Berry Tramel

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Oklahoma football: The darkest day in Sooner history

by Berry Tramel Modified: November 22, 2013 at 4:05 pm •  Published: November 22, 2013
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Rick McCurdy wanted to go home. He was a 20-year-old college football player, but he wanted to go home and be with his mom and dad.

But there was a football game to be played.

Fifty years ago today, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. And the Oklahoma football team was in Lincoln, Neb., getting ready for a game the next day against the Cornhuskers.

The Sooners played that game. Oklahoma and Nebraska officials decided to play a game won 29-20 by the Huskers, giving Nebraska the Big Eight championship.

The NFL played its full schedule that weekend – and then-commissioner Pete Rozelle later called it the biggest mistake of his career.

The Oklahoma State-Kansas State game in Stillwater was canceled. So were a lot of games.

But many were played. Ohio State at Michigan. Missouri at Kansas. Texas Tech at Arkansas. Florida State at Auburn. Florida at Miami. Tennessee at Kentucky. Tulane at LSU. Washington State at Washington.

A team from D.C., George Washington, played at Vanderbilt. A team from Dallas itself, SMU, played at TCU. The closest major program to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Maryland, hosted Virginia.

Years later, then-OU president George Lynn Cross wrote in his fabulous book, Presidents Can’t Punt, that “when we returned to Norman, my office and the athletic office received a fair amount of criticism for having played the game. But we thought that we had made the right decision, considering all the circumstances. The overwhelming problem of making refunds to ticketholders was avoided. We learned that several other institutions that did cancel were plagued by this problem for several years.”

Sounds crass, now. But absolutely, business decisions had to be made.

Even more striking, though, is what we’ve come to learn. We’ve learned it here in Oklahoma, during times of tragedy, be it the bombing or one of several tornadoes.

A large public gathering, where people unite for a cause even as simplistic as football, is a healing event. We’ve learned that getting on with life is good and being together is better.

So I’m not coming down too hard on anyone who made a gut-wrenching decision 50 years ago.

But still, the Sooners didn’t want to play.

“One of those games that stand out in your mind, you would like to have played again or at a different time, because of the circumstances,” said McCurdy, now a Norman surgeon. “It was such a negative thing for a 20-year-old kid who wanted to be back in Oklahoma with his mom and dad.”

McCurdy remembers the weather. Cold and windy. McCurdy likened it to being in another country.

The Sooners flew to Lincoln, were settling into their hotel, the Cornhusker, when one of the players yelled down the hallway that Kennedy had been shot. They all raced the televisions in their rooms, grainy black-and-white TV sets, and heard Walter  Cronkite, who 26 years earlier had been the Sooner radio voice, announce that JFK was dead.

“We couldn’t hardly believe what was happening,” McCurdy said. “Almost all of us, to a man, wanted to go back to Oklahoma.”

Kennedy and Bud Wilkinson were friends. Wilkinson served Kennedy as the first director of Kennedy’s national council on physical fitness. Kennedy had attended the Orange Bowl the previous winter and had met most of the Sooners.

“President Kennedy was such a charismatic man,” McCurdy said. “He was to the country like Bud Wilkinson was to OU football fame. Becoming to the country a legendary figure. To lose him, then have to play a football game, wasn’t good timing.”

McCurdy said Wilkinson called the team together before a scheduled workout and said he was trying to reach Bobby Kennedy, the president’s younger brother, to gauge sentiment on whether the game should be played.

“We practiced as if we were going to play,” McCurdy said. “We had a meeting around 5:30, 6 o’clock, and he said he had talked with Bobby Kennedy, who encouraged us to go ahead. Thought that’s what the president would want.

“Not many of us had any interest in playing.

Our effort would have been better at a different time. That’s not to say it didn’t have the same impact on Nebraska players. But they had family and friends around.

“It was a bad time. Strange time. Low point in America’s history, certainly.”

McCurdy remembers the crowd as “typical Nebraska boisterous … particularly as Nebraska got closer to the end zone.”

Other reports say the crowd was somber.

“That particular day was depressing,” McCurdy said. “Like being out in this cold day in Oklahoma. But the emotional aspect was, there was a cloud.

