College Football: How JFK's Death Made America Fall in Love with Football

J FitzContributor IIIMay 31, 2011

John F. Kennedy catching a football thrown by his brother Robert.
John F. Kennedy catching a football thrown by his brother Robert.

Everyone who was alive at the time remembers very vividly what they were doing, wearing, and even thinking when they first heard the news on Nov. 22, 1963.

It was a sunny day in November that sticks in all Americans' minds almost 50 years later. President John F. Kennedy was taking a trip to Dallas for a quick speech in front of a modest crowd.

It rained the night before, but cleared up just in time to dry up so the top on the convertible could be let down. Kennedy arrived in Dallas around noon to a crowd larger than expected. Gov. John Connally turned and remarked to to Kennedy saying "You can't say Dallas doesn't love you, Mr. President."

Plastered in the minds of Americans are the images of Kennedy smiling for the people, his beautiful wife by his side.

Unfortunately, these are the last images we will have of him.

John Kennedy was a fan of sports. He was a high school (and later college) swimming champion, excellent golfer, and was an avid fan of football. He even played on the Harvard junior varsity team.

After Kennedy graduated he enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II. This is where he would become an American hero. After the PT-109 was sunk, he swam three and a half miles while dragging badly-burned friend Patrick McMahon to safety.

The Navy is also where Kennedy would develop his love for Navy Football.

After elected president, JFK would attend every Army-Navy game until his death. He is the president who started the tradition of doing the pregame coin toss.

He was very knowledgeable about Navy football, especially in 1963, when All-American quarterback Roger Staubach was at the helm.

He commented about the 1963 meeting jokingly, saying “I hope to be on the winning side when the game ends.” As part of the tradition of sitting on both sidelines, he knew he would switch to the Navy side during halftime.

But only eight days away from the game, the news broke. The game had to be canceled.

How would nation ever recover?

The newly-widowed Jacqueline Kennedy had an idea. “I think it would be a fitting tribute,” said Jackie. She knew he loved football and it would help the country to direct its attention to something positive.

The game would be rescheduled to Dec. 7, and played at Municipal Stadium (which would be renamed John F. Kennedy Stadium in 1964). The game was played in front of a crowd of over 100,000 screaming fans.  It was a great game.

Navy would take a 21-7 lead in the third quarter, only to see Army surge with intent of a comeback after scoring a late touchdown and getting a two-point conversion to make it 21-15. Army would recover an onside kick after the touchdown.

They then completed a miraculous fourth-down play to the Navy 7 yard line. Army would get to the Navy 1-yard line with time running out, but there was too much crowd noise for the Army quarterback, as he let the clock run out before his audible was heard.

Navy won and Roger Staubach would go on to win the Heisman, becoming the last to do so for either team. Only twice since this meeting has both Army and Navy entered the game with winning records (1996 and 2010), but the memory of this battle lives on.

This game signifies everything college football fans love about this sport.

In a way, this game made it possible for the sport to branch out to so many people across the nation. It may be responsible for all of us being fans—in the past, present and future.


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