I was in the lunch line, waiting to get into my high school cafeteria.
Where were you when you heard that President John Kennedy had been shot?
It’s a question that those of us who are of a certain age will be thinking of often this week.
Gil Brandt remembers. The longtime personnel chief of the Dallas Cowboys was sitting in his office, preparing for the upcoming NFL draft, when club president Tex Schramm walked in and somberly announced, “They’ve just assassinated the president in downtown Dallas.”
As pundits and armchair historians weigh in this week with their remembrances of the events in Dallas in November, 1963, a Greek chorus of assigned, knee-jerk guilt has emerged. The city of Dallas — and all Texans, in general — were also victimized that day, the commentators say.
Recent dispatches and documentaries have focused on the lunatic threats that preceded Kennedy’s visit. The president, they assert, was disliked here for allegedly being anti-oil, a Yankee socialist and, worse, a Roman Catholic.
The tragedy served to dovetail the threats into a self-fulfilling complicity. To the rest of America — to the rest of the world — Dallas became The City That Killed the President.
All of those thoughts swirled in Schramm’s and Brandt’s minds that Friday afternoon, as they waited to hear what would become of that weekend’s football game in Cleveland. Schramm had already been on the phone with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
“Later that afternoon,” Brandt said, “Tex came in and said that Rozelle had talked to Pierre Salinger, the president’s press secretary. He and Rozelle had been roommates at the University of San Francisco. Salinger told Rozelle that he had talked to Bobby Kennedy, and Bobby had told him that the president would want the games played.”
The rival American Football League, it’s worth noting, elected to cancel its scheduled four games that weekend.
Fifty years later, it is inconceivable that, the late president’s implied wishes notwithstanding, the NFL gathered paying customers in stadiums across America that Sunday and played on. Maybe we’re just a more thoughtful nation these days. Maybe, too, we know that today’s media and Internet outcries to playing football would have been apoplectic.
The Cowboys themselves were fearful about playing.
“Tex had a list for the trip,” Brandt said. “Things like, ‘Don’t tell everyone you’re from Dallas. Don’t go out en masse.’
“But the stories about there being six Secret Service agents on the plane — I don’t remember any of that. There was no extra security at the hotel.”
The abiding, calming influence that weekend was the same that it would be in the weeks, months and successful seasons that would lie ahead: head coach Tom Landry.
“The guys all had faith in him,” Brandt said. “Tom just told them, ‘I feel sure that if it wasn’t safe, we wouldn’t be playing.’
“He was the best in the world at soothing people’s thoughts about things.”
The notable concession to the day’s anxieties was when the team’s buses avoided the main gate of Cleveland’s Memorial Stadium and entered through a side entrance.
As expected, there were a few fans who hurled assassination-related insults at the Dallas team during pregame warmups. But Brandt doesn’t recall any large-scale booing.
Minutes before the Sunday kickoff, as Landry prepared to tell the team what the first play of the game would be, the locker room security guard burst in and announced, “Coach, coach! You know the guy that killed the president? They just shot him dead in the jailhouse.”
Landry calmly reassured his team that they were in safe hands and continued giving them the first play.
A recurring theme of the anniversary pundits has been that it has taken 50 years for Dallas to overcome the stigma of the JFK assassination. But I give rational Americans more credit than that.
Tom Landry and the Cowboys, let me suggest, had a lot to do with the eventual restoring of the city’s image.
We all remember where we were that day in 1963.
Dallas will never forget. But after 50 years, the city’s place in history is best left to the historians.