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Bears played Steelers with heavy hearts after JFK assassination

Updated: December 23, 2013 3:46PM



The Bears were concluding practice at Wrigley Field when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas 50 years ago Friday. But when equipment manager Bill Martell broke the news, Ed O’Bradovich refused to believe it.

‘‘We said, ‘What are you talking about you little [pipsqueak]. Get the hell out of here, coming around with some insane thing like that,’’’ said O’Bradovich, then a 23-year-old second-year defensive end.

‘‘But then somebody came and grabbed coach Halas and told Halas. ‘‘And then we were told.’’

Mike Ditka, then a 24-year-old tight end, remembers hearing the reports as the team was concluding practice.

‘We didn’t practice any more,’’ Ditka said. ‘‘We went in. We didn’t have any meetings. Coach Halas talked to us. He addressed us. Nobody knew what was going to happen.’’

The issue was whether the Bears would play their upcoming game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The president was assassinated on a Friday. The Bears were to travel to Pittsburgh on Saturday and play on Sunday.

President Kennedy’s death threw the nation into a state of shock and — as crass as it might be — interrupted the Bears’ best season since the glory days of Sid Luckman in the 1940s. The 9-1 Bears were riding the wave of a 26-7 victory over the defending NFL champion Green Bay Packers in a showdown of NFL Western Division leaders at Wrigley Field.

It gave the Bears a sweep of the season series with the Packers and gave them a clear path to their first NFL championship since 1946.

‘‘It was a very upbeat week — until Kennedy was assassinated,’’ said Bob Wetoska, a 26-year-old starting guard on the 1963 Bears. ‘‘It wasn’t too many times we beat the Packers two times in a seasons.’’

But the pall that enveloped the nation in the wake of President Kennedy’s death put everything on hold. Many sporting events were postponed or cancelled. The American Football League postponed its games that weekend. The Big Ten postponed its games, including the anticipated Illinois-Michigan State showdown for the Rose Bowl berth, until Thanksgiving the following Thursday.

Only about 20 college football games were played that Saturday, most of them in the South, where the Southeast Conference conducted a full slate of games — though No. 10 Nebraska beat No. 6 Oklahoma for the Big Eight title in Lincoln, Neb. the day after the assassination. Pimilico in Baltimore was the only major track in the country to race that weekend.

In Chicago, Vocational beat Morgan Park 7-0 for the Public League football title at Soldier Field on Saturday. The World’s Invitational Bowling Tournament opened at the McCormick Place, but harness racing at Washington Park was postponed.

NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle declared that all NFL games would be played that Sunday — a decision for which he was vilified for years to come.

‘‘It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy,’’ Rozelle said at the time. ‘‘Football was Mr. Kennedy’s game. he thrived on competition.’’

So the Bears took a flight to Pittsburgh on Saturday and prepared to play the Steelers at Forbes Field.

“We had no control over it,’’ Ditka said. ‘‘That’s what our job was. We played football. We didn’t make a lot of money. That was our job. So when they said play, we played. That’s all there was to it.’’

Said O’Bradovich: ‘‘I didn’t want to play the game. Christ, you’re 22 or whatever the hell I was and the President of the United States is assassinated? What planet is this? I didn’t want to play the game and I can tell you a majority of the guys either didn’t want to or their heart wasn’t in it.’’

The NFL games went on. But by Rozelle’s decree, it was anything but a normal NFL Sunday. There was no radio or television broadcasts of any of the games. There were no player introductions, no halftime shows and no commercial announcements.

‘‘It was pretty somber,’’ Wetoska said.

‘‘It was a very eerie feeling, because the stadium, it just wasn’t like a normal football game,’’ Ditka said. ‘‘It was filled, but there wasn’t a lot of noise. I don’t know how to put it — it was crazy.’’

The players were jolted even before they arrived at Forbes Field, when news broke that Lee Harvey Oswald, the President’s accused assassin, had been shot and killed by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby while being transferred from Dallas’ City Hall basement to Dallas County Jail.

‘‘We were riding on the bus to the game and somebody had a radio in the luggage rack,’’ Wetoska said. ‘‘They had the news [coverage] of Oswald being transferred.

‘‘And all of a sudden the man says, ‘He’s been shot. He’s been shot.’ The old man [coach Halas] heard that just as we were getting off the bus and he knocked the radio over on the floor and said, ‘God dammit, we’ve got a game to play. You’re not supposed to be listening to the radio.’ I’ll never forget that. It was kind of a scary deal.’’

The game was a struggle for the Bears on several levels. Despite one-yard touchdown runs by Willie Galimore and Ronnie Bull, the Bears trailed 17-14 midway through the fourth quarter. Needing at least a tie to stay ahead of the Packers, Ditka bailed them out with a 63-yard catch-and-run that is a part of Bears history — with Ditka taking a short pass from Bill Wade and shaking off five tacklers before being tackled as much by his own exhaustion as by defensive back Clendon Thomas at the Steelers 15-yard line.

‘‘It was a very close game, and I was exhausted,’’ Ditka said. ‘‘Bill Wade said, ‘I want to hit you with a [deep] pass so we can at least kick a field goal.’ I said, ‘I can’t run anything deep. I’m going to run down about 12 yards and you throw me the ball and we’ll see what happens.’’

The pass play set up Roger Leclerc’s 18-yard field goal that gave the Bears a 17-17 tie. And after a day of unforced errors, they felt fortunate to come away with that, thanks to Ditka’s tremendous run.

‘‘I’ll be honest — I was embarrased because I ran out of gas,’’ Ditka said. ‘‘I was running as fast as I could and it looked like I was running in mud. The first guy that missed me [Thomas], he’s the guy that caught me — about 40 yards from where he missed me. But I ran out of gas.’’

(The Bears tied the Vikings 17-17 the following week and finished 11-1-2, a half-game ahead of the Packers to win their first divisional title since 1956. They beat the New York Giants 14-10 for their eighth world championship.)

It was an exhausting weekend for the entire nation. Mike Ditka just happened to play a football game on Sunday. Not an easy thing to do. But he made the most of it — he caught seven passes for 146 yards, including a spectacular play that will live forever.

‘‘I don’t know whether it was right or wrong [to play the game],’’ Ditka said. ‘‘I think a lot of people thought playing the game would honor Jack Kennedy more than not playing the game, because he was a great sports fan. I think Jack Kennedy would have wanted the games to be played. That was my only feeling.’’



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