America’s (Most Hated) Team: ’63 Cowboys vilified by mourning nation after JFK assassination

The Dallas Cowboys are an inextricable part of late November in America. The football game hosted by the team nearly every Thanksgiving Day since 1966 has become, for countless families, a centerpiece of the holiday that’s as integral to the beloved celebration as turkey and pecan pie.

But 60 years ago this week, the franchise now commonly referred to as “America’s Team” suddenly- and shockingly- found itself the unfortunate target of an entire nation’s disturbingly palpable ire.

As hard as it may be to believe by today’s standards, there was a period of time, in 1963, when the Dallas Cowboys were publicly shunned, spat on, harassed, and even threatened with bodily injury and death- not for anything that had taken place on the field, but for an unspeakable tragedy that just happened to have occurred in the city they represented.

This is the story of how the assassination of President John F. Kennedy devastated a country… and how much of the country blamed the Dallas Cowboys for it.

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1963: A nation and a team in turmoil

In 1963, John F. Kennedy was in the third year of his term as U.S. president. The space race was in full swing, a war in Vietnam was escalating dramatically, and a band calling themselves the Beatles was starting to make waves across the Atlantic.

But in cities across America, the civil rights movement had reached a boiling point. Sit-ins at lunch counters and nonviolent marches in the streets had become regular occurrences. One protest at a time, they led to the historic March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech to a quarter of a million people at the Lincoln Memorial.

Clashes grew more frequent and more violent, however. Kennedy had to send the National Guard to protect Black students enrolling for classes at the University of Alabama. Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers was murdered outside his home in Jackson. An explosion at a church in Birmingham killed four young girls. Despite the increasing tension, Kennedy pressed for even more civil rights reforms that would prevent discrimination at all facilities serving the public, end school segregation, and increase voting rights for minorities.

Meanwhile in Dallas, the experiment to establish pro football in the South was off to a miserable start. The Dallas Texans of the AFL had pulled up stakes and moved to Kansas City to become the Chiefs. Born the same year Kennedy won the White House, the NFL’s Cowboys owned a cumulative 9-28-3 record as the 1963 season began, often drawing crowds of less than 15,000 to their home games.

In Week 2, even the mighty Cleveland Browns and their electric running back Jim Brown could only attract 28,000 spectators to the cavernous Cotton Bowl. Cleveland won handily that day, 41-24, with the Cowboys letting Brown run wild for 232 rushing yards and a pair of scores.

If the Cowboys weren’t winning over many fans in their home state, the Democrat president was even less popular. To many Texans, in Dallas and beyond, Kennedy had come to personify big, overly obtrusive government. Besides his radical ideas on segregation, Kennedy had announced planned policies to remove special privileges and loopholes that would directly affect Texas oilmen, increasing their taxes (by an extra $300 million) in order to lower taxes for the poor.

Not even having a native Texan- Lyndon B. Johnson- as his vice president was helping Kennedy sell the state’s citizens on his administration’s agenda. United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson had been heckled, booed, spat on, and hit with a sign during an appearance in Dallas in October.

With Kennedy set to make a visit of his own in November, Stevenson warned the president against it, telling him the city was too dangerous.

“After the Stevenson incident, the city was terrified,” according to Dallas historian Darwin Payne. “The leaders did not want to have an embarrassing incident when the president came.”

Yet on November 22, Kennedy and his wife arrived in Dallas anyway, for a day of speeches and glad-handing with Governor John Connally, Texas politicians, and community leaders as he prepared to launch a presidential re-election bid.

The Cowboys, sitting on a 3-7 record, also had hopes of going on a run to end their year on a positive note. Having just beaten the Philadelphia Eagles the Sunday prior, the team knew that a .500 finish was still possible if they could somehow win their four remaining games.

They were at practice that clear-skied Friday when the presidential motorcade began making its way through the downtown streets of Dallas.

'We really didn't believe it': Dallas' darkest day

The Dallas Morning News, November 23, 1963.
The Dallas Morning News, November 23, 1963.

Cowboys players, like everyone in Dallas, was well aware of the president’s planned visit and the slow-moving procession that would take him winding through the streets of the city. Many on the team had wanted to go get a glimpse of Kennedy as his open-air limousine rolled along on its 10-mile parade route- down Main Street, then Houston Street, and finally that last lumbering 135-degree turn onto Elm Street- but with their second game against the Browns on tap in just 48 hours, head coach Tom Landry had refused to allow players to skip practice.

It was 12:30 as the motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza, just a few miles from the facility where the Cowboys were drilling plays.

“All of a sudden, there was an ungodly amount of sirens,” said Cowboys rookie safety Jerry Overton.

