It was Nov. 24, 1963, just two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The slain president’s body was being carried from the White House to the rotunda of the Capitol Building. Assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was to be transferred from his holding cell in a Dallas prison. Somewhere in the crowd of reporters and television cameras that would carry the event live to the nation lurked a man in a dark topcoat and fedora, a gun hidden in his coat pocket. On this day, what America likes to call a "football Sunday," the games of the National Football League would go on as scheduled. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, deciding against canceling the games, said President Kennedy would have wanted it that way.
The Eagles, in the midst of a terribly disappointing season that would see them lose 10 games, were scheduled to play the Washington Redskins at Franklin Field. After the intense sadness of the past two days and after much anguish, we decided to use our season tickets and attend the game that afternoon. We hoped, somehow, we could escape the veil of sorrow that had enveloped the nation, if only for a couple of hours.
We didn’t vary from our normal routine although, right from the beginning, we felt as if we only were going through the motions. Armed with a portable radio and binoculars, we stopped at Benny’s to get the hoagies we carried to the game and boarded an Eagles Express bus at Broad Street and Snyder Avenue.
There was always an air of excitement as you walked with the large crowd converging on stately Franklin Field, always a buzz in the air. On this day, something was missing. We all sensed it. We felt as if we had skipped a parent’s funeral to watch a football game. The crowd was large, as usual (the attendance would later be announced as another sellout of more than 60,000), but the usual banter was replaced by sober reflection.
The Eagles were coached by Nick Skorich. The team was less than three years from an NFL Championship (the grandiose label of Super Bowl with the attendant Roman numerals was not in use yet). The Eagles had beaten Lombardi’s Packers in a stunning upset in ’60. The team was two years from having narrowly missed going to the championship once again. It was obvious from the beginning of the season, despite still having that stellar passing combination of Sonny Jurgensen to Tommy McDonald, the Eagles had slipped badly. The Redskins had Norm Snead as their quarterback. In a bit of irony, Jurgensen would later be traded for Snead with all kinds of rumors flying that the commissioner had ordered the trade to get Sonny out of a jam. Jurgensen would go on to a great career with Washington, while Snead became a footnote in Eagles history.
We took our seats in the end zone, the ones that cost us a grand total of $28 for an entire season. The gloom that hung over the stadium was almost palpable. It was about as festive as a castle in Denmark in a thunderstorm. The game itself is a blur. Our thoughts kept going back to Dallas. Even then we knew the world as we knew it would never be the same again. History records the Skins beat the Eagles, 13-10, that day. We filed out of Franklin Field, feeling as if we should never have gone to the game, should have been home mourning with the rest of the nation, not watching football.
As we headed for the express bus to take us back to South Philadelphia, it was our habit to listen to Jack McKinney, later to become a Daily News columnist, do his postgame football roundup on WCAU. McKinney spoke in a rasp. He knew his football and boxing. He was outspoken in wanting the British tossed out of Northern Ireland and had a short fuse that once in awhile resulted in him making news rather than writing about it.
On this Sunday, we learned nothing was normal, not even postgame shows. CBS had interrupted the local programming. Someone, incredibly, had shot Oswald as he was passing before the television cameras in the Dallas jail. The man had been apprehended. Oswald had been transported to Parkland Memorial Hospital, the same one where John Kennedy had been pronounced dead two days earlier.
I think the Oswald shooting brought the final point home. While the world was seemingly collapsing, we had been sitting in the stands watching a lousy, meaningless football game. It was at that moment we realized you can’t ever really escape reality, there are moments when real life intrudes on our fantasy world, there are times when even the games of the National Football League should not go on.