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JOHN STEIGERWALD: In '63, it was just football

on November 23, 2013 10:59 AM

How about some historical perspective on the NFL’s decision to play the games scheduled 50 years ago, two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy?

The games shouldn’t have been played, and the man who made the decision to play them, former Commissioner Pete Rozelle, called it the biggest mistake of his career, if not his life.

But let’s not judge that decision based on the NFL in 2013. It was 1963. The NFL was still no better than the equal of college football in terms of national interest, and maybe still a little bit behind. (In western Pennsylvania, Pitt’s 9-1 football team was every bit as important as the Steelers.)

The Steelers played the Bears at Forbes Field in front of an announced crowd of a little over 36,000. Those 36,000 were the only people to see the game. It wasn’t televised locally, not because of the assassination, but because no home games were televised locally.

Going to an NFL game was not an all-day event. There was no tailgating. Very few women went to the games. It was all about football and only about football.

Fans going to Forbes Field that day didn’t have to feel guilty about drinking and partying before the game because, in 1963, that’s not what fans did. They got in their cars, drove to Forbes Field, went to their seats and watched the game. It was a rarity to spot a drunken fan. No after-game party. Just the ride back home.

There were no Steelers parties canceled that day because none were scheduled. People didn’t stock up at the supermarket on Saturday for their Sunday Steelers-watching party. Especially for home games. Can you imagine a crowd at your house, decked out in black and gold to listen to the Steelers on the radio?

Rozelle didn’t have to wrestle with the propriety of people partying two days after the assassination of an American president, because the games weren’t incidental to the parties.

They were just football games.

One of the justifications for playing them was that someone in the Kennedy family had said that Jack would have wanted them to play.

So, let’s not be too tough on Pete Rozelle. It’s not like he ignored the national mourning and said, “Party on.”

It was just football.

• Ben Roethlisberger is underpaid. He will be until he gets a raise to at least $20 million a year. The Steelers are probably going to have to sign him to an extension between the end of this season and the beginning of training camp next July or August.

The “Ben is unhappy and may ask for a trade” rumors persisted until the middle of this week’s preparation, and Roethlisberger made a point in every media outlet he could that he has no intention of leaving Pittsburgh.

Jory Rand of KDKA finally asked him point blank if he would take less money to remain a Steeler. The QB? said, “I’ll do whatever it takes to stay here and to be a part of this team and to help this team out.”

I’ll take that as a no. A simple “Yes” would have been the proper answer if, in fact, Roethlisberger has made the decision to accept a hometown discount if it becomes the only way he can avoid being traded or released.

It wouldn’t have been the smartest answer if he expects tough negotiations when it comes to a contract extension. He was wise not to back himself into that corner.

Maybe Roethlisberger will end up offering the Steelers a hometown discount in order to finish his career here. I’ll believe it when I see it.

• The Steelers needed their second-round pick, Le’Veon Bell, to make a major contribution this season. So far he has not. He’s been OK, but nothing special. They definitely needed a running back drafted in the second round to be one of the top 40 rookies in the league. If you listen to ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper, he’s not. Kiper came out with a list of the top 40 rookies for 2013, and Bell’s not on it.

• Hate the Cleveland Browns if you must, but give them credit for not wimping out and putting a roof on their stadium. The weather is perfect for a Steelers-Browns game in late November: temperatures in the mid-20s, snow showers and 25 mph winds.

I’ll never understand or accept those domes in Detroit and Indianapolis.

• Browns cornerback Joe Haden has all but shut down A.J. Green and Calvin Johnson, two of the best receivers in the NFL, this season. Antonio Brown of the Steelers is rated the best wide receiver in the league by Football Focus, and he should be expecting a heavy dose of Haden.

If I were an NFL cornerback, I think I’d rather try to defend Johnson or Smith between the 20s and Brown inside the 20.

Brown should get his catches and his yards against Haden. Touchdowns might be another story.

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