Clint Houy, one of the team’s trainers, was listening to a radio in the locker room and was among the first to hear the news reports. He made his way out to Landry.

“I said, ‘Coach, someone shot President Kennedy,'” recalled Houy. “He looked at me in disbelief, and I think actually, his face became a little ashen at the time.”

Word spread quickly throughout the team that Kennedy and Connally had been shot in broad daylight riding though the streets of downtown.

“When we heard what had happened, we really didn’t believe it,” said linebacker Chuck Howley. “We were as stunned as the rest of the world was.”

News that someone had struck down the progressively-minded president hit some Cowboys players harder than others.

“John Kennedy affected everybody’s life. He meant that, as a Black man, I would have a chance,” explained cornerback Cornell Green. “‘Don’t discriminate against me in the job field. Don’t hold my being Black against me when it comes to getting a job.’ And they were, that was the main thing. That was it. And with Kennedy as president, the feeling among the Blacks was that it was ending.”

Defensive lineman Bob Lilly reported that the team’s mood changed instantly as the weight of the news sunk in. “We did not want to go play football. We did not want to practice football. I think everybody wanted to grieve.”

Not everybody, linebacker Jerry Tubbs would remember later.

“We didn’t know if he was alive or dead,” Tubbs said. “We had a player- I won’t say who it was because he probably didn’t really mean it- but he said, ‘I hope they kill the son of a [expletive].’ That was the kind of attitude about Kennedy in Dallas.”

The president and the governor were en route to nearby Parkland Hospital, their conditions not immediately known. For the hundreds of Dallasites who had witnessed the horror play out before their eyes- and for the millions of Americans who were just then learning of the tragedy that had transpired in Dealey Plaza- shock would render many of them unable to move or process the news.

For the Cowboys, though, it was back to work.

“The practice went on,” Landry would say later. “We had to practice.”

'Guilty by association': A cold reception in Cleveland

Within an hour of the shooting, Kennedy’s death was announced to the American public, and everything changed. People wept openly. Stores closed, weddings were postponed, Broadway went dark. Monday, Nov. 25 had already been declared a national day of mourning.

The AFL canceled its slate of Sunday games. But NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, after consulting with the White House, announced that its games would be played even though TV broadcasts would be scrapped so the networks could air Kennedy’s funeral procession and services at the Capitol.

Rozelle even asked Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm his opinion on playing. Schramm thought the games should go on, though he admitted later he might have felt differently had the game been scheduled to be played in Dallas.

On Saturday, a day after Kennedy had landed there and then just hours after his casket had been loaded onto Air Force One for the return flight to Washington, Cowboys players and coaches boarded their own plane at Love Field and flew to Ohio for a game none of them wanted to play.

“It was devastating,” Lilly said. “And then we found out we had to play that week, which we did not want to do. No player wanted to.”

When the Cowboys players and coaches landed in Cleveland, they received a hostile reception unlike anything a group of visiting athletes has ever gotten. It wasn’t that they were the Browns’ opponents; it was the city they represented.

“We were the team from Dallas, Texas,” explained rookie linebacker Lee Roy Jordan. “We were connected with killing the President of the United States.”

Added running back Don Perkins: “We were ashamed to be part of Dallas, because we were guilty by association.”

In the hours that followed the assassination, even after Lee Harvey Oswald had been arrested for the crime, a large portion of the American population placed blame on the entire city where it had occurred.

Overnight, Dallas was given a nickname that stuck: The City of Hate.

And now, with the nation’s popular president dead, that hatred was being amplified and thrown back at their football team, starting along the shores of Lake Erie.

“When we arrived there,” Lilly remembered, “we had to unload the plane, haul our own luggage, because nobody would do it for us.”

“In Cleveland we all stayed close to the hotel, stayed close to each other through that particular weekend,” noted Howley. “I had taken a suitcase full of Christmas presents with me on that charter, and I was trying to ship them by Greyhound the rest of the way [to his West Virginia home]. And the Greyhound employee saw that I had a Dallas return address on it, and he said, ‘I’m not going to do this. You’re from Dallas.'”

Cowboys executive Gil Brandt recalled: “Everybody was told, ‘Go out and have dinner if you want, but don’t say you are from Dallas.”

“I just wanted to go hide somewhere,” said Perkins.

If the team from Dallas felt like they were somehow being held partly responsible for Kennedy’s killing, they were correct in that assessment. As Kay Collier McLaughlin, the daughter of Cleveland head coach Blanton Collier, explained some years later, the Browns front office even “received death threats saying that if Dallas was allowed to come and the game was played, that the coaches would be shot when they walked on the field.”

