NFL marched on in '41 and '63

It was late Tuesday morning at the Fox Hills Country Club in Mishicot, Wis., and more than 150 golfers sat in their carts, listening to the starter with final instructions, plus:<p>

"We all feel terrible this sad day but we are committed to helping the March of Dimes."

The starter then turned the mike over to Bill Schroeder, who with his wife, Shelley, are chairpersons for this annual charity classic. The Packer wide receiver thanked the golfers for helping the March of Dimes and then asked everybody for a minute of silent prayer "for those who died in this horrible tragedy."

Packer alumni, a few Packer players and others served as celebrity captains of each foursome. I was assigned to four guys in their 40s and enlightened them along the way with tales of Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President Kennedy.

Yes, for this old-timer, the terrible events that unfolded in New York and Washington were absolutely unbelievable. This tragedy was much worse than the attack by the Japs in terms of lives lost, but Pearl Harbor led to a world war and millions of deaths.

Where were you when these tragedies happened - Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941; Friday, Nov. 22, 1963; and Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001; a morning (afternoon in U.S.) in Hawaii; and mornings in Dallas and New York and Washington.

I left early for the golf event and turned on my car radio - a Milwaukee station, and was shocked as the awful events were described. I pulled off the road and listened for awhile. When I arrived I called both my wife and my son in Green Bay – just had to talk to folks close to me.

I was a newlywed of six months back on that fateful day in '41. We were listening (on the radio, no TV then) to the Chicago Bears-Chicago Cardinals game when the announcer intoned "the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor." Most people wondered "where the hell is Pearl Harbor?"

My wife, Lorraine, and I were having lunch that Friday in '63 when the mailman yanked open the front door and yelled "turn on your TV. Kennedy's been shot."

Strangely, the Packers have a "close" connection in both the Pearl Harbor and the New York blasts. The Packers were supposed to play the New York Giants in Giants Stadium only a dozen miles across the Hudson River from the fallen Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Pearl Harbor

The Packers and Bears beat each other and finished with 11-1 records in the Western Division. The NFL's first Division playoff was scheduled in Chicago for the Sunday after Pearl Harbor, though Green Bay would have hosted the title game if the Cardinals had beaten the Bears.

No thought was given to postponing the playoff and a sellout crowd of 43,425 turned out to see the Bears beat the Packers 33-14 at Wrigley Field. The next Sunday the Bears beat the Giants before only 13,341 at Wrigley.

The NFL continued play throughout the war but all teams lost players to the military - just as they did during the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf Wars in the 60 years since. Now the U.S. is at war again - only this time the enemies are sneaky terrorists.

Kennedy assassination

The NFL had major decisions to make after the Kennedy and present tragedies.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue made the decision to postpone 15 league games Sept 16-17 two days after the attacks. He was highly praised for calling off play and the players were dead set against playing.

Commissioner Pete Rozelle had only hours to make his decision to play the games and he did so after consulting with Kennedy's brother, Bobby, and others in government. Kennedy was a football fan and Rozelle said "he would have wanted us to play."

None of the games were shown on TV that Sunday, including the Packers against the San Francisco 49ers in Milwaukee County Stadium. At about the time of the kickoffs, the TV networks carried live the procession that took Kennedy's body from the White House to the Capitol.

With no TV timeouts, the game lasted only two hours and eight minutes. There was no band music and adding to the difficult day. It was announced on the stadium's PA system an hour before kickoff that Lee Harvey Oswald, later named the Kennedy assassin, was shot and killed in Dallas.

Bob Skoronski, a tackle in the 1960s, said "we felt it was an obligation to play after we learned that we were to play, but we were all shocked." He said if he were a player today he wouldn't have wanted to play, mainly because of the huge number of casualties.

Vince Lombardi had become a personal friend of Kennedy and had been invited to the White House after winning the 1961 and '62 NFL championships. After the game, Lombardi said "as far as the advisability of playing it, I can't see any reason not to have played. If this was a day of mourning we certainly would have not played, but Monday is."

Rozelle said years later he regretted his decision to play the games, even though at the time he felt "football was Mr. Kennedy's game. He thrived on competition." The rival American Football League made it worse for Rozelle by cancelling its games. College football games were all played that Saturday.

Of course, Pearl Harbor and Kennedy were tragic, but the New York-Washington incidents may change our way of life, plus plunge the country into a war against unknown forces of evil.

Thirteen days after the attack, Green Bay was the setting as nearly 50 million starved sports fan watched the Packers battle the Washington Redskins in security-surrounded Lambeau Field. They wouldn't even let the Goodyear blimp hover overhead.

Editor's note: This column appeared in the Sept. 29, 2001 issue of Packer Report.

Packer Report Top Stories