JFK: The Local Connection - Part Two "NFL Games"


GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) - On Friday, November 22, our nation will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy in Dallas. After his death in 1963, our country was left in a state of shock.

However, some things still went on, though not everyone agreed. Specifically NFL games played just two days after JFK was murdered. At the time, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was adamant that the games should play on. Years later, he said it was the one decision of his career - he regretted the most.

It's Sunday, November 24, 1963 and America mourns.

"It was devastating, devastating," recalled a woman when asked of her memory of the day Kennedy was killed.

The body of John Kennedy, our nation's 35th president, lies in state in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, two days after his assassination on the streets of Dallas.

"It was a situation we had never been through before at least in my lifetime," said Owen Monfils, who ran Kennedy's campaign in Brown County in 1960.

However, while many events of the day are canceled out of respect for our fallen leader - the Green Bay Packers take the field at Milwaukee County Stadium to play the San Francisco 49ers.

"It was a very traumatic day," recalls former Packers linebacker, Dave Robinson.

First-year Packers player Robinson reluctantly took part.

"Dave Robinson did not want to play because of what was going on in the country," recalled Robinson. "I don't think Vince even wanted to play the game either."


The Packers, along with all NFL teams played, because Pete Rozelle, league commissioner, decided they should less than 12 hours after Kennedy died.

In a statement, Rozelle wrote, "It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy. Football was Mr. Kennedy's game. He thrived on competition." 

However, later in his career, Rozelle would say his decision was a mistake.

"When Pete talked about it he regretted his decision and I'm sure he never changed his opinion on that," said former Packers President Bob Harlan.

Harlan said Rozelle's decision to play NFL games that weekend sometimes came up in their conversations.

In Harlan's personal opinion, all games should have been put on hold. Much like the way NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue canceled all games for roughly two weeks - after the 9/11 terror attacks.

The first Monday night game after the attacks, held at Lambeau Field.

"The country was in such turmoil after the Kennedy assassination - it just didn't make sense that games should go on and be played," Harlan said.


"The assassination happened on a Friday so Rozelle had to make a quick decision," recalled retired sportswriter, Cliff Christl.

Christal says at the time it wasn't so cut and dry. Many teams were already enroute to their opponent's community. That Saturday, 30 college football games went on, along with hockey and the NBA .

Christl says Rozelle also received guidance suggesting the games go on, from officials close to the White House.

"I think one of the people who influenced Rozelle's decision was Bud Wilkinson, the coach from Oklahoma, who headed JFK's national Physical Fitness program and he said the games should go on," said Christl.

"He told me one time he heard different opinions from everyone who called," Harlan said, "All about whether they should have played or not."


And that Sunday at County Stadium in Milwaukee, Dave Robinson played because his coach told him to.

"He said it was a great loss to the county, great personal loss, some were taking it really hard - but you still have a job to perform, you are Green Bay Packers - you have to play," Robinson said.

He also played because the order came from the commissioner.

"Once the commissioner says you are going to play, you play - that's all there is to it," Robinson said.

Though in a game filled with emotion - very little showed on the faces of players along the sideline or on the field.

Too many were still in shock - as America continued to mourn.

"You had to live it to understand it," said the former Packers linebacker.

The Packers beat the 49ers, 28-10 that day, but only those inside the stadium saw the game. All three TV networks at the time, carried coverage of the funeral procession that carried Kennedy's body from the White House to the U.S. Capitol. 

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