to call them simply the "Cowboys" and avoid using the word "Dallas." He had a dozen or so armed guards around the box of Dallas owner Clint Murchinson to "protect the Cowboy official family from any wild-eyed lunatic."

There were no incidents, but Modell said there was "almost a death-like silence" in the stands. "You could hear a pin drop."

Shortly before the games started, the word came from Dallas that Lee Harvey Osward had been shot. Modell said Murchinson came running into his office with the news.

"The whole day was bizarre," Modell said.

Wellington Mara, the New York Giants owner whose brother, Jack, then ran the team, said: "It was a numb atmosphere. I was just glad to get the darn game over with."

Sam Huff, the Washington Redskins announcer who played for the Giants in the game in New York, said: "There was no emotion, no cheering, the flag was at half-staff. It was the only game I didn't want to play, and it was the worst game I ever played."

The players were divided, though. Redskins coach Richie Petitbon, then a Chicago Bear, had no problems playing, and his teammate, Mike Ditka, had a big day in Pittsburgh. The famous clip of him running through several Steelers was filmed that day.

There's little doubt, though, that if Rozelle had to do if over again, he would have called the games off.

The guarantee

The New York Jets will honor their 1968 team today as they celebrate the 25th anniversary of their Super Bowl III victory over the Colts. The team will wear the uniforms from that era, including the white helmets. The Jets switched to green helmets in 1978.

Joe Namath "guaranteed" the victory but said he didn't plan it.

"I'd like to say I pointed to the center-field bleachers, but it just came out of me because I was angry. I was angry about being an underdog," he said.

He said he made the comment at a Miami Touchdown Club dinner when he was being honored as the AFL Player of the Year.

"I got a nice response and it died down and some guy yelled, 'Hey, Namath, we're going to kick your butt,' " Namath said.

Namath replied by guaranteeing the win. "It was just a response that came from some anger," he said.

Namath got the last laugh with a 16-7 victory.

The delay

The NFL's delay of the vote on the second expansion team to Nov. 30 so St. Louis could get its ownership situation in order seems to be working.

Fran Murray seems to have dropped out of the picture since he failed to file the $20 million letter of credit by last Monday's deadline. That appears to clear the way for the league to award the team to the group heading by Wal-Mart heir Stan Kroenke.

James Busch Orthwein, who was expected to move the Patriots to St. Louis if that city didn't get the team, appears convinced St. Louis will get it. He announced last week that Goldman Sachs has begun accepting applications from parties interested buying the team.

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