JFK Remembered: 50 years later

Frank Ryan followed his usual pregame routine on Nov. 24, 1963.

The Cleveland Browns quarterback always strolled the field a few hours before kickoff, before the crowd arrived.

“I would see what an empty stadium looked like,” said Ryan, 77, recently from his home in Vermont.

That day, two days after the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas, Ryan said his stroll took him around the field and ended when he found himself sitting on the edge of the bench.

“Wondering about life,” Ryan said.

Then he looked and saw a phone on the bench. Whether it was the emotion of the week and the moment, or whether it was impulse, Ryan cannot say. But he reached for the phone and convinced the stadium operator to put a call through to his wife, Joan.

“She wouldn't have quite left yet,” Ryan said. “The operator challenged me a bit for calling from the bench, but she put it through.

“Joan was watching TV, and when I called, she had just witnessed the assassination of the person [Lee Harvey Oswald] who shot the president.”

Ryan wondered what was happening in the world. His feelings were the same as everyone’s that weekend -- a combination of shock and grief and near disbelief. Those emotions carried both players from Friday through Sunday, a game Jim Brown described as “very strange” and nearly surreal.

Adding to the atmosphere was the fact the Browns were playing the Dallas Cowboys, the team almost embarrassed to be identified with the city where the horrible event had happened.

A bellhop refused to carry the Cowboys' bags at the team hotel the night before, and the Dallas players were reluctant to even admit they were from Dallas when they ate dinner in small groups.

Browns owner Art Modell had urged Pete Rozelle not to play the games two days later, but Rozelle went ahead. Modell hired as many off-duty police officers as he could to provide extra protection.

“The game was certainly subdued,” Ryan said. “There’s always a certain amount of noise when things are happening, but that game definitely didn’t have the sort of zing it normally would have.”

A crowd of 55,096 was present, but that was small for the Browns, who defeated the Cowboys 27-17. Modell made sure the stadium announcer never referred to the Cowboys as “Dallas.” Introductions were bypassed, though Joan Ryan remembered the Cowboys being booed a little more lustily than normal.

But Brown, 77, also can’t say he would have preferred not to play.

“Sitting around wouldn't have made a difference to me,” Brown said. “I respected the president. That was within me. It wasn’t to be demonstrated. I went with the decision.”

The conflicting emotions of two teams were stark. Dallas players have always said they played a game with their minds completely elsewhere. The Browns shared the grief of a nation, but they played. Because they had to.

“All I can say,” Brown said, “is it was a very difficult week.”