April 17, 2024

After his brother died, Robert Kennedy told Nebraska and Oklahoma to play football

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Fifty years ago Friday, America came to a stop to process the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and decisions had to be made quickly about how to handle the weekend’s football games.

Play or postpone for a period of mourning?

Most college games scheduled for Nov. 23, 1963, were not played. But one major contest kicked off as scheduled — Oklahoma at Nebraska.

“A very difficult decision,” said Wayne Duke, who was in his first year as Big Eight Conference commissioner.

But one made with the Kennedy family’s blessing, which is why the game, which decided the conference championship, was played.

Bud Wilkinson, in his final year as Oklahoma’s coach, had been selected by Kennedy to serve as director of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness in 1961.

Hours after the assassination, a group gathered at the University of Nebraska Coliseum to discuss the game: Wilkinson, Duke, Nebraska coach Bob Devaney and athletic director Tippy Dye and members of the Orange Bowl committee.

Nebraska Gov. Frank Morrison was against playing.

But Wilkinson placed a call to Bobby Kennedy, the U.S. Attorney General and the President’s brother.

“We called Bobby,” said Duke, 85. “And he counseled Bud to play the game. He said the country needed a pick up.”

The decision to play was made that night, and Duke had given the go-ahead to the other Big Eight schools to play their games, including Missouri at Kansas. But as Saturday dawned, Duke learned that school officials there, as most around the country, had postponed the game.

Nebraska-Oklahoma carried on. There was no pregame marching band or entertainment, except for the National Anthem and a long moment of silence. Fans who attended the game remember an eerie quiet at Memorial Stadium until kickoff.

The Cornhuskers won 29-20, claiming their first conference championship in 23 years, and Duke said there were some misgivings.

“We were criticized by some,” Duke said.


©2013 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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