Blair Kerkhoff

November 21, 2013

After his brother died, Bobby Kennedy told Huskers, Sooners to play football

Hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, 50 years ago Friday, a group gathered to discuss whether the Nebraska-Oklahoma football game should be played. Big Eight commissioner Wayne Duke, now 85, asked advice from the President’s brother: “We called Bobby … He said the country needed a pick up.”

Fifty years ago Friday, America came to a stop to process the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and decisions had to be made quickly about how to handle the weekend’s football games.

Play or postpone for a period of mourning?

Most college games scheduled for Nov. 23, 1963, were not played. But one major contest kicked off as scheduled — Oklahoma at Nebraska.

“A very difficult decision,” said Wayne Duke, who was in his first year as Big Eight Conference commissioner.

But one made with the Kennedy family’s blessing, which is why the game, which decided the conference championship, was played.

Bud Wilkinson, in his final year as Oklahoma’s coach, had been selected by Kennedy to serve as director of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness in 1961.

Hours after the assassination, a group gathered at the University of Nebraska Coliseum to discuss the game: Wilkinson, Duke, Nebraska coach Bob Devaney and athletic director Tippy Dye and members of the Orange Bowl committee.

Nebraska Gov. Frank Morrison was against playing.

But Wilkinson placed a call to Bobby Kennedy, the U.S. Attorney General and the President’s brother.

“We called Bobby,” said Duke, 85. “And he counseled Bud to play the game. He said the country needed a pick up.”

The decision to play was made that night, and Duke had given the go-ahead to the other Big Eight schools to play their games, including Missouri at Kansas. But as Saturday dawned, Duke learned that school officials there, as most around the country, had postponed the game.

Nebraska-Oklahoma carried on. There was no pregame marching band or entertainment, except for the National Anthem and a long moment of silence. Fans who attended the game remember an eerie quiet at Memorial Stadium until kickoff.

The Cornhuskers won 29-20, claiming their first conference championship in 23 years, and Duke said there were some misgivings.

“We were criticized by some,” Duke said.

NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle made the same decision — to forge ahead with the league’s full schedule on Sunday — and later called it the worst of his 29-year tenure.

Like Wilkinson, Rozelle had contacted the White House, and press secretary Pierre Salinger, a University of San Francisco classmate of Rozelle’s, who gave the thumbs-up.

The American Football League postponed its slate that weekend. The Chiefs were in the final month of their first year in Kansas City and weren’t scheduled to play on Sunday. But their home game against the Broncos, set for Thanksgiving night, was postponed, and the season was extended by a week to get in all of the games.

Duke, who became the commissioner of Big Ten, called upon his experience in Nebraska some 18 years later to help reach the same conclusion after another tragedy.

On March, 30, 1981, Duke expected to enjoy his final day as chairman of the Division I men’s basketball committee watching Indiana and North Carolina play for the NCAA championship in Philadelphia.

He arrived at the arena in the early afternoon, but around 2:30 shots rang out in Washington, D.C. President Ronald Reagan had been shot and seriously wounded.

Duke got the committee together at The Spectrum and they awaited the outcome of Reagan’s surgery. Committee member Dave Gavitt, then commissioner of the Big East, was dispatched to keep coaches Bob Knight and Dean Smith informed. They were told to be prepared for a postponement. The major concern: Reagan would die during the game.

But late in the afternoon, Duke got word that Reagan would pull through. He was out of the operating room by 6:30 p.m., and the third-place game — the final one ever played — soon tipped off between Virginia and LSU.

During the title game, won by the Hoosiers, Reagan scribbled to a nurse, borrowing the W.C. Fields line, “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

Duke said by the end of the day, as was the case in 1963, he was exhausted. But he never second guessed his decisions.

“The decisions turned out all right,” Duke said. “I did age considerably both nights though.”

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