Two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963, the Dallas Cowboys played the Browns in front of angry, anguished and hostile fans in Cleveland. Many blamed Dallas, a hotbed of far-right extremism in the early 1960s, for JFK's death—and by extension the city's National Football League team.
“We did not feel welcome throughout the United States, no matter where we played, for quite a while,” Pettis Norman, a Cowboys tight end, recalled years later.
Although the nation was enveloped with grief, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle ignored advice and ordered the full schedule of seven Sunday games to be played—a decision he later called a mistake. Meanwhile, the rival American Football League canceled all its games out of respect for the fallen president.
The afternoon contest at gloomy Municipal Stadium by Lake Erie matched the 3-7 Cowboys against the 7-3 Browns, one of the NFL's best teams. But the game was the least of concerns for most players on both teams.
“We were concerned about how the game would go and how the fans would receive us,” recalls Lee Folkins, a Cowboys tight end.
The Cowboys found out soon after the team plane landed in Ohio.
Dallas Cowboys Receive Rude Reception in Cleveland
Bellhops turned their backs when the Cowboys' bus arrived at the team hotel. Players carried their own bags to their accommodations because hotel employees refused—an act Cowboys running back Don Perkins later said made him feel "tainted."
The night before the game, Cowboys players dined in groups and tried to remain inconspicuous. The next morning, when the team bus pulled up to the stadium on the cold, late-fall morning, fans heckled and cursed them.
As the Cowboys went through their pre-game routines on the field, the stadium was eerily quiet. “[T]here were quite a few people in the stands. You could have heard a pin drop as we ran on the field," Folkins recalls. But as the Cowboys neared a stadium tunnel, fans let loose with vitriol and expletives.
Dallas go home! Go back to Dallas!
“We were [viewed as] killers, we had killed the president,” Norman remembered. “It was amazing. I just could not believe that." Even some Browns players blamed Dallas for Kennedy's death.
“This city, Dallas, has killed our president," Cleveland guard John Wooten said. "That was the feeling that we had.”
Sensing potential for unruly behavior or worse, Browns owner Art Modell hired off-duty policemen and ordered the the stadium announcer never to use the word "Dallas."
A few hours before kickoff, Browns quarterback Frank Ryan strolled the field as he did before every game. Dazed and hurting, he wound up on a sideline bench, "wondering about life." Then he spotted a phone on the bench, and after convincing the stadium operator to put a call through, the quarterback reached his wife at home.
As the couple talked, Joan Ryan was watching TV coverage of alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald's transfer by law enforcement from Dallas police headquarters to another downtown facility. Then a man strolled toward the handcuffed Oswald and fired his Colt Cobra revolver into the 24-year-old's gut, mortally wounding him.
"Oswald's been shot!" cried a TV correspondent.
“Some of us knew Jack Ruby,” Folkins says of the Dallas nightclub owner who killed Oswald. “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. ... When we realized on the plane on the way back [home] that it was that same guy, I’ll tell you, that was eerie.”
Some Cowboys players watched Oswald's shooting on a small, black-and-white TV in the visitors' locker room. A stoic Cowboys coach Tom Landry, meanwhile, pressed on with football matters while Perkins muttered from the back, "I knew we shouldn’t be playing today.” Hall of Fame defensive tackle Bob Lilly wanted to return to Dallas immediately.
But Folkins was eager to get on the field.
“Kennedy was the first president I ever voted for,” he says. “To have him shot right there in Dallas by some screwball, it affected everyone. We were no different. But we had a job to do, and our job was to play football, and we put a lot of things aside to go out there on Sunday and play.”
Dallas Cowboys 'Looked Like Zombies' in Cleveland
Shortly before Mike Connelly raced onto the field before the game, Cowboys teammates playfully told the center it was nice knowing him. He didn't laugh. Fearful of the reception the Cowboys would get, Dallas backup quarterback Eddie LeBaron urged teammates to not remove their helmets on the sideline. The Cowboys "looked like zombies," Lilly recalled.
Shortly before the game started, the crowd stood for a minute or two in silence to honor JFK. Most heckling by fans subsided during the game, but occasionally Cowboys players heard epithets directed toward them. The game, played before a little more than 55,000 in the 80,000-seat stadium, was dreadful. "Probably the worst game we played or Dallas played," a Browns player recalled.
Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith completed 13 of 30 passes for 90 yards and threw four interceptions. Ryan wasn't much better, throwing three interceptions and passing for 162 yards. Cleveland's Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, considered by many the best player in NFL history, rushed for only 51 yards.
The Browns won, 27-17, but few cared.
“This was a game that nobody was interested in playing, coaching, watching or writing about,” wrote Dallas Morning News columnist Bud Shrake for the next day's newspaper.
Eager to return to Dallas, the Cowboys had only one more road game left during the season, at St. Louis.
"It’s amazing how [Dallas] took the full blame for President Kennedy’s death,” Norman said. “It was absolutely incredible. Other places let us know that they were not going to forget it and were not going to let us forget it.
“This city was poison for anybody that did not live here.”