Before the Dallas Cowboys took a snap on the final Sunday of November 1963, the Star-Telegram already had its next-day’s lead story:
“SUSPECT OSWALD SLAIN IN DALLAS.”
Five words, all caps, 72-point type.
Nothing else happening on Nov. 24, 1963, could, or would, outshout this headline.
Within 48 hours of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in downtown Dallas, suspected president-killer Lee Harvey Oswald was himself shot and killed while being transferred to the Dallas County Jail from Dallas PD.
The shock and awe was captured on live television.
Meanwhile, roughly 1,000 miles away in Cleveland, the Cowboys and Browns were about to carry out NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s mandate to let the games go on.
“There was a tiny television in the visitors’ locker room at Cleveland Stadium,” Cowboys QB Eddie LeBaron recalled. “We had just come back in from [pregame] warm-up when we saw Oswald get shot by Jack Ruby.”
LeBaron, 33, was elder statesman enough at the time to provide some sage advice to his teammates.
“Put your helmets on — and keep ’em on,” LeBaron warned as they prepared to go back out and play the game.
There would be no fan incidents to report. Still, LeBaron knew that being a team from Dallas that weekend was not a popular thing to be.
“I just remember how deathly silent it was when we took the field,” said LeBaron, adding with a half-smile. “But I was used to war. I was in the Marines.”
Helmets on, boys.
The Big D stigma
What was there not to like about the Dallas Cowboys in 1963?
They were relatively unknown, relatively harmless, headed for their fourth consecutive losing season. They were a welcome sight on almost anyone’s NFL schedule.
But the perception which NFL fans had of them would drastically change 45 years ago this month: The NFL team from Dallas — with 12 wins in its first 50 games — was inconsequential no more.
“There was a stigma put on us ... [and] it was that way for quite awhile,” LeBaron said.
He and his wife, Doralee, drove home to California after the ’63 season, stopping along the way for food, gas and lodging.
“Someone would come up and ask, ‘Where you from?’ ” LeBaron recalled. “We’d say ‘Dallas,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh ... you’re the ones that shot the President.’ It was a tough deal for a long time.”
On Nov. 24, 1963 — two days after JFK was fatally wounded during a motorcade past Dealey Plaza, the Dallas Cowboys were 27-17 losers on the field and persona non grata in the stands.
Don’t blame Cleveland.
As ridiculous as it might sound now, the Cowboys were held in a bad light because of so much national anguish. People were scared.
The Rozelle controversy
Rozelle became a huge target of public criticism that weekend.
His decision to play seven football games at a time of profound grieving and national insecurity was not well-received. Even a faction of NFL ownership resented it.
Dan Rooney just recently wrote in his autobiography, Dan Rooney: My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL: “[Rozelle] later told me it was the wrong decision, one of the few he regretted making during his term as commissioner.”
Rooney, who was 31 at the time, learned something about himself that day, too.
“There are more important things,” he wrote in his book, “than playing football every Sunday.”
Games went on as scheduled at New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Milwaukee (Green Bay), Minnesota and Los Angeles. None was televised.
Rozelle took in the Giants’ 24-17 win over the St. Louis Cardinals at Yankee Stadium.
He later told the New York Times: “I could not concentrate on the game. I brooded about my decision the entire game.”
Meanwhile, the rival American Football League cancelled its full slate of games ... out of respect to the President.
‘Mr. Kennedy’s game’
“We were at practice when we got the news that President Kennedy had been shot,” LeBaron recalled. “A pall immediately hung over the guys.”
As more and more information began to trickle in, LeBaron heard someone mention the book depository building in downtown Dallas.
“Gosh, I drive past that place every day,” said LeBaron, who also worked at the time for a Dallas legal firm.
Once JFK’s assassination became official shortly after 1 p.m. Friday, NFL games became on-again/off-again. For half the teams, their travels plans were placed in limbo.
Behind the commissioner’s unpopular decision (even to himself) were two little known facts: 1.) Rozelle was very close to the Kennedy family and 2.) JFK’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, had conferred with Rozelle and given his blessing to play the games.
