Tragedies 40 years apart and gridiron decisions

Tom Hemingway, in his debut column for Wolverine Insider, reflects on the impact the assassination of President John F. Kennedy had on college and pro football. Just as this past week, college games were postponed in 1963 but the Michigan-Ohio State game was rendered meaningless by the tragedy.

November 22, 1963. September 11, 2001. Two dates, almost 40 years apart, producing events so different in some aspects but sharing a common thread in others. I'm sure many of us trying to recover from the terror unleashed on America can still recall the same overwhelming numbness that gripped us when we heard the shattering news from Dallas that black Friday in November. President Kennedy killed? Impossible. No American president had been assassinated in over 60 years. It certainly couldn't happen to one so vibrant and charasmatic as the handsome Jack Kennedy. But of course it did and we could no nothing more than stare at the TV in uncomprehending shock  just as we did at the scenes in New York and Washington. For me there are other memories that I had mostly tucked away but which came rushing back once the initial blow had subsided.

Ninteen-sixty-three was my first year broadcasing Michigan football, although I had done hockey and basketball games the previous season. Going into their traditional final game of the season against Ohio State, the Wolverines were 3-3-2; 2-2-2 in the Big Ten. Not a gaudy record by any means but an improvement over the previous season when they finished 2-7.

The Buckeyes were jockeying for second place since Michigan State and Illinois were locked in the battle for the championship, which was scheduled to be decided that Saturday in East Lansing. And then of course the horrible news from Texas hit the nation. And, as we saw in the past few days, decisions had to be made on the football scene, both college and professional.

But in 1963 there were some very sharp differences. For one thing, college officials had less than a day to decide since the assassination occurred on Friday afternoon. There were no drawn out conference calls or polls of the players but a swift announcement that games would either be cancelled or postponed.

As in the recent tragedy, there were some dissenting opinions that the games should go on but they were a very distinct minority. Another factor was the fact that for most colleges this was the final game of the year and not the second or third as was the case this time, which caused so many rescheduling difficulties. And since telecasting of NCAA football was in its infancy in 1963, this caused fewer problems.

The pros were another matter, although they also had to make the call much faster. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle made the decision to go ahead with the games and later often stated that it was his biggest mistake. The reason he gave was that he had talked with President Kennedy's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, who was flying back from Dallas and was told that the president would have wanted the games to proceed. On the basis of that and without getting a consensus from league presidents, he allowed the games to go on.

Of course, we must keep in mind that the NFL was still struggling at the time to gain legitimacy and Rozelle felt that calling off a weekend of games would be a major step backward in the public eye.

Whether he was correct or not is subject to conjecture but at the time it seemed to him to be the right  move.

Meanwile, the Michigan-Ohio State game was shoved ahead to the following Saturday, November 30, at the time making it the latest regular season game in Michigan history. It was by far the most joyless football game I have ever broadcast and I'm sure one of the worst jobs I have ever turned in since I could summon no enthusiasm whatsoever for the task.

The official attendance was announced at 36,424, although I doubt if there were more than 20,000 people in the stands. I honestly believe they all had the same lost feeling as I did with our thoughts hundreds of miles away.

Ohio State won the game 14-10, but frankly I don't think many people cared.

I know I didn't.


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