JFK assassination: ‘The world wasn’t itself that day’

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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 final of three reports recalling those moments in three sports venues.

When a traveling football team of big, burly guys walks through an airport, people notice.

This was not the case on Nov. 22, 1963, at 5 p.m. local time when 38 Notre Dame players entered the terminal in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Not a single person looked up. They were intent on a single black and white television, which perhaps had been set up for that purpose. (TV’s were not staples in airport waiting areas in 1963.) At that moment, the networks were showing the arrival of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, carrying the casket of the assassinated president, John F. Kennedy.

I was the head student manager for that team, a mediocre squad with a 2-6 record but included many players who, under coach Ara Parseghian (who arrived the next year) would go on to successful pro careers. The 1964 Heisman Trophy winner, John Huarte, was on the trip as a reserve quarterback.

Most of us had learned of the death of the president while on a practice field in South Bend, Ind., a few hours earlier. It was a warm and sunny day, as best I recall, and the team had gone through a light workout. Somehow word of the assassination drifted out to the field and coach Hugh Devore called the team together at the end of practice and told them the news. The team knelt on the field for a brief prayer. He said the team would proceed to Iowa as scheduled. At that point, no one questioned whether the game would be played.

We boarded a chartered United DC6 at the South Bend airport a short time later. We proceeded to the runway. For about 45 minutes the plane sat on the edge of the runway. There were a few muted conversations but mostly we sat is silence. The wait added to the feeling that the world was not itself that day.

And we were now totally cut off from further news.

Until we walked into the Cedar Rapids airport, we were unaffected by the continuous television coverage that was bringing the nation to a virtual stop.

After landing, the team stood in the waiting area, transfixed by the pictures of the casket being unloaded by Kennedy’s aides and the first post-assassination pictures of Jacqueline Kennedy, still attired in the suit she had worn that day in Dallas. I don’t recall anyone saying, “We’ll stay here and watch this.” There simply was no way anyone would walk away from it.

Appropriate to the mood, we boarded a bus outside the airport in a driving rainstorm. I stood or sat in the very front of the bus, watching the windshield wipers and feeling the shock of a Massachusetts native who had grown up hearing and watching JFK.

At the Congress Inn in Iowa City, there must have been dinner and a team meeting, but I have no recollection of those. The impact of the nonstop news coverage, from which we had been shielded, was now sinking in. I began wondering if the game would be played, but nothing definitive was said. My three assistant student managers went out to sample the town’s bars, as we often did the night before a game, but I stayed in, watching NBC. Sitting there alone, I had a very unsettled, almost fearful, feeling.

But I was amused by the timidity of the announcers who couldn’t bring themselves to call the first lady by a name such as Lady Bird. Although she had always been known as Lady Bird, now she was suddenly “Mrs. Claudia Johnson.” I later read that President Lyndon B. Johnson straightened that out very quickly and she was Lady Bird forever more.

Outside, the rain in which we had arrived was turning to snow.

According to a report in the South Bend Tribune the following morning, Iowa athletic director Forest Evashevski had said as late as 10 p.m. that the game would be played. Sometime after I had fallen asleep, assistant coach John Murphy called me and said the game was off. Most other college games, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest were canceled. Many were replayed a week later but Notre Dame was scheduled to play Syracuse in Yankee Stadium the following Thursday, Thanksgiving, and Iowa did not want to extend its season by two weeks and reschedule to Dec. 7, according to the Tribune. In professional football, the American Football League canceled its Sunday games, but the NFL played its full schedule.

Saturday morning in Iowa City dawned clear and very cold. I didn’t regret not having to stand on the sideline in that weather. Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, executive vice president of the university, celebrated a memorial Mass. Usually, we managers served as altar boys at the pregame Masses, but on this occasion team captain Bob Lehmann helped out.

It was reported that Notre Dame and Iowa each gave up $100,000 in revenue (about $750,000 in 2013 dollars) because of the cancellation.

We arrived to a cold and cloudy campus where the huge flag on Notre Dame’s South Quad was now at half staff, as it would be for another month.

Matthew V. Storin is the retired editor of The Boston Globe. This piece was written for the South Bend Tribune.

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