Reusse: Everything stopped but the NFL following JFK assassination

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 21, 2013 - 11:56 PM

Pete Rozelle called it his biggest regret as commissioner.

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The Vikings’ Paul Flatley, catching a key pass against the Lions, said he’s heard that JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger gave his blessing to play.

Photo: john Croft • Star Tribune file,

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The original Midway Stadium was located east of ­Snelling Avenue, down the rise from Hamline ­University. The Vikings used the St. Paul facility as their practice home throughout the season during Norm Van Brocklin’s tenure (1961-66) as coach.

Friday practices were always short. On Nov. 22, 1963, the team’s young trainer, Fred Zamberletti, finished his work by 12:30 p.m. and drove south on Snelling, to make a stop at the Montgomery Ward store.

“I pulled into the parking lot and heard on the radio that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas,’’ Zamberletti said. “I walked inside and the customers and salespeople were all in front of the TVs.’’

It would be an hour before Walter Cronkite would make his famous announcement on CBS that President Kennedy was dead.

Zamberletti was a 31-year-old who had grown up in small-town Iowa. He can still choke up a bit when talking about the assassination 50 years later.

“We had that dream — with a young president, his beautiful wife, young kids, with the energy that came through when we heard him speak,’’ Zamberletti said. “We believed things were going to get better. Civil rights, equal opportunity … we believed in those things.” He paused and said: “That was a sorrowful day.’’

The nation’s confusion in that grave moment ­trickled down to the sports world. What should be done with the events (mostly football) ­scheduled for the weekend?

There were three headlines above the fold of the sports front in the next morning’s Minneapolis Tribune:

“Gopher Game Postponed to Thursday Morning.’’ “Mr. Kennedy, Participant, Avid Fan, Close Friend of Athletics.’’ And, most memorable, ­“Sunday’s Viking Game ‘On.’ ”

Joe Foss, the Marine flying ace of World War II, was the commissioner of the four-year-old, eight-team American Football League. He was quick to postpone the four games scheduled for that weekend.

Pete Rozelle, in his fourth year as commissioner, did not do that in the NFL. He declared that the seven games in his 14-team league would be played on Sunday. Rozelle later would call it the most regrettable decision of his three decades as commissioner.

Did Salinger give the green light?

“What we’ve heard more recently is that Rozelle went to Pierre Salinger, JFK’s press secretary and a friend of Pete’s from college, and asked what he should do,’’ Paul Flatley said. “And Salinger told him to play the games.

“What did I think? I was just a rookie with the Vikings. When the Dutchman [Van Brocklin] said, ‘Play,’ I played.’’

Zamberletti said the ­players’ compliant attitude toward playing two days after the ­murder of a president requires this perspective:

“Those players were the sons of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ the men who won World War II for us. We grew up in the ’50s to have blind obedience to authority.’’

The Detroit Lions were the opponents for the 1:35 p.m. kickoff at Met Stadium on Nov. 24. They were 4-6, with an earlier 27-10 thumping of the Vikings in Detroit, and the third-year Vikings were 3-7.

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