Fifty years ago, the Redskins and Eagles clashed on a day that had a strange and melancholy feel to it.
The stoic crowd of 61,000 at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field lacked the customary exuberance of an NFL game, and many of the players were “going through the motions,” said Carl Kammerer, a Redskins defensive end who played that day.
The date was Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963, two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. A traumatized nation stricken with anguish was coping with the realization that its leader was gone.
The Redskins beat Philadelphia, 13-10, to end a seven-game losing streak. They held a 13-0 halftime lead on quarterback Norm Snead’s 31-yard scoring pass to halfback Dick James and Bobby Khayat’s two field goals.
A fourth-quarter Eagles rally, which featured a touchdown pass by Sonny Jurgensen, fell short when they failed to convert a chip-shot field goal in the waning minutes. (Snead and Jurgensen swapped teams in a trade in April 1964.)
The results on the field, however, were secondary given the tragic circumstances. Prior to opening kickoff, players and coaches from both teams lined up in a large semicircle and participated in a silent prayer for Kennedy before the playing of taps.
After the game, Redskin players asked coach Bill McPeak to send the game ball to the White House in honor of the slain president.
Each Eagles player contributed $50 to a fund for the widow of Dallas policeman J.D. Tippit, who was shot and killed while trying to apprehend Lee Harvey Oswald, then a suspect in the Kennedy assassination.
After his arrest, Oswald was shot and killed by nightclub operator Jack Ruby just before the kickoff of the NFL’s early games that Sunday.
That the Redskins, Eagles and every other team even played was a story in itself. Following the assassination, league commissioner Pete Rozelle declared that the games would go on as scheduled.
Rozelle had sought advice from his friend, White House press secretary Pierre Salinger, who urged the commissioner to not halt play. The American Football League, then in its fourth season, canceled its games that day.
“It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy,” Rozelle said at the time. “Football was Mr. Kennedy's game. He thrived on competition.”
Rozelle was widely criticized for not postponing the competition. Years later, the long-time NFL icon admitted that it was the “most regrettable decision” he ever made.
Kammerer said it was his duty to play that day, although many of his Redskins teammates hoped the games would be postponed.
“I’m kind of the guy, this is the purpose for which we get up every day, and our job is to do just that,” Kammerer said in a recent interview. “Others are entitled to have their own opinion.”
Kammerer remembered Franklin Field being the “quietest stadium ever.”
“People were there, lots of people were there, but there wasn’t a whole lot of fan activity,” he said.
After arriving back in D.C., Kammerer said he and Redskins wide receiver Bill Anderson went to see Kennedy’s flag-draped casket as his body lay in state in the Capitol Building.
The two also went the following day to St. Matthew’s Cathedral in D.C., where Kennedy’s funeral was held, but couldn’t get in.
Kennedy loved football, but he’s not regarded as the greatest Redskins fan to ever reside in the White House.
That distinction goes to his opponent in the 1960 presidential election, Richard Nixon. But while serving in the Senate in the 1950s, Kennedy came to admire Gene Brito, one of the best Redskin defensive ends ever, and considered the five-time Pro Bowler his favorite player.
Nixon also was a huge fan of Brito.
The Redskins lost their last three games in 1963 to finish 3-11, a forgettable season to say the least. That season collided with an earth-shaking event that will never be forgotten.
Mike Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. His web site is redskinshistorian.com. Check out his Facebook Friend and Fan pages and follow him on Twitter.