Published Friday, November 22, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 4:49 pm
Shatel: Day after 1963 tragedy, NU-OU played after Bobby Kennedy’s OK

As Nebraska wakes up to a college football Saturday, the World-Herald crew will be barreling out of Pittsburgh for a 2Ĺ-hour jaunt through the rural byways of Pennsylvania. Might see a horse and buggy or two.

There will be plenty to ponder along the way:

1. Imagine if Nebraska was playing for a Big Ten championship today. You know how long it’s been since the last league title.

Then, imagine a national tragedy occurred the day before.

Would you want the game to go on?

It happened 50 years ago. On Nov. 23, 1963, the day after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Nebraska and Oklahoma played for the Big Eight title at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.

Twenty-seven major college games were postponed that day, including Iowa-Notre Dame. But Nebraska and Oklahoma officials, in a move approved by the Big Eight office, decided to play on.

I honestly don’t know how they played that day.

I’m not saying it was right or wrong. I don’t know how they mustered the strength to play that day.

I was 5 years old at that time, a kid in Escondido, Calif., wondering why his Saturday morning cartoons weren’t on TV. They had been replaced by a lot of older people talking, many of them crying.

Over the years, I’ve read about the JFK assassination and watched many shows about it. It hit this country hard. The closest thing since would have been Sept. 11, 2001.

(When I lived in Dallas, from 1990 to ’91, I often visited the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. One day, I took several out-of-town friends there. There was a huge crowd outside the building. We discovered that Oliver Stone was there that day, directing the assassination scene for his movie “JFK.” The actors and extras, even the cars, had a 1963 look. The actors portraying John and Jackie Kennedy wore outfits identical to the ones worn that historical day. They must have filmed that scene more than 20 times, with the motorcade coming down the street, over and over and over. Meanwhile, we watched it all from the sixth-floor windows, near the sniper’s nest where Lee Harvey Oswald was said to have killed the president. It was an eerie, yet fascinating experience.)

The Huskers and Sooners were not alone that weekend. The National Football League played its entire schedule (though the American Football League postponed its games), over the protests of many players. Years later, Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner in 1963, said playing those games was the biggest mistake of his tenure.

The OU team and traveling party had arrived in Lincoln by the time the news broke of the assassination. According to the World-Herald report on Nov. 23, 1963, Nebraska Gov. Frank Morrison first requested the game not be played. But he changed his mind and said the game could go on if the Big Eight approved.

With Orange Bowl executives already in Lincoln, and the stakes of the game high, the league’s presidents and faculty reps spoke by phone, and along with Commissioner Wayne Duke, gave their blessing. The last step was approval by the Nebraska Board of Regents.

Perhaps the most important blessing came from the president’s brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. Duke told the Kansas City Star that Bud Wilkinson, who served on the president’s Council on Youth Fitness, called Bobby Kennedy.

“He counseled Bud to play the game,” Duke told the Star. “He said the country needed a pickup.”

As a crowd of 38,485 watched, four Air Force jets flew over Memorial Stadium as the American flag, atop the old Fieldhouse, was at half-staff. There was no pregame entertainment. There was a long, somber moment of silence.

Bob Devaney’s second Cornhusker team smothered Wilkinson’s last Oklahoma team with defense. The score was 29-20, but observers said it wasn’t that close. Husker fans tossed oranges onto the field after every NU touchdown, then fans swarmed the field afterward and tore down the goalposts. It was Devaney’s first Big Eight championship and Orange Bowl bid.

It was a big, big moment in the history of the program. But you have to wonder how good the celebration felt.

Maybe it served to take everyone’s mind off the tragedy. But soon there would be a funeral and a little boy saluting his father’s casket.

Would this happen today? It’s hard to say. In 2001, we remember Nebraska’s game with Rice was postponed, as were every other major college and NFL game that weekend. UNO played its football game that Saturday. There was a nice crowd, and the tone was somber but respectful, just right.

John Hoover, sports columnist of the Tulsa World, wrote a piece this week on Bud Wilkinson’s relationship with JFK. The Sooner coach had become friends with Kennedy. You can imagine how hard it would have been to coach in that Nebraska game.

Hoover quoted a story in a book written by Jay Wilkinson, the coach’s son. Bud and Bill Connors, the late Tulsa columnist, were talking the week after the Nebraska game, just before Bud would resign. Connors mentioned to Wilkinson that the Nebraska game didn’t seem as important after the tragedy.

“Bill,” Wilkinson said of his thoughts after the assassination, “it never was.”

2. I’ll never forget the last time we made this trip to Penn State. The Jerry Sandusky news, Joe Paterno getting fired, the national media camping out in State College all week. It was two years ago. It seems like 10 years ago.

It was bizarre to be a part of that game. You almost felt like an accidental tourist, part of something with which you had nothing to do, with a front-row seat to the drama. Penn State fans tried to cheer that day. But mostly, they didn’t know how to act. Penn State lost, and I’m not sure anyone cared.

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini made a passionate speech after that game, one of his better moments, about how the game shouldn’t have been played. I can’t argue with that. But I’m glad the game happened, if only because of the Ron Brown moment.

I’ll never forget that pregame prayer, with both teams on the field, led by Brown. The stunning silence. The embrace of goodwill. I wrote my column on Brown. That is one of my all-time favorite columns. And moments.

3. I’ve been to Pittsburgh a handful of times in my career. Great town. The last time I was here, in 2004, Nebraska played at Pitt in Bill Callahan’s first year.

I don’t remember much about that game (Nebraska won). What I remember was the surreal sight of a parade of boats and expensive yachts floating down the Ohio River, just beyond the end zone of Heinz Field.

Hurricane Ivan came up from Florida in the form of torrential rain and hammered western Pennsylvania. The Steel City was flooded that weekend. The water from the Ohio actually washed up next to the bleachers behind that end zone. Crazy stuff.

4. I don’t know how important today’s game is for Pelini. I think every game is important for the Nebraska coach. I don’t think you make decisions about the long term based on beating 6-4 Penn State or 6-4 Iowa, whether you win eight games or nine games.

I think it’s important for this program to finish the year. There’s a lot of youth in red uniforms, getting experience. For them, next season should begin now. Win the last three games, including the bowl game. March into 2014 with a lot of faces back and a lot of momentum and good vibes.

5. This is the last game of the Penn State series for another four years. The Huskers come back to State College in 2017. But that’s the only other meeting of these two for the rest of the decade.

It’s too bad, in a way. Sure, getting here is a hike. There’s no easy way to do it, other than having Scotty beam you here. But this is a great college football series; it has been since 1979. There have been a lot of great moments, including last year’s game in Memorial Stadium. This would be great theater for Black Friday. The logistics of traveling to State College or Lincoln on Thanksgiving weekend, however, make that a bad idea.

Red vs. Blue, one more time. Enjoy. I might go down to the far sideline to see if Mike McCloskey’s cleat marks are still visible.

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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