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Not long after receiving the shocking news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, a distraught Ralph Wilson phoned American Football League headquarters. His Bills were scheduled to play the Boston Patriots in JFK's hometown that Sunday, but Wilson said that game and all AFL games should be postponed out of respect for the fallen president and his family.
"To me, the decision was a no-brainer," Wilson told me several years ago. "It was a slam-dunk that we shouldn't play. Fortunately (AFL commissioner) Joe Foss and his assistant (Milt Woodard) agreed with me. Some of my fellow owners were on the fence at first, hemming and hawing, but I was resolute in my decision. Had the commissioner forced us to play, I probably would have taken a forfeit-and we were in the playoff hunt at the time. That's how strongly I felt about it."
On that tragic weekend, the man who pays the Bills convinced his peers to do the proper thing.
On that tragic weekend, football rightfully was placed on the back burner. The show did not go on.
Sadly, it wasn't a slam-dunk for Pete Rozelle, the young commissioner of the established National Football League, which had yet to merge with the upstart AFL. He wound up making a call he would regret. Owners, such as former Cleveland Browns head man Art Modell, lobbied for postponement, but Rozelle wouldn't listen. He sought the advice of White House press secretary Pierre Salinger, who had been a classmate of Rozelle's at the University of San Francisco. Salinger said the president had been a huge football fan and would have wanted the games to be played because "it would contribute to the country returning to a sense of normalcy."
Rozelle was reminded of how Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis contacted Franklin Roosevelt in the early stages of World War II to inquire whether it would be appropriate to keep playing the games. FDR told him to keep playing because the games would boost morale stateside and among U.S. combat troops around the globe.
This all made sense to Rozelle, so the NFL played that Sunday. His decision was roundly criticized by commentators and columnists throughout the country and by many NFL coaches and players.
New York Giants linebacker Sam Huff, who campaigned for JFK in Huff's home state of West Virginia, had a particularly difficult time focusing that Sunday against the St. Louis Cardinals at Yankee Stadium.
"That was the only game I ever played at any level that I didn't care about at all," he told a reporter decades later. "There was no desire, no determination. I kept thinking: 'This is America?' America was a safe haven. Then, all of a sudden, it wasn't. It lives with me to this day."
Booker Edgerson, an All-Star cornerback for the Bills that season, empathized with Huff. He was relieved when he heard the AFL had postponed its games.
"We were like every other American," Edgerson said. "We were in a state of shock and disbelief. None of us was in any mood to play a game that weekend. It would have been the wrong thing to do, the disrespectful thing to do."
CBS, then the NFL's sole television carrier, decided not to broadcast the games that Sunday, opting instead to provide non-stop coverage of the presidential funeral. The network didn't even bother to send broadcast crews to the games. NFL Films did send a crew, which caught a huge banner outside Yankee Stadium that said: "Kennedy Dead, the Game Goes On, Shame!" Not surprisingly, attendance was down at each of the stadiums and there was a funereal atmosphere in the stands.
As the years passed, Salinger continued to defend Rozelle's decision. Even the president's brother, Robert Kennedy, later reportedly told some members of the Washington Redskins that he thought the NFL did the right thing by playing that Sunday. But Rozelle, who helped build the NFL into the world's most lucrative and influential sports league, second-guessed himself for the rest of his career and life.
Though he received considerable heat for his decision, his league wasn't the only sports organization open for business that weekend. Most high school and college football games were canceled, but the annual Nebraska-Oklahoma football game went on as scheduled that Saturday. Sooners coach Bud Wilkinson, who had headed JFK's Council on Physical Fitness, argued that the president loved football and would have wanted them to play. The NBA canceled two games on the day of the assassination but played three games on Saturday.
The decision not to play boosted the stature of the fledgling AFL in the eyes of many. "I think it was another positive step in our struggle for respectability," Edgerson said. "I think it was the height of arrogance by the NFL to play before the president had even been laid to rest. I'm proud of our decision."
Wilson is, too. He and his fellow AFL owners were what was known as "The Foolish Club" because they were crazy enough to think they could challenge the mighty NFL. As it turned out, they proved they could go toe-to-toe with the big boys and wound up forcing a merger. And one of the wisest things Wilson and his fellow "fools" did was show proper respect for a president who had been assassinated. The Bills owner took the lead in convincing his comrades to do the right thing during one of the saddest weekends in our nation's history.
If only his NFL counterparts had shown the same conscience and backbone.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak's 16th book, a collaboration with rock 'n' roll legend Lou Gramm titled "Juke Box Hero," is available at amazon.com and in bookstores. He provides analysis following Bills games on WROC-TV and is a correspondent for USA Today SportsWeekly.
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