|President John F. Kennedy makes a speech on the steps of the state capital to help celebrate the 100th birthday of West Virginia on June 20, 1963.
|West Virginia state archives
It turned out to be the best decision on one of the worst days in American history.
The date was Friday, November 22, 1963, and West Virginia University athletic director Red Brown had just informed everyone that the West Virginia-Furman football game to be played the following afternoon at Mountaineer Field was being postponed.
Earlier that day, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a motorcade through Dallas, Texas.
Kennedy was gunned down in Dealey Plaza at 1:30 ET, and the first bulletin from CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite hit the airwaves at 1:40. By 2 p.m. the news was beginning to circulate around the country that Kennedy was seriously - perhaps even fatally - wounded. Then at 2:38 p.m., Cronkite officially announced the death
of the nation’s 35th
Just like the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination became a life-altering event for Americans.
Chuck Kinder, a sophomore kicker on the Mountaineer football team that year, recalled first hearing the news on the radio in his High Street apartment while preparing to get ready to walk over to Mountaineer Field for a light pregame practice.
Quarterback Ed Pastilong was down at Stansbury Hall finishing up his afternoon classes when he got the news from another WVU student that Kennedy had been shot.
“I walked up to the stadium and there were already a bunch of guys milling around inside and outside the locker room,” Pastilong recalled. “We were all heartbroken and dumbfounded by the news.”
Eleanor Lamb, who worked in the athletic business office, was among those at the stadium getting ready for Saturday’s game when she first learned that shots had been fired at the presidential motorcade. Soon a handful of staff members began following the grim updates of the president’s condition trickling in on the radio.
When the announcement was made that Kennedy had died, the immediate reaction throughout the athletic department was to cancel the game. JFK had become such a popular figure in West Virginia, having campaigned heavily in the state during the 1960 Democratic presidential primary, and when he later defeated Richard Nixon in the general election its inhabitants believed that it finally had a true friend in the White House.
But the decision to cancel the Furman football game was by no means a simple one because the Purple Paladins were already in Morgantown when the president was murdered. In those days, university athletic departments were not awash in cash and any decision with significant financial implications had to be vetted thoroughly. Lamb once recalled the woeful state of West Virginia’s athletic department finances then.
“I can remember sitting on my desk was a large stack of bills and each Monday I would go through them to choose which ones we could afford to pay,” she said.
Furman, a small school of just 1,400 students, was in a similar situation and returning to Greenville, S.C., without playing a football game or receiving any guarantee money would entail a lot more than just the nuisance of calling the game off.
Understandably, Furman coach Bob King was in favor of playing for two reasons – No. 1, because they were already in town, and No. 2, because he had a pretty good football team that was still in contention for a bid to the Tangerine Bowl. A victory over West Virginia – even a 3-6 Mountaineer team – would strengthen their resume. It was to be the first cancelation of a Mountaineer football game since the 1918 season was wiped out because of a worldwide influenza epidemic.
According to Theodore White, in his best-selling book The Making of the President 1960
, West Virginia was on JFK’s radar screen as early as 1958 while he was running for reelection as Senator of Massachusetts.
Kennedy had hired pollster Lou Harris to gauge the interest of a Kennedy presidency in West Virginia – a predominantly Protestant state with a high union presence and an equally high unemployment rate – and the results were very positive: 52 percent for Kennedy, 38 for Richard Nixon, with the rest undecided.
If Kennedy, the Boston millionaire, could make a strong showing in West Virginia that would prove to Democratic Party bosses that he was a viable candidate in the 1960 general election in November.
In early 1959, a Kennedy-for-President organization was set up with the help of Wood County industrialist Bob McDonough, and some of Kennedy’s closest advisors soon began invading the state in order to set up grass-roots organizations from McDowell County in the southern part of the state all the way up to Ohio County in the state’s Northern Panhandle.
By December of 1959, it looked like they were making major inroads when Harris reported back that Kennedy had a 70-30 lead over Hubert Humphrey, another leading Democratic candidate.
Then, when Kennedy didn’t get the blowout victory over Humphrey in the Wisconsin primary that he had anticipated – the vote breaking strictly along religious lines – the next primary in West Virginia became critical for Kennedy’s hopes of claiming the nomination. Lose it and his candidacy was done.
Three weeks before West Virginians went to the polls on May 10, Humphrey had turned a substantial deficit into a 60-40 advantage over Kennedy. When the Kennedy people had asked what had happened to their big lead, the local organizers were succinct: “No one in West Virginia knew he was a Catholic in December. Now they know.”
Right after the Wisconsin primary, all of Kennedy's closest loyalists arrived in the state – Ted Sorenson, childhood friend Lem Billings, Navy buddies Bill Battle and Red Fay, Harvard classmates Benjamin Smith and Charles Spalding, Sargent Shriver, artist friend Bill Walton, the Kennedy brothers and sisters, as well as many others.
Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. was also recruited to talk to West Virginians about Kennedy’s strong war record (while dropping hints about Humphrey’s lack of wartime service) and also trumpeting JFK's support of labor unions and coal miners. Not leaving anything to chance, the Kennedys also got New York Giants All-Pro linebacker and former Mountaineer star player Sam Huff on board with the campaign. Senator Joe Manchin’s father, John, was asked to make the introduction.
“I met (Kennedy) at a house, I believe in Monongah, and when we met he said, ‘Are you going to help me?’” Huff recalled a few years ago. “I said, ‘Yeah, but you’ve got to help yourself here first!’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘What I mean is you are Catholic. You have to tell the people here about what you are going to do when you are president. That’s all you have to do here.'”
