SAN JOSE -- It is possible that I did attend some classes as a sixth-grader back in Ohio. But I have no memory of that. The playground is what I remember.
The playground was where epic basketball games unfolded. The playground was where arguments raged over the Cleveland Browns' wins or losses. The playground was where sixth-grade girls gazed at us from "their" side of the asphalt as we pretended to act cool.
And the playground was where I heard that President Kennedy had been shot and killed.
Fifty years on, I still shake my head at the notion that a fifth-grader -- a fifth-grader! -- had to break the news to me. That Friday afternoon, Kennedy's death in Dallas was announced about 45 minutes before school ended. Teachers were informed and given an option whether to inform their students. The fifth-grade teacher had told her kids. The sixth-grade teacher had not. When I hit the playground after dismissal for the weekend, a fifth-grader came up and said the president had been gunned down.
"I don't believe you," I said.
"Go home and see," he answered.
My house was just a few blocks away. Opening the front door, I found my mom on her knees in the living room beside the couch. She was saying a rosary. She was in tears. So I knew it was true.
I don't think this is a unique story. Millions of people in my age bracket have similar ones. Those are indelible memories. Yet here is what an 11-year-old kid could not have realized at the time, not knowing his future profession: Kennedy's assassination would forever affect the sports world's approach to such national tragedies. Over the years, I've continued to draw upon it as a resource when someone offers up the misguided opinion that it's wrong to cancel games because we need the entertainment more than the reflection.
I recall so much about that weekend in 1963. I recall the television constantly humming, a sorrowful drone. I recall adults talking softly. I recall the speeches by Lyndon Johnson, the new president. I recall the creepy face of Lee Harvey Oswald as cops dragged him in front of the cameras. I recall the flag-draped casket in the rotunda.
What I do not recall is being deliriously happy that the Browns and other National Football League teams still played games that Sunday. I just thought it was kind of strange, even as a grade school kid. There was no big public debate about it, even. Pete Rozelle, then the NFL commissioner, said he had called someone he knew at the White House and announced that the schedule would proceed as usual.
This set the NFL apart. The NBA and NHL didn't play on the day of the assassination, although both leagues were in action the next day. The upstart American Football League postponed its Sunday games. Most college games were canceled. As I would later learn, this was unprecedented. Sports had previously pressed on, through various disasters and tragedies. Even during World War II, baseball canceled games only on D-Day.
Yet the NFL lurched onward on assassination weekend. That Sunday, my family came home from church and we turned on the TV to witness still more horror: Oswald being shot during his transfer to the county jail, bending over in anguish, hauled away in an ambulance and declared dead. And minutes later . . . hey, it was time for the Browns vs. Cowboys kickoff! The game was not televised -- the networks were doing wall-to-wall news -- so my dad turned on the radio. But the whole thing was just too weird and awkward. My dad must have thought so, too. He turned off the game in the second quarter. We went out to silently rake leaves, not saying much.
Retrospective interviews have confirmed that most NFL players weren't into the games that day. The 49ers played Green Bay in Milwaukee and went through the motions in a 28-10 loss. In Cleveland, stunned Dallas players watched the Oswald shooting on a locker room television and then took the field warily, advised never to remove their helmet. There were fears that fans might toss stuff at them because they represented the assassination city. The public address announcer was even ordered to use "Cowboys" rather than "Dallas" when referring to the team. Cleveland won 27-17.
Rozelle's decision to play those games was immediately skewered by newspaper columnists and broadcast voices, roundly ripped as a callous move. Years later, he would call it both his worst mistake and biggest regret as commissioner.
However, lessons were learned -- by all sports. In 1999 when the Columbine shootings happened in Denver, the Avalanche and Sharks delayed their hockey playoff series. In 2001 when the Twin Towers came down, the NFL decided almost immediately not to play the following weekend and Major League Baseball paused for six days. Last spring after the Boston Marathon bombings, the Red Sox and Bruins postponed games.
This respectful sensibility, in my mind, all connects back to that weekend in November 1963, when people saw what felt right and what didn't. That morose Monday, our school called off classes because of Kennedy's funeral. My sixth-grade self sat home and viewed the sad procession, the riderless horse, the widow's veil.
Then I went down the street to the playground and, in the late autumn cold, shot baskets until dusk.