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Dark Memories: Playing Two Days After JFK’s Assassination

Posted Nov 22, 2013


@DCStarMagazine

As usual, you could hear Don Meredith’s whistling all over the Cowboys’ field as the players warmed up for practice shortly after noon on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. It was a bright autumn day and there was a special lilt in the air.

A 27-20 victory over the Eagles at the Cotton Bowl on Nov. 17 had boosted spirits as the team prepared for its next matchup at Cleveland on Nov. 24. But two days before the game, all the eagerness and anticipation were drained from the Cowboys and Browns and football fans everywhere. President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed just as his triumphant motorcade finished winding through downtown Dallas.

The Cowboys had been practicing 10 minutes at their Northeast Dallas facility near Yale Boulevard and North Central Expressway when trainer Clint Houy raced out of the locker room.

“He came running up, yelling, ‘Kennedy’s been shot! Kennedy’s been shot!’” Meredith said in 1982 in an interview at his Beverly Hills home with Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Granberry, who was a sixth-grader in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, and now writes for The Dallas Morning News. “Everything just went kind of crazy from there. And it stayed crazy.”

The Cowboys were numbed by the news. The bright autumn day, which had seemed ideal for their final preparations before flying to Cleveland the next morning, now seemed cold, gray, empty.

They tried to run a few more plays but all minds were elsewhere and coach Tom Landry sent them in, wondering how they would react by Sunday. The Cowboys would be the first representatives of Dallas to appear outside the city after the assassination.

The team wanted to stay home that tragic weekend and everyone in Cleveland wanted them to stay home, too. When the bus pulled up at their hotel, there were no friendly bellhops waiting to carry their luggage. The Cowboys unloaded their own bags and carried them to their rooms. The atmosphere was as numbing as a cold storage locker. “I just wanted to go hide somewhere,” running back Don Perkins said.

Fifty years later, some 1963 Cowboys still have vivid memories of that weekend. Quite likely, they always will.

As they dressed for practice in their locker room, everyone followed news reports of the roaring ovations President Kennedy heard as his motorcade wound through crowded downtown Dallas. Smiling and waving, he sat with his wife Jacqueline in the back seat of a convertible limousine with Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie sitting directly in front of them. Buoyed by these reports, players and coaches went out to the practice field in good spirits.

“I remember the receivers were at one end of the field and quarterbacks were throwing to us,” Pettis Norman said. “Frank Clarke and I were talking about the huge crowd that came downtown to cheer the president. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be crazy if some nut took a shot at him?’ Then Clint ran out of the locker room, screaming that the president had been shot.

“We just stood there in disbelief.”

“Then we heard all those sirens screaming as police cars raced past our practice field, heading south on North Central Expressway toward downtown,” Clarke said. “I’ve never heard so many sirens like that in my life. It was a terrible sound.”

Bob Lilly was a third-year Cowboy then, but was quickly becoming a star at a new position. Landry recently had moved him from left defensive end to right defensive tackle to maximize Lilly’s strength, quickness and pass-rushing skills, a decision that enabled Bob to become the first Cowboy inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and voted to the NFL’s Golden Anniversary team. Those are lifetime memories for him. Sadly, so are those of that tragic weekend.

“Our spirits were totally dashed,” he said. “Not a man on our team wanted to go to play in Cleveland. Personally, I was very apprehensive. I wondered if we might be assaulted. On road trips, a large group of us would go out to dinner together on Saturday night, but Coach Landry told us to break up and go different places. Instead of going to a large restaurant, a few of us ate at a hamburger stand across from our hotel. It was very quiet.

“The next day when our bus reached the stadium, Coach Landry told us to keep our helmets on and wear our blue warm-up jackets on the field when we warmed up.”

The cloud of gloom remained when the game began.

“I wasn’t competitive,” Bob said. “I don’t believe any of us were. I loved to play and was always excited to play until that game.

“I don’t believe the Browns had any spirit that day, either. I talked to John Wooten (later a top scout for Dallas) and some other Browns after the game and they said they felt the same.”

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