The Nov. 24 Star-Telegram ran a Saturday photo in its Sunday editions that showed Bart Starr and several other Packers — wearing stocking caps and winter jackets — holding a somber walk-through directly in front of a flag flown at half staff.
On the same page was a five-inch wire story.
“It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy,” Rozelle said. “Football was Mr. Kennedy’s game. He thrived on competition.”
Nice try, commissioner.
Browns 27, Cowboys 17
Cleveland was a team the Cowboys had beaten only once in seven tries. The Browns won at the Cotton Bowl 41-24 in an earlier matchup in ’63.
The effects of what happened in Dallas on Nov. 22 would actually become something of an equalizer in the Nov. 24 game. Because no one on either team felt like playing it.
Players felt detached from the Xs and Os. Fans sat in abject sorrow. The atmosphere more reflected a Sunday afternoon at church than a football game.
But that changed when Frank Ryan completed an 11-yard touchdown pass to Gary Collins in the first quarter. The crowd roared. (LeBaron can still remember the sudden ringing in his ears.)
A sense of normalcy had returned ... if only for a couple more hours.
The game was lost on two fourth-quarter Don Meredith interceptions turned into touchdowns.
“The Browns were hanging onto a slim 13-10 edge going into the fourth quarter when Ross Fichtner intercepted Meredith’s pass and raced 36 yards into the end zone for what proved to be the clinching counter,” the Star-Telegram reported.
Jim Brown managed only 51 yards on 17 carries. This was his worst game of the season. He would finish ’63 with a career-best 1,863 yards.
Cornell Green of the Cowboys capped the scoring with a 20-yard fumble return for a touchdown. It was too little, too late.
Meredith finished 13 of 30 for 93 yards, no touchdowns, four INTs. Like Brown, it was a game he would just as soon forget.
Players and coaches, leaguewide, were affected by the emotional drain of Nov. 22-24, 1963. Although their struggles weren’t always visible to the naked eye.
Game results looked pretty much the same as usual. NFL teams in ’63 averaged 22 points a game. On Nov. 24, they averaged just under 20.
In Los Angeles, future Cowboys punter/kicker Danny Villanueva — deeply distraught over the death of President Kennedy — kicked a game-winning field goal in a 17-16 Rams victory over Baltimore.
If only he could remember it.
“We didn’t want to play. We were made to play,” Villanueva recalled. “A pretty big crowd [48,000] showed up at the L.A. Coliseum. I think people wanted a little respite from all the dreariness and darkness of the day.”
In contrast to his vivid memory of how Rams fans looked as they “sat and watched and politely applauded,” Villanueva has no recollection of the game itself. Not even the winning FG.
“It was like I blocked it out of my mind, it was such a terrible day,” Villanueva told Old ’Boys Club. “It appears that I kicked a field goal late in the game to win it ... but I can’t even tell you who we played.”
Danny’s nephew recently sent him a dog-eared newspaper clipping from the L.A. Herald-Examiner, dated Nov. 25, 1963.
“From the pictures, you could see the flags at half-mast ... and a game-winning field goal kicked by me,” Villaneuva said. “It was really the first time I knew about it.”
In Cleveland, “Ray Renfro Day” was postponed because of the JFK assassination. The retiring Browns receiver and a future Cowboys assistant coach was to be honored at halftime.
The Star-Telegram wrote in its Nov. 25, 1963, editions: “Browns officials said Renfro, the former North Texas State star now living in Fort Worth, would be presented with numerous gifts at a later date.”
The Oswald-Ruby picture on the S-T’s front page became one of the most enduring photos of the ’60s. Staff writer Thayer Waldo’s lead story read: “A man in a brown hat and trench coat lunged forward, shoved a snub-nosed .38 revolver against the prisoner’s abdomen, and fired once. All hell broke loose.”
Star-Telegram sports columnist Joe Trinkle wrote: “[Kennedy] was a sportsman, born to competition and urged to compete. He was competing the instant his heart stopped beating.”
On a personal note, I was a teenager growing up in Northeastern Ohio in 1963. I was among the 55,096 at the Nov. 24 Cleveland game.Next week:
Tom Landry truly believed he could beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, who handed the Cowboys two of three Super Bowl losses in franchise history.
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