And it was under those circumstances that the team had to prepare to suit up and play football the next day.

“It seemed like life stopped,” said Norman. “We were not football players anymore. We were people there trying to figure out what in the world is happening.”

'We shouldn't be playing': The game nobody wanted to win

Pre-game is normally a time of routine, of ritual, a sanitized bubble in which players and coaches can block out their troubles at home and the world around them as they focus on the task at hand. But that proved impossible for the Cowboys on Nov. 24, as the rest of the nation mourned their slain leader.

“You’ve got your game face on by Sunday,” explained Lilly. “That means a chip on your shoulder. And I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder that day, I can tell you that. And I didn’t have my game face on.”

“I felt totally lethargic in terms of how I wanted to approach this game,” added Norman.

The scene at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium was nothing short of surreal. Browns owner Art Modell took the extreme measure of directing the venue’s public address announcer not to use the word “Dallas” in any context that afternoon; the visiting team was only to be referred to as “the Cowboys.”

One eyewitness called the atmosphere inside the stadium “like a funeral,” with only 55,000 fans- well under the Browns’ normal figure- in attendance on a gray, near-freezing day.

“It was very unusual,” recalled Landry. “Different than getting ready for a regular game when you’re exchanging information, talking, and motivating. It was just that, ‘We’re here and we’re going to play this game. We don’t want to play the game, but we’re going to play it.'”

Things got even more bizarre after pre-game warmups. Players for both teams had one eye on black-and-white televisions in their locker rooms as Oswald, the presumed assassin, was shot dead on live TV while in the custody of Dallas police.

The vigilante was Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner who was immediately familiar to several Cowboys players.

“Some of us knew Jack Ruby,” said tight end Lee Folkins. “Another player and I, somehow or other we’d gone to Ruby’s club a week or two earlier. When we walked in the club, this guy came rushing up to us. It turned out to be Ruby. He identified himself as the owner, and he was gonna buy us drinks. We took him up on one and decided we should get out of there. We just felt that the guy was kind of spooky.”

The chaotic and bloody scene unfolding back home in Dallas only added to the players’ apprehension as gametime approached in Cleveland. There were no player introductions for either side, just a lone whistle to start the game.

“You could have heard a pin drop as we ran on the field,” according to Folkins.

“You were also suspicious, in the back of your mind,” remembered Overton. “Somebody could shoot. So when you went out on the field, you were naturally kind of looking around.”

“This city, Dallas, has killed our president,” remembered Browns offensive lineman (and later, Cowboys scout) John Wooten. “That’s the feeling that we had. We wanted to get after Dallas.”

Cowboys players were instructed to keep their helmets and winter parkas on at all times on the sideline. Bottles and other objects were thrown at the Dallas bench all afternoon. Cars parked around the stadium bearing Texas license plates were reported vandalized. Players recalled being called “murderers” by Cleveland fans.

Ultimately, both teams played like they had other things on their minds. After nine combined turnovers and with neither quarterback completing better than 50% of their passes, the Browns went on to win by a 27-17 score.

The Cowboys “looked like zombies,” according to Lilly. He would later call it “the only game in my entire career, even at the very end, that I didn’t want to play.”

“I remember being there in Cleveland, and I remember playing the game, but I don’t remember being there,” wide receiver Frank Clarke said. “It was just numbing.”

Said Perkins: “I knew we shouldn’t be playing today.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the outcome of the game was changed,” offered Landry, “but concentration for everybody, the Browns and us, was difficult.”

“I do believe it was probably the worst game we played or Dallas played,” said Browns defensive back Walter Beach.

“It was played in total silence,” observed Modell. “There was no emotion. No cheering, for or against. Nothing. It was like playing in a studio.”

“This was a game that nobody was interested in playing, coaching, watching or writing about,” wrote Dallas Morning News columnist Bud Shrake.

“We played that game, and we got out of town as fast as we could,” noted Howley.

“We could have quit our season then,” Lilly said. “It would have been fine with me.”

But the Cowboys’ season wasn’t over. And the vitriol they were to endure for representing the city that had killed Kennedy was just beginning.

'Never got over the stigma': The aftermath that lasted for years

Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Commissioner Rozelle would, in later years, call his decision to have the NFL carry on that November day “his greatest regret.” But he didn’t have to shoulder the American people’s misplaced blame over a fallen president everywhere he went after the assassination.

“The people of Dallas didn’t have anything to do with it, so a lot of people kind of threw that at us,” Jordan explained. “We were the ones who killed President Kennedy. It was way off beat for people to think that, but they just identified us with Dallas, and Dallas had killed the president.”

