Steelers' LeBeau recalls playing in shadow of JFK assassination

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

In addition to being one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL for the Detroit Lions in 1963, Dick LeBeau also was known for his amateur musical talents. Some of his teammates enjoyed the same interest away from the field and somewhere along the way during the 1963 season they decided they should cut an album of players singing Christmas songs.

So it was that on Nov. 22, 1963, an hour or so after the Lions had finished their final practice in preparation for that week’s game at Minnesota, LeBeau was inside a music studio with many of his teammates when they heard the news that changed the world.

“I remember exactly where I was. We were setting up and getting ready to sing Christmas carols. We hadn’t really even gotten into the menu of songs — maybe we sang a couple — and someone came in and said, ‘The president has just been shot.’ I remember that very, very clearly. At first, I couldn’t believe it.”

But as a native Ohioan, LeBeau understood the history of presidential assassinations. Schoolchildren of his generation were taught about the unfortunate history of presidents from Ohio who became victims of assassins’ bullets.

James Garfield, elected in 1881 as the 20th president, was assassinated just six months into his term. William McKinley, elected in 1897 as the 25th president, was assassinated in 1901.

On this day, history repeated itself when John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president, was gunned down in Dallas.

“I thought, ‘Well I know it can happen.’ But at that time, a quote, unquote, modern time, you thought that it wouldn’t happen again. It was a feeling of disbelief, wishing it weren’t so but knowing that it was. We immediately disbanded and each man was to his own thoughts.”

NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle decided the league would play games that Sunday, 48 hours after the president had died. He later called the decision his biggest regret in 29 years as commissioner.

LeBeau doesn’t remember many details about what transpired in the hours and days after Kennedy died. There was a flight the next day to Minnesota where the Lions lost, 34-31, to Vikings on a bitter cold day at Metropolitan Stadium.

The game box score reveals there were 11 turnovers in the contest, six for the Lions and five for the Vikings. Tommy Mason scored on a 2-yard run in the fourth quarter to provide the winning points.

Fran Tarkenton threw for 261 yards as the winning quarterback. Earl Morrall threw for 264 yards in a losing effort.

None of it registered with LeBeau, now 76.

“I just remember, both sides, had heavy hearts. All I can remember is a feeling of sadness. We played because they decided to play, and we were players. I’ve always been a person who supports the existing authorities. I thought my role as a player in the league, certainly not a decision-maker, was once the decision was made there was no question I would play. I had signed a contract to play for these people.”

The Lions returned home to Detroit after the game. LeBeau, like millions of other Americans, watched the funeral the next day on television. He would play until 1972 and has been a coach in the league for the past 41 years. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010 and owns two Super Bowl rings as defensive coordinator for the Steelers.

But for LeBeau, those four days in 1963 remain some of his most vivid memories in his 55-year NFL career.

“The whole nation was in mourning. We all watched the funeral the next day. They use the word closure now. It’s the type of thing you live through. People of each generation have lived through traumatic events. You go on. You never get back to normal. You never forget. I can remember exactly where I was and how I felt. Some of the other things, the game, I can’t tell you much about the game that day. We lost a president. I know I’ll never forget that.”

Ray Fittipaldo: and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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