A Game Played in Silence

Forty years ago this week, the Packers were involved what may perhaps be the quietest football game, as a nation mourned a President and Vince Lombardi mourned a friend. Laura Veras Marran takes us back to 1963...

Forty years ago today – Nov. 24, 1963 – a full slate of NFL games took place. While the schedule was normal, the nation was not. President John F. Kennedy had been slain two days earlier. Commissioner Pete Rozelle's decision to let the games go on was the most difficult move of his career, and one he later said was the biggest mistake of his life.

The Green Bay Packers played the San Francisco 49ers that day with hearts as heavy as any team's, because at their helm was a coach who not only mourned a president, he also mourned a friend.

Vince Lombardi and President Kennedy shared East Coast roots, a strong and public Catholic faith, a love of football, and a friendship. The two met in a downtown Green Bay church during the 1960 campaign, the same church where Lombardi faithfully attended daily Mass and the same church where Lombardi went to pray for the fallen president when he heard the terrible news of Nov. 22, 1963.

Kennedy's congratulatory telegram sent on New Year's Eve 1961 after the Packers' first championship under Lombardi hung on the wall of the coach's office throughout his Green Bay tenure:

"Congratulations on a great game today. It was a fine victory for a great coach, a great team, and great town."

Lombardi also held dear a program from a 1962 dinner in Milwaukee where Kennedy was the featured speaker and the coach was a guest. Kennedy's assistance in releasing Paul Hornung from Army Reserve duties on game weekends is legendary.

According to an account in "When Pride Still Mattered – A Life of Vince Lombardi" by David Marraniss, along with many other media accounts, Lombardi was in his usual spot in his office preparing for the weekend games when he was informed about the President's death. He briefly addressed his team, most of whom had been leaving the building after a meeting but came back in after learning the news. The coach then walked out, and drove the two miles east to St. Willebrod's, where he spent the afternoon in prayer.

Meanwhile, Rozelle had issued a statement agonized over for most of the day:

"It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy," according to a statement released by the commissioner. "Football was Mr. Kennedy's game. He thrived on competition."

The next morning, the Packers had to board a train to Milwaukee for the game at County Stadium.  During travel, team meetings and on into the next day's game, an eerie silence blanketed the grief-stricken Packers. The game was played in a technical sense only. There were no team introductions, no commercial announcements, no television broadcasts, and no music except the national anthem.

The most notable silence came after the game. The Packers lost 28-10 in a poorly played game. Coach Lombardi didn't say a word.

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