The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is such a cultural touchstone that it remains, at the very least, on the fringes of Americans’ collective consciousness.
Those who witnessed it never forget where they were and how they felt. Those born later, who learned about it in school or from relative who always teared up while remembering the day, can’t imagine enduring it in real time … or couldn’t, at least until September 11, 2001, when their own where-were-you-that-day generational horror occurred.
Because Kennedy’s death on November 22, 1963 in Dallas was and, for many, still is the American tragedy by which all others are measured, it is a story told and retold from countless angles of varying logic in books, television and film, even in years in which a significant anniversary isn’t being acknowledged.
The challenge must have been overwhelming this year, the 50th anniversary of his murder, to come up with an insightful angle on that history-altering day in Dealey Plaza.
But the NBC Sports Network has done just that with an hour-long documentary that airs at 11 p.m. Wednesday night.
Titled “No Day For Games: The Cowboys and JFK,” it’s hosted by Bob Costas for his Costas Tonight program, and it provides a truly fascinating look at that day and the aftermath through the eyes of 10 former Dallas Cowboys players and executives who were there that season.
Among them were Hall of Famers Lee Roy Jordan and Bob Lilly, and there is also a lengthy postscript interview with Roger Staubach, who was starring at the Naval Academy at the time and had been honored in person by Kennedy the year before.
“I think what we’ve found here is some of these Kennedy programs, some of which I’ve seen already, are very, very good,” said Costas in a phone interview last week. “But some of them … they just try to find their own way in. There’s one about how Walter Cronkite and the media covered it, there’s another with the recollections of people who were bystanders, they just happened to be in Dealey Plaza that day or near Air Force One or orderlies in the hospital when the president was brought in.
“People have tried to get into this story without telling people what they already know. I think in this case we found a legitimate way to come at the story that isn’t just, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard all that before.’ ”
The Cowboys played at Cleveland two days after the assassination, the game overlapping with the memorial service at one point. It was then that the players came to the chilling realization that they were anything but America’s Team at that moment. The association with Dallas made them a public enemy. “The nation’s anger,” Costas says in the film, “was being held against them.”
Lee Roy Jordan was more blunt.
“We were the team from Dallas, Texas. We were connected with killing the President of the United States,” he said.
Said Browns lineman John Wooten in the film: “The City of Dallas killed our president. That was the feeling – we wanted to get after Dallas.:
Cowboys players were told to wear their helmets on the sideline, and there were no pregame player introductions out of fear of what might happen.
“I had a general idea of it, but I just didn’t realize the extent,” said Costas. “It’s one thing for me to say it in narration. It’s another thing entirely for them to back it up with their personal experiences, and they do. For instance, I had no idea that Art Modell told the PA announcer to call them the Cowboys, to never say Dallas. And the extra security at the game – you would have thought they might need it in Dallas, but not in Cleveland. But they did. Or at least they felt they did.”
In retrospect, its unfathomable that the game was even played. “We could have quit our season then,” says Lilly. “It would have been fine with me.”
“[Former commissioner Pete] Rozelle told many people this,” said Costas, ” I was not the only one, but I remember him telling me it was not only a regret, but the single biggest regret during his entire tenure as commissioner. He had been influenced by Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, who told him that Kennedy would have wanted the games to go on. I don’t think it took long for Rozelle to recognize that it wasn’t the right decision.”