JFK and the NFL's mourning game

Posted: November 25, 2013

IRV CROSS slumped into the seat of his car that high-sky November afternoon, his football soul left in tatters somewhere on Franklin Field, his heart welling in his chest.

He looked down at the radio grill when reality seeped in. The Eagles' defensive back was overwhelmed. Tears began trickling down his numb cheeks by the belief that he had just lost a friend.

It's how the whole country felt.

The prevailing emptiness gripped the country on Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963, as President John F. Kennedy's body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Millions of Americans watched living history unfold when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy's accused assassin. It was a solemn, seminal moment felt on an NFL field.

Cross and his Eagles teammates had just finished losing to the Washington Redskins, 13-10, at Franklin Field in a listless, passionless game before 61,000 fans whose minds were someplace else, too.

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of JFK's death. Tomorrow marks the half-century anniversary of one the darkest days in sports history. Commissioner Pete Rozelle's greatest regret was allowing the NFL to play its full schedule 2 days after the president's death - games that no one wanted to play.

Memories have since faded some details, and many players are gone from that Eagles-Redskins game. But for those who did play, and those in the stands that day, the recollections of what happened, why it happened, and the hollowness of being there are as vivid now as they were then.

Because of what previously transpired, the game was almost inconsequential by the time it began. With the flag flying at half-staff, the Eagles and Redskins met at midfield before the coin flip to form a circle. A lone bugler played "Taps" and the public-address announcer asked a silent, indifferent crowd to sing the national anthem. It was about the only hint of zeal in a game between two woeful teams.

"All you could think of is that the president is dead and we're playing football here," recalled Cross, the broadcast Hall of Famer, then a 24-year-old defensive back who had an interception in the game. "You get wound up for a football game. During the week of a game, you build up emotionally.

"On Saturdays, I didn't even communicate with my family. I wasn't easy to get along with. I was edgy; my wife knew that and she knew to give me some space. By the time Sunday came around, I was completely empty. Standing there during the national anthem and looking at that flag at half-mast, it strikes you. Why are we here? What are we doing?"

When the news first broke about Kennedy, the Eagles had just gotten in from practicing at River Field. Pete Retzlaff was informed through an equipment manager, who had heard over the radio that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Disbelief swept through the narrow locker room.

Retzlaff, then a 32-year-old tight end nearing the end of his career, was president of the players association, saddled with a new responsibility: Should we play on Sunday?

"Everyone assumed that we wouldn't," Retzlaff recalled. "Most of the players, if not all of them, didn't want to play the game. Me, being the players association rep, and president of the association, I had to call commissioner Rozelle about postponing that Sunday's game. When I got a hold of Rozelle, he told me he already spoke to the Kennedy family and how they would feel about playing. They pretty much indicated that they would like the games played as scheduled. As president of the players association, you didn't have a lot of authority back then. You did as you were told."

After consulting with Rozelle, Retzlaff had the unenviable chore of calling each team's player rep and explaining the commissioner's wishes, that the games would be played.

Maxie Baughan, a 25-year-old Pro Bowl linebacker on the '63 Eagles, had a different feeling. He wanted to play. Baughan had rolled out of practice fast the Friday the president was shot, on his way to an autograph show when the news over the radio slapped him in the face.

"I wanted to play, because the country had to get back to doing normal things again," Baughan said. "I went home and my wife and I spoke about it. After hearing that Rozelle spoke to the Kennedy family and they convinced him to play, we lived during a time when you didn't question too many things. I wasn't worried about the nation, I was worried about the city of Philadelphia and our fans. I wanted to do what was right for them. I wasn't paid to think, I was paid to play."

J.D. Smith, a 27-year-old right tackle who was in his fifth season with the Eagles and started for the 1960 NFL championship team, felt the same as Baughan. Smith remembers the Philadelphia sidewalks near empty, the streets devoid of traffic. Everyone was glued to TVs and radios, awaiting more breaking news about Kennedy.

Football would provide the country's first healing salve.

"I wanted to play because I wanted to get back to normal, and the decision to play the games was the first part in getting the country back for the fans. It had to start somewhere," Smith said. "People were afraid, waiting for something else to happen. We were in a Cold War with Russia then and we didn't know what was coming next. We had a job to do that day and that was to play. Pro football wasn't all fun and games. You were there to make a living and once the whistle blew, it was time to get the job done. What wasn't normal was there wasn't much emotion in the game. We played because it was our job that day."

Hall of Fame football writer Ray Didinger was a 17-year-old senior at St. James High School in Chester with a love of the game nurtured by his family. There were three pictures behind his grandfather's bar - one of Chuck Bednarik, another of Robin Roberts, and in the middle a portrait of John F. Kennedy.

Each home game, Didinger, his family and the bar patrons would pile into a chartered bus and head toward Section EE in the lower deck of Franklin Field's end zone. Didinger recalls that Sunday, two days after the assassination, was probably the quietest bus ride to a game he ever took. Then he sat through a game of near silence.

"It was the first time I ever walked into a stadium and felt that this was wrong; that this shouldn't be happening," Didinger recalled. "The feeling we had was 'Why are we here?' I remember sitting there and there was no joy in anything. Everyone was going through the motions. It applied to the players, and it applied to the stands. The feeling was that everyone was numb."

Among the Eagles, emotions were much more intense the Saturday night before the game. The Eagles always stayed the night before home games at the Penn Sherwood Hotel.

The team held a meeting to go over strategy and a heated discussion broke out as to whether the Eagles should play or not. Ben Scotti, a hot-tempered 6-1, 185-pound defensive back, and John Mellekas, a 6-3, 255-pound defensive tackle, got into it.

"I witnessed the fight; in the meeting, Mellekas said something about Rozelle and Scotti thought he was talking about Kennedy," Baughan recalled. "There was a misunderstanding between Ben and Mellekas. Mellekas didn't want to play the game, and he said something about that. So after the meeting, they were jawing at each other next to a coatroom. That's when they went in there and went at it. Scotti had a ring on his finger and he was pounding on Mellekas, who definitely got the short end of the stick. He had blood all over him. Ben was a bit of a hothead, but he was a friend of mine."

Both players, according to Baughan, went to the hospital. Mellekas was treated for cuts and bruises, and Scotti had his gashed finger stitched. It worked out well for Scotti. He didn't play the next day.

Cross, however, did. Then he drove home alone with tears streaking his face. He has a replica Kennedy rocking chair in his study. He sits in it every day. Kennedy was the first TV president. He was beloved for his charisma and movie-star looks. His relative youth made him someone the players could relate to, as a young man with a family. Many believed Kennedy was destined for greatness before he was robbed of his life at the age of 46.

"Kids today don't even have a clue what it was like to be a black player in the early 1960s; you just endured," Cross said. "The country had all kinds of civil-rights issues, and it's another reason why I admired President Kennedy so much. He was a man who brought change and he meant a great deal to me. My one great regret is that I never got a chance to meet him."

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