Huff continued, “He said, ‘Nobody ever talked to me like that, Sam.’ I said, ‘Well, do you want to win or do you want to lose? I’m telling you how to win here.’ And he did. He made one of the greatest speeches I had ever heard. He was just so quick (witted) and so good – what a man he was!”
Kennedy attacked the religious issue head on, his supporters poured large amounts of money into the state, and West Virginians responded by giving him a resounding victory over Humphrey. The West Virginia triumph reinvigorated the Kennedy campaign and provided the momentum he needed to win the nomination in Los Angeles later that summer.
Three years later, in 1963, Kennedy had not forgotten what West Virginians had done for him, or the desperate poverty that he had witnessed while campaigning in the state’s southern coalfields. White wrote that Kennedy’s “exposure to the misery of the mining fields probably changed him most as a man,” and JFK likely had the plight of those West Virginians on his mind when he agreed to return and help the state celebrate its 100th birthday
on June 20, 1963.
Charleston’s Chuck Kinder was right there in the crowd to hear the president speak on the steps of the state capital building.
“I remember working my way up close to the front because I wanted to see him,” said Kinder. “He was obviously a national celebrity, in addition to being our president. When he was finished with his speech, he jumped down from the podium right into the crowd with the Secret Service immediately surrounding him.
“I saw them shoving little old ladies to form that protective circle around him,” Kinder continued. “There were about 12 guys holding hands with Kennedy right in the middle of them.”
Just five months later, Kennedy would die in front of another large crowd in Dallas.
When the West Virginia players arrived at the stadium for practice on the afternoon of Nov. 22, no decision had been made on the Furman game. The players were told to go back to their dorm rooms and apartments and wait.
“I recall the coaches telling us that they would get back to us,” said Pastilong.
Much has been made of the Army-Navy game being postponed until Dec. 7, 1963 - 15 days after the Kennedy assassination (CBS Sports Network recently aired a one-hour documentary about the memorable game) - but it was only when the Harvard-Yale game was postponed that other schools around the country began following suit.
Among the 30-some college games cancelled that weekend was the Pitt-Penn State contest in Pittsburgh, which ultimately ended up costing the nine-win Panthers an opportunity to play in a bowl game.
With Penn State already in town, several hours of deliberations took place before it was finally agreed at 9:30 p.m. that the game would be called off. Complicating matters was a phone call Pitt athletic director Frank Carver received from a New York City reporter who told him that he had received a tip that the White House was going to ask that all sporting events be canceled on Saturday as part of a national day of mourning.
Then later, the same reporter called back to say that the White House had reversed course and was going to request that all games be played because of the late president’s keen interest in physical fitness. That, too, turned out to be baseless.
When Red Brown made the decision early Friday evening to postpone the Furman game until Thanksgiving Day, he wasn’t certain the school would agree to make the return trip. But a day later, Furman agreed to come back.
“When the game was rescheduled that changed everybody’s plans,” said Kinder. “All of the students were gone and the people who were regular season ticket holders had Thanksgiving plans and they didn’t come to the game. It really hurt my feelings to miss Thanksgiving break because I played two sports. (Thanksgiving) represented the end of the football season and I had that week to unwind before I had to begin practicing with the baseball team.”
“No one in the country was thinking about football,” added Pastilong.
The team reassembled at Martin Hall on Sunday evening and began practicing on Monday afternoon for the regular season finale. Pastilong, who spent the season as Jerry Yost’s backup, was informed that he would be the starting quarterback for the game in an effort to give him a head start on the 1964 campaign.
|Quarterback Ed Pastilong, pictured here in a game against The Citadel, passed for three touchdowns in West Virginia's 38-7 victory over Furman six days after the JFK assassination.
|WVU Sports Communications photo
The very first pass Pastilong threw that afternoon went for a touchdown and he led the Mountaineers to an easy 38-7 victory. Less than 1,500 people were at 30,000-seat Mountaineer Field to witness the game.
“It was more like a football practice,” said Kinder. “Nobody really wanted to play - we just wanted to go home.”
In addition to the West Virginia-Furman game, the Thanksgiving Day lineup that afternoon included Illinois-Michigan and Texas-Texas A&M.
The Saturday, Nov. 30, college football schedule included Dartmouth-Princeton, North Carolina-Duke, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Auburn-Alabama, Ole Miss-Mississippi State, Missouri-Kansas, Arizona-Arizona State, Stanford-Cal, Washington-Washington State and Oregon-Oregon State.
Among the college games played on the day after the Kennedy assassination were the Nebraska-Oklahoma, Tennessee-Kentucky, LSU-Tulane and Auburn-Florida State contests.
Two days after the death of the president and a day before his state funeral, the NFL chose to play a full schedule of games, which commissioner Pete Rozelle later regretted.
When Pastilong was West Virginia’s AD and he was confronted with the decision to postpone the Maryland football game in 2001, following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he said it was really an easy choice to make. He had already experienced one national tragedy as a WVU student.
“In these situations, it would seem the decision might be difficult, but it’s really not,” Pastilong explained. “The games are very important, but when an event of national significance takes place, that clearly takes precedence.
“I just remember those two tragedies being very sad occasions for everyone,” he concluded.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination this Friday, West Virginians everywhere will fondly recall their old friend in the White House, and the great sorrow they felt when learning of his untimely death.