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Murray: Blood on Olympus
Murray: Lasting lessons of Munich massacre
Monday, September 17, 2001
Wilkinson gets Kennedy approval for '63 game
By Eric Neel
Special to ESPN.com
In the aftermath of Tuesday's terrorist hijackings of four planes and attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, university officials and administrators struggled over whether to play the weekend's games. Some conferences advocated playing on, others argued for postponements. Thursday, after the NFL announced it would cancel its games, officials from all Div. I-A conferences decided to postpone play.
Their decision is reminiscent of one that faced conference commissioners and university presidents almost 38 years ago, in the hours after President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
Most programs chose to postpone or cancel their games. Archrivals Nebraska and Oklahoma were a notable exception. Early Friday evening, school officials announced that their game in Lincoln, which would decide the Big Eight title, was to be played as scheduled.
Nebraska governor Frank Morrison, representatives from the Big Eight, and the presidents of the conference's eight schools had met for several hours on Friday. At the end of their meeting, the Nebraska Board of Regents said playing the game was the will of the people: "The Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska, deeply sorrowful of the death of President Kennedy, believe the people of Nebraska would have the Nebraska-Oklahoma game played as scheduled. This will be done."
Oklahoma had a game remaining against Oklahoma State the following week, and the Orange Bowl was waiting to issue an invitation to the winner of battle between NU and OU. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Big Eight commissioner Wayne Duke explained at the time that the "importance of this particular game was given consideration."
The decision to play the game was controversial. The World-Herald reported that, according to Nebraska dean Charles Miller, officials knew "not everyone would be pleased with whatever decision was made."
The key to the decision was a Friday conversation between Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson and Robert F. Kennedy, the president's brother. Wilkinson was chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness in 1963, and was a friend of the President's.
Former Nebraska sports information director Don "Fox" Bryant says Robert Kennedy gave the go-ahead: "The number one thing that went into [the decision to play] was that Bud managed to get through to the White House and got in touch with Bobby Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy urged him to play, saying 'the president would want you to play' and it would be good for the country. That was all we needed to decide to play the game."
"Obviously, we got some criticism," Bryant recalls. "Some people called it a heartless decision, but we never would have done it without the Kennedy's consent."
Former OU defensive end Rick McCurdy recalls a special relationship between the Sooners and the President: "Our situation was different than most schools in that Coach Wilkinson was a personal friend of the President and we had met him before we played Alabama in the Orange Bowl several months before. Many of us shook his hand and we felt kind of kindred to him."
Flags around Nebraska's Memorial Stadium flew at half mast throughout the game, and the crowd observed a moment of silence after the national anthem in honor of President Kennedy.
Sixth-ranked Oklahoma and the legendary Wilkinson had long been the class of the conference. Tenth-ranked Nebraska and Bob Devaney had a program newly on the rise, after several losing seasons in the 1950s and early 1960s. Nebraska won the game, 29-20, claiming its first conference championship in 23 years. The Cornhuskers lead 17-0 going into the fourth quarter, thanks in part to several Sooner fumbles, and survived a late rush to win the game. "I think Nebraska is a very nice team," Wilkinson said afterwards. "They play extremely well. We have no excuses."
Don Jimmerson, the current director of Oklahoma's letterman association, thinks with or without RFK's endorsement, it was a bad idea to play the game. "The athletes didn't want to play," he recalls. "They felt as though they were distracted. Concentration was very difficult. The record shows that Oklahoma committed a number of errors, [which was] inconsistent with Bud Wilkinson's teams."
Carl McAdams, a linebacker on the '63 Oklahoma team agrees. "We talked amongst ourselves and really didn't want to play," he remembers. "I hope that might have been the reason we got beat."
"We all wanted to be with our families," says McCurdy, "It was like you had lost a member of your family. It was devastating."
Former All-America tackle Larry Kramer says there was little discussion among Nebraska players about whether to play. "We were young and na´ve," he explains. "We just followed our coaches thoughts and said let's go play the game. Back then, the coach said to do this and you did it."
The extraordinary circumstances surrounding the game were always in the players' minds. "As I recall, the atmosphere was very subdued," Kramer says. "You could sense that some guys weren't entirely motivated to play."
Former Nebraska fullback and current Husker head coach Frank Solich also played that difficult day. "I don't think it was necessarily easy for anybody to move forward with that," he told the AP yesterday. "The decision was to go. We went forward and I guess that's it."
Like many people, Kramer has been thinking about the Kennedy assassination since he found out what happened in New York and Washington on Tuesday morning. "In my lifetime," he says, "I ranked the Kennedy assassination as the thing that most affected me, but now I think this is even more. It's unbelievable, it's tragic."
There are similarities between the two events for OU's Jimmerson. "They share the national sense of loss, the necessity of reflection and mourning," he says. But he thinks what has happened this week is even more devastating: "In 1963, participants and fans weren't faced with confronting the issue of their own safety."
Oklahoma's McCurdy says he agrees with the decision to cancel this weekend's games: "I'm pleased they have canceled. There has been such a unity of grieving. A victory [this Saturday] would be a hollow victory and a loss would dampen your spirits further."
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