“I don’t know how Coach Wilkinson could have concentrated. How could he have? President Kennedy was one of his very good friends. I don’t know how he could have prepared himself, much less motivated a team.

“Just a bad weekend. Worse than bad.”

Wilkinson’s son, Jay, wrote in the book about his father, Bud Wilkinson: An Intimate Portrait of an American Legend, that “the president’s assassination near the end of the season appears to have been the final straw in Dad’s decision-making process.” A few weeks later, Wilkinson resigned after 17 Sooner seasons and ran for the U.S. Senate.

Two other OU books, from primary sources, go in depth about those two dark days.

Harold Keith spent 39 years as OU’s sports information director. His book, 47 Straight, detailed the events:

“Wilkinson telephoned Ted Reardon, the president’s executive assistant, asking him to consult the president’s family about their wishes concerning postponement of the game. Within an hour and a half, Reardon phoned Wilkinson back. ‘He reported that Bobby (Kennedy) told him that the family felt strongly that we should play the game rather than delay it,’ Wilkinson said. I relayed this information to Dr. Cross (who was at Lincoln with the team), who talked with the president of Nebraska. They decided that we should play the game even though other games about the country were being canceled.

“The final consultation also involved Big Eight executive director Wayne Duke and Governor Frank Morris of Nebraska.

“‘Bud had always brought back some personal word from the president wishing us good luck,’ recalled (fullback) Jim Grisham. ‘This always thrilled us. We felt like we knew him personally.’

“‘After I heard about the shooting of the president, I couldn’t get my mind on football,’ said co-captain John Garrett. ‘We were just college kids, and Kennedy was our president. Most of us had met him personally in our Orange Bowl dressing room, and we all liked him and felt close to him. He was a friend of Bud’s, and that made him a friend of ours. He was such a young president to die so soon. You just can’t go out and play a football game after your president has been assassinated.

“The Nebraska squad was undoubtedly disconcerted, too, as were many of the other teams about the nation.

“In his talk to the Oklahoma team late Friday afternoon at the Cornhusker Hotel, only six hours after the president’s assassination, Wilkinson told the Sooners that he knew it was difficult for them to get ready to play when all they could hear was the radio and television broadcasting details about the president’s death. He told them that unless they could discipline themselves to concentrate, they wouldn’t win.

“‘Life goes on,’ Wilkinson concluded. ‘It’s short. We don’t have much time to do the things we want to do. About all there is to life is what you do with your opportunities. If you’ll go after this team hard, reducing the game to a test of heart and courage, these guys can’t stay up with you.’”

Maybe Wilkinson’s mind was elsewhere. But his ability to motivate didn’t seem to waver, despite the ensuing defeat.

Cross and his Nebraska counterpart, of course, had to make the  ultimate decision on playing the game.

In Cross’ book, he relayed the following:

“The OU team and official party flew to Lincoln on Friday morning, Nov. 22. After lunch I took a brief walk, and when I returned to the hotel, the desk clerk told me that President Kennedy had been shot and seriously injured in Dallas that morning. Late in the afternoon we were shocked to learn that the President had not survived.

“With a presidential assassination on Friday, what should be done about a football game scheduled for the following day? There were many opinions and much advice. Regents of the University of Nebraska had arrived in Lincoln for the game along with thousands of other fans. The regents went into session, and word finally came from the president’s office that the Nebraskans thought the game should be played as scheduled. After discussing the matter thoroughly with Wilkinson and a few members of the team and making a phone call to Governor (Henry) Bellmon for advice — the governor left it up to the university – it was finally decided that the deceased president and the members of his family, if they could be reached for their opinion, would want the country’s activities to go on in reasonably normal fashion in the days before the funeral. The Nebraska officials were notified that Oklahoma would play.

“The weather was bleak and cheerless the next day. The mood of the capacity crowd in the stadium was somber – in keeping with the weather and the tragedy of the day before. None of the festivity usually associated with a football game was in evidence. Following a prayer and a few moments of silence in honor of the dead President, the game got under way with only restrained expressions of enthusiasm from the crowd.”


by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The...
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