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.

“We would stay in this low-priced motel out by the ballpark on Saturday nights,’’ receiver Jerry Reichow said. “We were walking through the little lobby to the bus, and glancing at the TV, and somebody said, ‘Hey, did you see that? Somebody just shot that guy.’ ”

The somebody was Jack Ruby, and that guy was Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s ­assassin.

“We had seen a lot of people die on television in cowboy and gangster shows, but we never had seen someone actually get shot in real time, in front of our eyes,’’ Zamberletti said.

Flatley said that was all ­anyone was talking about in the locker room before the game — Ruby shooting Oswald.

“And then Van Brocklin came into the room and gave us hell, as only he could do,’’ Flatley said. “He was yelling, ‘Forget about that stuff; start thinking about the Lions, you bleepity-bleeps.’ ”

CBS had made a decision not to televise sports that weekend. Stadium music was a minor issue in 1963, but the Vikings chose to play none. The St. Louis Park Parkettes, the high school cheerleading group, did not appear at the game.

“The Lions were more a veteran team and they didn’t bring much that day,’’ Zamberletti said. “Our players were younger, they had won only three games, and they had Van Brocklin screaming at them. Our guys played our rear ends off.’’

The Vikings still trailed 31-27 in the final four minutes, when quarterback Fran Tarkenton mustered a 68-yard drive ­featuring Flatley, the receiver from Northwestern who would be selected as UPI Rookie of the Year.

Flatley caught passes of 31 and 35 yards on the drive. Tommy Mason scored the winning touchdown, backing into the end zone from 2 yards.

“There really wasn’t much of a celebration,’’ Flatley said. “The crowd was smaller (28,763) and it had been silent for much of the afternoon.

“Remember, the fans were far away from the football field in that ballpark. I’ve talked to people who were at the game and told me they could hear the offensive and defensive signals all afternoon.’’

JFK’s funeral was held the next day in Washington. “John-John saluting the casket,’’ Zamberletti said. “That’s what I can’t forget. Broke our hearts.’’

Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.

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