The assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this week, on Nov. 22, 1963, reverberated throughout the country for days, weeks and months afterward, no less in the world of sports. This is the second of three reports recalling those moments in three sports venues.
Friday, Nov. 22, 1963.
Thanksgiving was only six days away but the weather was more like October, beautiful for football.
Harvard-Yale. The weekend breathed anticipation as events unfolded in New Haven, Conn.
For Harvard, victory would mean the Ivy League title, providing Dartmouth cooperated by beating Princeton.
For Yale, the first season under John Pont (arriving from Miami of Ohio, the Cradle of Coaches) was a winner, light years removed from the undercurrents of discord that led to Jordan Olivar’s departure the winter before.
Network television cameras were being readied in the Bowl. The early arrivals of a crowd expected to reach 60,000 rendezvoused in their tweeds and tartans.
On DeWitt Cuyler Field, the freshman football teams were having at it. Not far away, the junior varsity teams were heading into the second period of their game.
The reporter and Phyllis Fry, wife of Yale’s offensive line coach, were casual observers at the JV game. For both, it was a first taste of The Weekend and The Game.
Danny Casman, the pugnose, weathered Yale trainer, drifted into the conversation near the Yale sideline.
“Have you heard? The president’s been shot.”
“Sure Cas. What’s the punch line?”
The old trainer looked serious. “No kidding,” he said. “In Dallas, just a few minutes ago. It was on the radio.”
In an instant, football was secondary. The closest radio was in Bob Kiphuth’s dark green Jaguar, parked near the track surrounding the freshman game field.
It was a few minutes after 2 o’clock. The cluster around the legendary Yale swimming coach’s car knew it was no joke.
The weekend suddenly was made numb.
John F. Kennedy. President of the United States. Harvard graduate, honored by Yale the year before (when he noted, “I now have the best of both worlds: a Harvard education and a Yale degree.”). Dead.
Over the next two hours the brutal details unfolded. The weekend of anticipation was cloaked in tragedy.
“Throughout the afternoon there were rumors and speculation but few confirmed facts,” said Pont. He was uncertain what lay ahead as he left the JV game to ready his team for its final practice of the season.
“DeLaney [Kiphuth, Yale’s athletic director] called me to confirm that the president was dead. He said the feeling from his conversation with Harvard people was to postpone but he suggested we leave it to the squad.
“I spoke with George Humphrey [the captain] and Ab Lawrence [the junior tackle]. There was no question in their mind that the game shouldn’t be played the next day but they felt that JFK would want it played,” Pont recalled.
Harvard had worked out in the Bowl earlier in the afternoon while the tragic news was breaking. As Yale prepared to leave Lapham Field House for its workout in the Bowl, the squad was blanketed in silence.
Except for a few television engineers, a couple of coeds waiting for their dates, an old grad and a few visitors, Yale Bowl’s 70,000 seats were barren and gray in the fading light.
The somber practice was nearly complete when a solitary figure, Bill Schaffer, the Yale student manager, trotted through the midfield portal and headed directly to Pont.
No words were necessary. The decision was made. Yale’s abbreviated practice ended as quietly as it had begun.
“Football seems pretty insignificant right now,” said Stan Thomas, a Yale halfback.
A brief announcement from Kiphuth’s office said simply that the game was postponed. Around the country, college football followed suit.
The crisp afternoon turned to a rainy evening, merriment to mourning, bitterness and frustration that such an event could happen. It seemed an eternity for this empty weekend, once so filled with promise, to run its course.
News came that The Game would be played Nov. 30.
“The following week was a downer for everyone,” said Carm Cozza, Yale’s backfield coach 50 years ago who succeeded Pont in 1965 and coached the Elis for the next 32 years. “As coaches we had been anxious to play because it was our first shot at Harvard.
“We knew they were down, too. It wasn’t until the middle of the week that things began to pick up again.”
Pont, who left Yale after two seasons to be Indiana’s coach, recalled: “We tried not to dwell on what had happened but the squad had none of the zip we had seen the week before.
“We just figured that events would get into their minds, even if it took until Saturday.”
Thanksgiving Day came and went. The long, long week of mourning slipped away. Saturday arrived and football, the signal that a semblance of normalcy was returning, provided a focus.
It wasn’t the same as it might have been. It never could be.
The weather was blustery, cloudy and raw. For the better part of the first period Pont wondered if his team would recapture what had been kindled, then smothered.
Yale had fumbled twice. Harvard took a 6-0 lead. Then Bill Henderson, a junior halfback from Chicago, returned the Crimson kickoff from his end zone to Harvard’s 21.
The spark was rekindled.
Yale’s line opened massive holes for fullback Chuck Mercein and halfbacks Randy Egloff and Jim Howard. Brian Rapp directed the relentless ground game that wore out Harvard, 20-6.
Meanwhile, at Princeton, the Tigers ran out to a 21-7 lead before Dartmouth rallied. A crowd of 35,000 saw Dartmouth recover a fumble by the nation’s leading scorer, Cosmo Iacavazzi, at Princeton’s 2-yard line in the final minutes. One play later, Dartmouth scored to win, 22-21.
Dartmouth and Princeton shared the Ivy League title and Harvard had to settle for the runner-up role.
As December arrived in 1963, The Game helped to put a shaken country back on course.
In 1963, Jack DeGange covered Yale football for The New Haven Journal-Courier. He now lives in Lebanon, N.H. This article was published originally in the Brown-Dartmouth football game program Nov. 12, 1983.