50 years on from the assassination of JFK, we look back at how it affected the Dallas Cowboys

By Andy Charles.   Last Updated: 22/11/13 11:04pm

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Former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle: Regretted his decision to keep the NFL playing after JFK was assassinated

Former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle: Regretted his decision to keep the NFL playing after JFK was assassinated

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As Dallas remembers the 50-year anniversary of JFK's assassination we look back at the effect on their beloved Cowboys.

The Dallas Cowboys.

America's Team.

The most popular National Football League team of all time.

The team that fans travel cross-country to watch and the one seen most frequently on national television in the United States.

But for a time in 1963, and for a good while afterwards, that was a long way from the truth, especially outside the Texas city famed for its oil, huge stetsons, and JR Ewing.

On Friday, November 22 in the city's Dealey Plaza, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated - a world-changing event and an event that changed the lives of the citizens of Dallas for years to come.

Among them, dozens of players attached to the Cowboys - some famous, some not-so, but all telling the same story - a story of hatred, blame and an irrational reasoning that somehow JFK's murder was their fault.

For years to come, games outside Dallas were treated with a sense of dread of what awaited them. Of course now we hear of opposition players being treated like second-class citizens, being abused for the colour of their skin and because of the team they play for...but being made scapegoats for murder?

In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, sports became a secondary thought, but the decision was made by then NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle that the 'show must go on' and Sunday's scheduled games went ahead as planned, a decision he admitted until his death was the biggest regret of his time in charge, despite being told by Robert Kennedy it was 'what his brother would have wanted'.

Not all players disagreed with the decision either - Washington Redskins players sent a game ball to Rozelle to thank him for allowing them to play - but for the Cowboys it meant them leaving the city for the weekend on a trip to Cleveland to face the Browns, and it marked the start of a huge change in their way they were treated.

Gil Brandt, vice president of player personnel for the Cowboys, told USA Today: "The team was split on whether you play or don't play. And I would imagine the majority of the players were for not playing."

Most of their concerns stemmed from the reaction the city had received from other parts of the country - suddenly coming from Dallas was a stigma. The Texan city had a big black mark next to its name and some habitants started to look over their shoulders.

"There were words of warning, so to speak," Brandt continued. "'Don't go out to eat en masse. And by that I mean don't 10 guys go to Lula Belle's Cafe and say we're from the Cowboys' They didn't want us to mention Dallas. We were introduced on the playing field before the kick-off as the Cowboys, not the Dallas Cowboys."

In Cleveland they were booed, verbally abused and called 'murderers' and 'assassins' by spectators, but the short-term reaction did not, as Cowboys players might have hoped and expected, disappear quickly after their 27-17 defeat.

Linebacker Lee Roy Jordan told ESPN: "The next few years when we played out of the state in Philadelphia or New York or Los Angeles, they treated us like we had done the assassination.

"Some not-so-pretty things we had to listen to, the name-calling going on in the stadiums as we'd go on the field and come back with the people at the overhangs of the tunnel. They weren't nice to the Dallas Cowboys."

It took some success on the field for the Cowboys, who ended the 1963 season 4-10, to get the team back into the national conscience for the right reasons.

Jordan continued: "I think once we started winning in 1965, '66 and '67, I think it started to take some of that energy out of those people and get them back. Maybe they were like, 'They're not only a good football team, but we need to give them a little respect for that, too.'

"We all stuck together and worked hard to overcome the stigma Dallas had for the assassination of the president. It was a tough situation. I was a rookie, but I had some really good friends and some really good teammates, so we were able to share it together and not let anyone deal with it alone."

The other big sporting occasion of the weekend after the assassination, and one with great resonance to the Kennedy family, was meant to be the legendary college football clash between the Army and the Navy.

That game was, unlike some college games that were played on the Saturday, delayed until December 7 when Jacqueline Kennedy said it proved to be a 'fitting tribute' to her dead husband on a day that was already one of remembrance for the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

JFK was a Navy hero in World War II and a regular attendee at a game that was dubbed 'the Super Bowl of its time', usually spending a half in either camp and, has legend has it, always ending up on the winning side.

The decision was taken to play the game inside traditional 30-day period of mourning with the approval of the Kennedy family, the First Lady reportedly making the final call to give the go-ahead.

Superstar of the moment was quarterback Roger Staubach, who went on to great success - with the Cowboys of course - as a professional player, and he revealed how important the game proved to be in helping the country heal.

Staubach told the New York Daily News: "Our game was really almost like a memorial service to the President who loved football.

"I mean, if he didn't love football or if he hadn't been to the Army-Navy games, I think it would have been handled differently. I don't think there would have been a game actually. Really, we felt that all of a sudden it became an important part of the healing process for the family."

Since 1963, sport has continued to play its part in dealing with tragedy, most notably in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York, but the reaction has almost always been comparable to the 1963 Army-Navy game.

We can only hope no sportsmen will have to go through what the '63 Cowboys did, even though it was something that made them stronger and perhaps kick-started them on the road to becoming the much-loved team they are today (outside Washington, New York and Philadelphia of course!)

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