By: Bob George/BosSports.net
November 22, 2013

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When you think of infamous days in our nation's history, November 22, 1963 is at or near the top of most lists.

Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of one of Massachusetts' most noteworthy citizens, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The 35th president was shot to death in a motorcade on a bright, sunny Friday afternoon as he was passing by the Texas School Book Depository. The tragedy shook a nation to its core, established television as the prime conduit for instant information, and forever changed how safe a sitting president can possibly be.

Many older folks have been asked to offer up where they were and what they were doing. Here is this author's version.

Somewhere in western Massachusetts, this little kid was celebrating his fifth birthday. I remember next to nothing about the day in general, not even my birthday party. Mom and Dad had to know what was going on, but I was oblivious to the whole thing. It was my birthday. Nothing else matters to a typical five-year-old.

The one thing I do remember about the Kennedy assassination was the television coverage. I was watching the CBS coverage on WTIC TV-3 in Hartford and saw this newsman answering questions that were posted on the screen regarding someone named Oswald. Who is Oswald? What's the big deal here? I still didn't fully grasp what was going on.

It wasn't until sometime later that I began to understand. I first noticed on one of those big Ludlow Savings Bank calendars in our classrooms back then that listed all the presidents. Kennedy was the fourth president to be shot to death while in office. But his listing was the only one that, under his years of service (1961-63), it said in fine print, "Assassinated Nov. 22, 1963". When I saw it for the first time, I saw that it was on my birthday. From that moment on it became a part of my life, in that my birthday would be forever linked to the death of a USA president.

Back in 1963, I was not into sports. The Patriots were on their way to the AFL title game that year in what turned out to be their most noteworthy AFL season. I did not start following the NFL until 1968 and the AFL until it became the AFC post-merger. So, when the NFL decided to play that weekend, I knew nothing about it.

To this day, then-commissioner Pete Rozelle has been vilified for allowing the NFL to play only 48 hours after the president was slain. The eight games went on as scheduled, flags flew at half mast, and a bunch of NFL players went through the motions. The reasoning was that, after Rozelle spoke to former Kennedy aide Pierre Salinger (later an ABC reporter), it was understood that Kennedy would have wanted the NFL to play.

The AFL did not play. Al Davis, who at the time was head coach and general manager of the Oakland Raiders, and Larry "Wild Man" Eisenhauer, a former Patriot defensive lineman, are both on record as saying that they would never have considered playing that weekend and would have refused to play if the AFL had held their games. Joe Foss, the AFL commissioner at the time, was a former Marine Corps fighter ace who earned the Medal of Honor and understood the moment a little better than Rozelle did.

When Rozelle retired in 1989, he remarked that if he could have a do-over, he'd reconsider allowing the NFL to play that weekend in 1963. Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Major League Baseball to play during World War II for morale reasons, although they played with flotsam and jetsam and 4-F dregs during that time. But that was different than 1963. A president was shot to death in broad daylight, and the nation was kicked in the gut.

Fast forward to Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

If November 22, 1963 isn't the worst day of your life, then this day is. When the attacks in New York and Washington went down, the nation looked on in horror as television coverage drove the tragedy right into your living room. Several thousand Americans lost their lives. Our nation seemed totally defenseless.

Sports? The Red Sox were down in St. Petersburg, Florida to play the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Patriots had just lost their season opener to Cincinnati and were prepared to head down to Ericsson Stadium to play the Carolina Panthers. And this wasn't the Super Bowl Panthers or the I Can Commit Holding In The End Zone And Get Away With It Panthers. These were the 1-15 stumblebums with Chris Weinke at quarterback (who, like Cam Newton, also won the Heisman Trophy).

Neither the Sox nor the Patriots played for a while. Busses and trains brought the Sox home, as air travel was curtailed for a time. The Patriots stayed home, with Joe Andruzzi nervously awaiting word on the fate of his FDNY brothers who were at Ground Zero (they all survived, barely).

Nobody complained about stopping the NFL and MLB seasons. They did resume, eventually, and the Patriots used the postponed game against the Panthers to clinch the AFC East title that year. But not one single American complained about putting a halt to sports for a while. And when it resumed, what a spectacle. The tributes in Yankee Stadium with President George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch were timeless. Watching Andruzzi enter Foxborough Stadium with two American flags remains an iconic image (though that game is better remembered for this Mo Lewis hit). All across the nation, Americans saluted the deceased and the first responders. To this day, they still sing God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch at baseball games.

This is how Rozelle should have handled November 24, 1963. And he knew it, but remained stoic and proceeded to become one of the most productive and prominent sports commissioners in history. Rozelle should have told the NFL to stay home and watch television or head for their places of worship. It remains to this day a bad decision. It doesn't define Rozelle, but his gaffe will never be forgotten.

On Friday, I turn 55 years old, and President Kennedy's assassination turns 50. Once again, I have to pause and remember our late president. Like myself, he is of Massachusetts, from Massachusetts, and belongs to Massachusetts. Every six years or so, my birthday is also Thanksgiving, like it was last year. But this year, it is all about fifty years. The Kennedy family is still the closest thing to royalty in the USA in general and Massachusetts in particular.

And once again, I have to come to grips with what my birthday means to our nation. I often times wonder what would have happened if Kennedy had been able to serve out his full term as president (he would be 96 years old if he were still alive today). His youthful appearance and keen sense of vision seemed to embody what was happening to the nation socially in the 1960s. The decade came to be defined by the Vietnam War and all related violence, but violence also spilled over to prominent Americans (JFK's brother Bobby, Martin Luther King Jr.). If Kennedy had lived, one can only wonder how many of the tragedies of the 1960s might have been different.

Instead, we have his memories, his pictures, his beautiful family, his eloquent speeches, his descendants and relatives. He has a library and an airport named for him. He remains a Massachusetts treasure, now and always.

For me, he also remains forever a part of my birthday. It stays with me now, and will forever. In 1983 I had the occasion to visit Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the triple underpass, and the Book Depository with the plaque on it commemorating the assassination. There is no other reason I would go there (I was in Dallas on job interviews) other than to see where it happened. I needed to do that for me. I can say that I was there.

Fifty years. Maybe the late president can join me in spirit at my party, and know that I'm still thinking of him after all these years.


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