Marking The 50th Anniversary Of A National Tragedy
By Steven King
It was another in a seemingly endless string of big moments at Cleveland Stadium during that time in history a half-century ago.
The Cleveland Browns beat Dallas 27-17 in their 1963 home finale, sweeping the season series from the fourth-year Cowboys. Much more importantly, though, they improved their record to 8-3 and remained in a tie for first place in the Eastern Conference with the New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals with just three games to play.
As such, the Browns were hoping they would keep winning and end their six-year drought of not making it into the postseason. They had come close to getting to the NFL Championship Game as the conference’s representative in 1958 and ’60, but had fallen just short both times. Now they were intent on finishing the job.
Leading head coach Tom Landry’s Cowboys just 13-10, Cleveland took charge at the start of fourth quarter by getting two quick touchdowns on a 36-yard interception return by S Ross Fichtner and a 16-yard pass from QB Frank Ryan to WR Gary Collins. It marked the second time that Ryan and Collins, the team’s first-round pick in the 1962 NFL Draft, had hooked up on a touchdown pass in the game, as they also had an 11-yarder in the first quarter to open the day’s scoring.
Ryan and Collins were on their way to setting team records that season with 25 touchdown passes and 13 scoring receptions, respectively. Also, by connecting for 49 career touchdowns when they played together from 1962-68, they are the most prolific passing combination in Browns history.
RB Ernie Green rushed for 97 yards in just seven carries, averaging nearly 14 yards per try. Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown added 51 yards, putting him 30 short of his own NFL rushing record of 1,527 ysrds set in his second season of 1958. He ended the year with a whopping 1,863 yards.
Along with all that, the crowd of 55,096 put the Browns’ home attendance at 487,430, a team record. They averaged 69,663 for their seven dates in Cleveland.
Yes, it was a day to remember – but for reasons other than what happened on the field.
The game was played on Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963, just two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Sunday’s contest between the Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium, located on the footprint of Cleveland Stadium, will mark the 50th anniversary of that game.
To add even more emotion to one of the most historic moments the country has ever had, on the afternoon that the Browns and Cowboys played, Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of killing Kennedy, was shot to death in Dallas by Jack Ruby.
With all that, then, football was the last thing on the minds of anyone — even the passionate Browns fans — that day.
In fact, following the assassination on Friday, Nov. 22, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle ordered that the league’s schedule of games that Sunday would go on as planned. Years later as he was retiring, he said his decision to play that weekend was the biggest regret of his tenure. He realized it was wrong to have had football games going on when the entire nation was in shock and a state of mourning.
Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue considered Rozelle’s feelings regarding his decision 38 years earlier in announcing that the NFL games for the following Sunday would be postponed and added to the end of the existing schedule, extending the regular season by a week.
It was a wise move based on the way fans reacted at the Browns-Cowboys game 50 years ago.
There was an eerie pall cast over the atmosphere at the stadium. Fans cheered, but not too wildly or enthusiastically. In some cases, they substituted polite applause to show their approval of positive plays by the Browns. It was almost as if they felt guilty being there, watching a sporting event — and maybe some of them did.
In rapid-fire fashion, Dallas had already been labeled by much of the rest of the country as the city that so irresponsibly allowed the young, popular president to be murdered. Right or wrong, it was viewed as the city of death.
So in Cleveland that day, the poor Cowboys, who would later garner the nickname of “America’s Team,” were the recipents of some of America’s wrath. They represented the supposedly evil Dallas to many who were looking to cast blame for the tragedy.
As for the Browns, their season had already been steeped in tragedy months before it ever began.
Tom Bloom, a two-way back from Purdue who had been selected in the sixth round of the 1963 NFL Draft after being the Boilermakers’ MVP the season before, died in a car accident on Jan. 18, 1963 on Interstate 70 in Western Ohio. Bloom, who was to have been tried in the defensive backfield, died before he ever got to meet his new team in Cleveland.
He was 21.
Ernie Davis, who had broken all of Brown’s rushing records as a senior at Syracuse in 1961 en route to becoming the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, died of leukemia on May 18, 1963.
The Browns had traded Hall of Fame RB/WR Bobby Mitchell to Washington to get the rights to Davis, whom the Redskins had taken with the No. 1 overall draft pick in 1962. By pairing Davis with Brown, they envisioned a big, powerful, prolific backfield, just like the defending NFL champion Green Bay Packers had with Hall of Famers Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor.
Davis was 23.
When Davis was too sick to play in 1962 with what was then a mysterious illness, the Browns, needing a running mate for Brown with Mitchell gone, pulled off a trade with Green Bay in the 1962 training camp to acquire a rookie from Louisville who, according to head coach Vince Lombardi, had no chance to make the Packers’ roster because of all the talent the team already had in the backfield. His name was Ernie Green.
Two weeks after the passing of Davis, on June 4, 1963, Don Fleming, a young, promising safety from tiny Shadyside, Ohio who had been with the Browns since 1960, was electrocuted in a construction accident in Florida. He had been named All-NFL by The Sporting News in what turned out to be his final season of 1962.
Fleming died just a week shy of his 26th birthday.
So in just 4½ months, the Browns had lost three key members of their team. It might be the most tragic offseason in sports history.
It no doubt caused Blanton Collier to wonder what in the world he had gotten himself into when he accepted the head coaching job of the Browns in January 1963, just a few days after Paul Brown, the man for whom the team is named, was fired.
Thus, what happened during that November 1963 weekend only added — greatly so, as it turned out — to the already enormous sadness in Cleveland.
Anything that takes place this Sunday when the Browns and Steelers play — no matter how significant it may seem to the fans of both teams in this bitter rivalry — will pale in comparison.
The only thing the two dates 50 years apart have in common is weather. It was cold that day in Cleveland in 1963 — the temperature was 35 degrees, but with an 11-mph wind, the wind-chill was 27 — and the forecast for Sunday’s game is for even more frigid conditions.
And one more bit of irony: On Monday, Nov. 25, 1963, the day after the game with the Cowboys and also the day on which Kennedy’s funeral was held, a couple in the Youngstown, Ohio suburb of Boardman Township welcomed a baby boy into the world. They named him Bernie Joseph Kosar Jr.
Finally, something in this sad tale to smile about.