First Person / When JFK died: The Steelers played as the nation mourned

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Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, was a surprisingly mild day on the Edinboro State College campus. Located about 20 miles south of Erie in a valley called the Conneautee (a name meaning “snowplace”), the town of Edinboro was usually covered in inches, and sometimes buried in more than a foot, of snow from Halloween to April Fools Day. We were just days away from Thanksgiving vacation, so those of us who lived in Pittsburgh were hoping we could get out of Edinboro before the next snow storm.

It was my junior year and my first semester as the editor of our college newspaper. I’d just come back from a student editors conference in New York, where I had a great time sitting on a panel with legendary sports writer Red Smith. My love life was also looking up. I’d been dumped in my freshman year by a Coraopolis girl, Anita Homich, but proving that she’d learned nothing in her first two years of college, she’d agreed to start seeing me again.

I’d spent the summer in Pittsburgh watching the Pirates play losing baseball after dismantling the 1960 World Series championship team, but my hometown’s football teams were having a great fall. Even with a loss to Roger Staubach’s Navy team, Pitt was 7-1 and still in the running for its first national championship since 1937. The Same Old Steelers, even after the death of Big Daddy Lipscomb and the retirement of Bobby Layne, were in contention for their first championship in team history.

I’d been a campus mail boy since my freshman year and that Friday afternoon was making my rounds at the dorms before heading to the town’s post office to drop off my mail bag. I’d bought a battered 1953 Oldsmobile 88 that summer for $50 and had it parked just off campus.

When I got into the car and turned on the radio, instead of music, I heard a breaking news report of shots being fired as the presidential motorcade rolled through Dallas. By the time I reached the post office, more ominous reports were coming in, claiming that President Kennedy had been shot.

There was a student drinking hole just across the street from the post office, so instead of dropping off the mail, I headed into the bar. For the rest of the afternoon, I sat on a counter stool with an untouched Coke in front of me and, surrounded by students, watched Walter Cronkite on television until he took off his glasses and told us what we didn’t want to hear, that President Kennedy was dead.

When I drove over to talk with Anita, she asked me to take her to Our Lady of the Lake church, so she could light candles for Jackie Kennedy and her children. As we sat in church while other students straggled in, I didn’t know that a hundred miles away, Dan Rooney, after urging NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to call off Sunday’s games, had headed to St. Mary’s church but couldn’t get in because of the overflow of distraught Downtown workers.

Pitt was scheduled to play Penn State in Pittsburgh that Saturday, but cancelled the game. The decision cost the team a major bowl trip, even though it defeated Penn State two weeks later and finished the season at 9-1. Despite Dan Rooney’s urging, Rozelle decided not to cancel the pro football games schedule for Sunday. He later admitted that it was the worst mistake of his career.

So that Sunday, the day before millions of Americans watched President Kennedy’s funeral on television, 34,465 showed up at Forbes Field to watch the Steelers battle to a brutally played tie against Aliquippa’s Mike Ditka and the Chicago Bears. In Cleveland, the Browns played host to the Dallas Cowboys. In his Monday column in The New York Herald Tribune, Red Smith wrote, “In the civilized world, it was a day of mourning. In the National Football League, it was the 11th Sunday of the business year.”

Anita and I spent Thanksgiving week in Pittsburgh, but decided not to see each other until we drove back to Edinboro. Three weeks later, I sat in a snow-swept cottage at Edinboro and watched the Steelers lose to the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium in the final game of the season. Had they won the game, the Steelers would have captured the Eastern Division title and played the Chicago Bears for the NFL title.

The Steelers’ loss was disappointing, but it hardly seemed to matter in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. For the next several months, Anita and I drew closer together and began to plan our future. We hoped that the nation’s nightmare was over, but we’d learned that it was just beginning. While we spent the next few years in graduate school, the country endured the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the madness of of the Vietnam War.

I can still remember my heart-breaking drive onto the Kent State University campus the morning after Robert Kennedy’s death. When I got out of the car, I passed by an open area called the Commons on my way to class. I had no idea that less than two years later, a place often used as a peaceful gathering spot for students would become a killing field during an anti-war protest, when four Kent State students were shot to death by the Ohio National Guard.

Richard “Pete” Peterson, professor emeritus of English at Southern Illinois University and author of "Growing Up With Clemente" and "Pops: The Willie Stargell Story," grew up on the South Side.

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