The next week, after a road loss to the Giants, some New York locals were publicly announcing the final score as “Giants 34, Assassins 27.”

The Cowboys went on to lose their next game as well, before finally eking out a 4-point win in the season finale to finish 4-10. Many were even calling for Landry to be fired as head coach.

“Kennedy’s death affected the team the rest of the year,” recalls Norman. “It was always in the back of the team’s mind, and you could never 100 percent focus on what you were doing.”

For the players, the animosity felt from outside Dallas carried over into the next season.

“We never got over the stigma when we played other teams,” recalled Lilly. “For weeks, months, in the paper, the media, everywhere you went, people asking you where you were that day, what you were doing, this and that. And we felt kind of disgraced that it had happened in our town. We’d go on the road, and people booed us because of that. It was very distracting.”

But winning, the saying has always gone, cures everything. And gradually, the Cowboys started doing just that. The franchise finished 1964 with a 5-8-1 record, but that would be their last losing season until 1986.

“When Dallas started winning, that was a transitional thing for this whole city,” Norman offered. “And it began to wipe away a lot of the negative things that people felt about Dallas.”

“I think [winning] had a lot to do with how people felt about Dallas. They learned more about Dallas,” said quarterback Roger Staubach, who would join the team in 1969.

Within the city, the Cowboys are even credited with helping restore a larger sense of civic pride in the years following the assassination. Dallasites came to rally around the team, using on-the-field success as a way to help them collectively move past the tragedy and erode the reputation that had been painted by many across the country as a result. Over 120,000 fans showed up for the first two Cowboys home games of 1965, a number that almost matched the entire 1964 season’s attendance figures.

And on Nov. 24, 1966, three years to the day after that surreal afternoon in Cleveland, the Cowboys beat the mighty Browns at the Cotton Bowl in the team’s first-ever Thanksgiving Day game. They would go on that year to post the franchise’s first winning record, their first Eastern Conference title, and their first appearance in the NFL Championship.

“That Cleveland game was a turning point for us,” according to Jordan.

The Kennedy assassination had been a stark turning point for the entire nation, one that unexpectedly saw the Dallas Cowboys caught, for a strange and unfortunate time, in its tragic and turbulent wake.

Epilogue: The Staubach/Kennedy connection

Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports Copyright (c) Malcolm Emmons
Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports Copyright (c) Malcolm Emmons

There’s one more footnote, one that actually links those dark four days in November to the brightest star in Cowboys history.

Roger Staubach was a 21-year-old junior at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1963. The starting quarterback of the No. 2-ranked team in the country, Staubach was scheduled to be on the cover of Life magazine as he neared the end of the season. His cover photo was to feature the headline, “The Greatest College Quarterback.”

The magazine was to hit newsstands on Nov. 29, 1963.

The tragic events in Dallas forced a quick switch, with the magazine swapping Staubach’s cover for one commemorating Kennedy (although Staubach still has an advance copy of the edition with his photo).

The annual Army-Navy game, originally scheduled for Nov. 30, was pushed back by a week.

“We thought the game could be postponed forever or cancelled. But then it came back that the Kennedy family really wanted it to be played,” Staubach remembered. Kennedy himself had famously attended Annapolis, even returning as president to perform the ceremonial coin toss for 1962’s game, where he spent time with Staubach and his Navy teammates.

The rescheduled ’63 game- played on Dec. 7, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor- was still a solemn affair, not unlike that Cowboys visit to Cleveland.

“It was so emotional: no pep rallies, no bonfires. But everybody kind of let their emotions out in that game,” Staubach explained. “It was eerie. You didn’t know what to expect.”

The second-ranked Midshipmen won that day by a 21-15 score after the defense made a goal-line stop as time expired. The win set up a battle with No. 1 Texas, to be played on the first day of 1964… in the Cotton Bowl.

“Dallas wasn’t looked at too fondly. There was still a stigma,” Staubach recalled. “But we stayed for a week at the Holiday Inn on Central and people were nice as could be to us. I could see it was a growing city, but we lost to Texas, so I wasn’t really crazy about Dallas. I’d lost two football games here.”

Navy lost that bowl game, but the Cowboys had claimed the Heisman Trophy-winning Staubach a few weeks earlier, in the tenth round of the 1963 draft. It was a gamble, given Staubach’s commitment to the Navy after graduation. Following a tour in Vietnam, he finally came to Dallas as a Cowboy in 1969. “Captain Comeback” would go on to lead the Cowboys to five Super Bowls in an 11-season Hall of Fame career.

And by 1979, the franchise once vilified- and even blamed by some- for the assassination of a sitting U.S. president had become known as “America’s Team.”


The following source materials were used in constructing this story:

Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire