JFK 50 Years Later: The NFL’s Darkest Weekend
In November 1963, as a shocked nation mourned its assassinated president, the NFL proceeded with its full Sunday schedule. One result of this controversial decision was a brutal off-the-field fight that came close to taking a player’s life
A version of this story appears in the Nov. 25 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine.
By Tim Layden
There was a fight, though not a fight in the strictest sense. It was a beating. One member of the Eagles knocked out another and then leaned over him and pummeled his face and skull so fiercely that his own hands were reduced to bloody mitts. The man beneath him, the bigger man, drifted in and out of consciousness, and the Philadelphia teammates who saw him that evening would never forget the damage. His head, one man would say, was swollen “like a pumpkin on a little baby’s body.” His nose and mouth were battered to a pulp; at least two of his teeth were knocked out; and his blood was spilled in such volume that the floor of a stately old Philadelphia landmark looked like the floor of a slaughterhouse.
It was 50 years ago this weekend, on the eve of a game between the Eagles and the Redskins, two teams with four wins between them, buried at the bottom of the Eastern Conference of the old 14-team NFL. The Redskins had taken a train north from Washington on Saturday afternoon, while the Eagles had checked into the Sheraton Motor Inn at 39th and Chestnut, where they always bedded down the night before home games, at Franklin Field. The skeletal details of the weekend were like those of so many teams’ weekends before and after: meals, meetings and fitful sleep in preparation for the violent spectacle on Sunday afternoon.
But everything else about that weekend was . . . different. The course of U.S. history had been altered; a collective innocence had been shattered; and a nation was left staring at its televisions in disbelief.
On that Saturday evening 26-year-old Ben Scotti, a fiery 6′ 1″, 184-pound defensive back from Newark, beat up 30-year-old John Mellekas, a 6′ 3″, 255-pound defensive tackle from Newport, R.I. They had argued about something, though the substance of the disagreement—and whether it was a disagreement at all—remains in dispute, made ever hazier by the aging of those who witnessed it and the manner in which they used their heads as young men. “There’s not much doubt that what happened between Ben Scotti and John Mellekas was due in some part to the emotion of the moment,” says Pete Retzlaff, a tight end and wide receiver for the Eagles from 1956 to ’66. “To the emotions of that whole weekend.”
Scotti, who likens himself to Rocky Marciano, hit Mellekas so hard that he sliced a tendon in his right ring finger on one of Mellekas’s teeth. Mellekas doesn’t remember being hit by any punch—only waking up in a hospital room with his wife at his side and Scotti in the room next door. Their fight would follow the two men into old age, boilerplate inserted into every story that tried to encapsulate the nationwide pain and confusion of that singular weekend. Scotti would say he regretted the incident, but he would retell it with a pugnacious zeal. Mellekas so disliked the notorious role he was assigned in history that he wouldn’t talk about it with anybody, even his five children. He and Scotti would go on to do much with their lives, in very different ways. But they would never escape that night.
And none of it would have happened if President John F. Kennedy hadn’t been shot to death while riding in the back of a limousine that Friday afternoon in Dallas, and if NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle hadn’t decided to forge ahead with a full schedule of regular-season games two days later—plunging the NFL into the strangest, darkest weekend in its history.
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Early on the afternoon of the fourth Friday of November 1963, Philadelphia and Washington were practicing for their game that Sunday, each team’s 11th game of a lost season. Three years earlier the Eagles of quarterback Norm Van Brocklin and linebacker Chuck (Concrete Charlie) Bednarik had won the NFL championship, and they had followed that up with a contending 10-4 season. But the heart of that team was gone, and these Eagles had won just five of their past 23 games. The Redskins hadn’t won a league title since 1942 and hadn’t had a winning season since ’55. They would go to Philadelphia with only three wins in their previous 18 games.
The Redskins held their practice on a field by the Anacostia River, a few hundred yards from two-year-old D.C. Stadium, where they played home games. The team had just begun position drills at various spots on the field when coach Bill McPeak blew his whistle and called the players together. Everybody up, everybody up! Pat Richter, a 22-year-old rookie wide receiver and punter—and the team’s first-round draft choice, from Wisconsin—walked toward the gathering with a sense of foreboding that sticks with him five decades later. “It was eerie,” he says. “You looked around at the roadways and it was quiet, and you sensed that something had happened, but you didn’t know what it was.”
The players who encircled McPeak that afternoon are old now, from their early 70s into their mid-80s. Some of their memories have been lost to age or repeated concussions or both. Yet during interviews with 21 players from both teams, the sharpest recollections were of those first moments on Friday afternoon, in the minutes and hours after Kennedy was shot in Dallas while riding in a motorcade at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time. McPeak, who was 37 and six years removed from his last game as a defensive end for the Steelers, said something to the effect of “the President’s been shot and killed.” The players recall the silence that descended as they processed the unfathomable. “I remember thinking, How could this happen?” says Lonnie Sanders, then a rookie defensive back. “How could that happen in this country?” Yet everyone remembers that the practice continued.
Back in the stadium defensive tackle Ed Khayat and cornerback Johnny Sample sat in whirlpools, nursing injuries. A groundskeeper ambled in, a cheerful guy who was always busting chops. He said, “The President’s just been shot.” At first Khayat and Sample didn’t believe him.
Eagles players recall practicing slightly earlier in the day on a rutted, unlined plot of land called River Field, near a set of railroad tracks adjacent to the Penn campus. They took a bus there every day from Franklin Field. “I remember getting back into the locker room at the stadium,” says former defensive back Irv Cross. “Nate Ramsey came running into the room. Nate was a practical joker, and he was saying some dude shot the President. It didn’t seem possible.”
Linebacker Maxie Baughan left practice quickly and was driving to an autograph-signing session at a downtown car dealership (for which he was paid $50) when he heard about the assassination on his car radio. He went ahead and signed in a daze. “That was good money,” he says. “What could I do?”
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