Gene Collier: Dan Rooney not fan of NFL’s assassination response

Among the common endings for the common occurrences that furnish any totally common Friday isn’t where you typically find the darkest hours of American history, so maybe it was the contrast that made it so indelible.

Sometimes lunch ends when the bell rings or the whistle blows. Sometimes lunch ends when you write down a tip and autograph a credit-card receipt, and sometimes it ends with the caloric blitzkrieg of pumpkin-spiced cheesecake.

And then, other times, lunch ends when the President of the United States gets shot.

“I was having lunch at the Roosevelt Hotel,” Steelers chairman Dan Rooney was remembering yesterday. “Someone came in and said that Kennedy was just shot, and that was the end of the lunch.”

Dan’s isn’t one of the better where-were-you-when-Kennedy-was-shot stories, not by a mile, but his next 48 hours were some of the most interesting in the history of both sports and the way sports impacts our national consciousness.

Just as the Kennedy assassination is perhaps the most-told story every told, often along its most far-flung tangents, the looming 50th anniversary again compels the NFL to recount and perhaps regret the decision to play its full schedule two days after the kill shots crackled through Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

“When we first talked, a couple of hours afterward, I told him, ‘I think we’ve gotta cancel the games,’ ” Rooney said after receiving that call from then commissioner Pete Rozelle. “He said he was going to call [Kennedy’s press secretary] Pierre Salinger, and Pete knew him very well; he went to school with him. He called me back, like an hour later, not long, and he said Pierre said that Jack would have liked for us to play, and that he felt this would be good for the nation and for the people, to get a diversion.

“I said I thought this was too big a story. That what happened was just too big. Too big of an historical fact. I just felt we shouldn’t do it. We talked more, and he said he was leaning toward playing and finally I said, ‘OK, look, I disagree with you, but I’ll back you, whatever you do.’ ”

Dan was right, and Rozelle would acknowledge as much when he retired more than a quarter century later, citing that weekend in 1963 as the worst mistake in a career that saw very few. But Rooney’s better where-were-you narrative would came soon enough, within an hour, in fact, of the 1 o’clock Sunday kickoffs, all in numb stadiums, including Cleveland’s hulking Municipal, where Browns owner Art Modell had instructed his public-address announcer to refer to the visitors only as “the Cowboys” and to not under any circumstances say the word “Dallas.”

“I was on the roof of Forbes Field, I used to go there before the games, and I had this little radio I was listening to, and that’s where I heard about Oswald getting shot,” Rooney said. “And I thought, ‘What in the world is this? This is the craziest thing in the world. What kind of a country do we have?’ ”

When he talks about it now, Dan Rooney seems equally impacted by the disorder of that weekend as by the event, and maybe that’s because the NFL, ill-advisedly or not, was attempting to restore order.

“It was hard for me to believe that this could happen in an orderly, civilized country. Oswald got shot in the police station!.”

Neither Dan nor his father, Steelers founder Art Rooney, had met Jack Kennedy, but there was a kind of kinship then that would only flourish through the years. Art Rooney, a political operative of some note in the middle part of the 20th century, in a sense helped to guide Kennedy’s campaign against Richard Nixon in 1959 and 1960.

“My father got a visit from Tip O’Neill [who’d go on to become Speaker of the House], and he talked to him in our house, I remember,” Dan said. “O’Neill wanted to know who to talk to in Pennsylvania, who to see, on Kennedy’s behalf, and my father told him to see Bill Green [then Democratic city chairman] in Philadelphia and someone else, and I know O’Neill followed through on that advice.”

Kennedy wound up with 68 percent of the vote in Philadelphia County, 57 percent in Allegheny County, enough to take Pennsylvania by only 117,000 votes, then worth 32 votes on the electoral map in a squeaky close election.

It happened that the Kennedys loved sports as much at The Chief loved politics, and so Dan couldn’t have been very surprised to hear a voice on the phone explaining that JFK would have wanted a full NFL Sunday regardless of whether he was here to see it.

“The Kennedys — what they went through!” Dan said Tuesday. “Their oldest kid was killed in the war. Jack really getting a bad back in the war. Then, he runs [for president] and gets shot. Bobby becomes a candidate, really a good candidate, he would have been excellent. He gets shot. They had a lot of trouble with their sisters, medically, and then JFK Jr. goes down in a plane.”

A week from Friday, Nov. 22, when it all crescendos again, Dan will most remember not so much these details as the overall sense of loss felt and loss still to be felt.

“It was just mesmerizing, the whole thing,” he said.

Your final from Forbes Field that Sunday: Steelers 17, Bears 17.

Some diversion.

Gene Collier:

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