Friday, November 22, 2013

Re-posting: Nov. 22, 1963 -- the darkest day

      Nov. 22, 1963, began as a dark, gloomy day in New Orleans. It would become darker.
      It's a day easy to remember, hard to forget. The news was stunning -- and sickening -- by early afternoon. The weather kept getting worse. It poured that night. How appropriate.
      Where were you when JFK was assassinated?
      The Woodlawn High School football team was in the New Orleans area, at the Holiday Inn -- off Airport Highway -- in Metairie. We were playing at East Jefferson High School, just down the road from the hotel, in a Class AAA first-round playoff game that night.
       It was my junior year; I was a manager/statistician/school sports editor; it was Woodlawn's second playoff game in its four-year history; its first one on the road.
       At about 11:45 a.m., I was hanging around the hotel lobby when Coach A.L. Williams (the running backs/defensive backs coach) and Lee Prather (father of our quarterback, Trey Prather) said they were going to drive down the road and look at the stadium. Did I want to go along? Sure.
       We got back to the Holiday Inn about 12:30 p.m. As we walked back into the courtyard -- where a couple of the coaches were sitting near the swimming pool -- players began bolting out of their lower-floor and second-floor rooms yelling that "the President has been shot in Dallas!"
       How suddenly life changes.
       The horrible news that President Kennedy had died came a half-hour later. Football didn't seem so important anymore.
       We should not have been in New Orleans. We should not have been in the playoffs at all. But we also could have been playing in Shreveport that night. We had Byrd High School -- our good buddies -- to thank for it all.
       We had lost to Bastrop (13-7) and to Byrd (14-7), and it looked as if we were going to finish third in District 1-AAA, out of the playoffs. But two weeks before the regular season ended, the news broke on a Tuesday afternoon: Byrd had used an ineligible player, and had to forfeit eight wins overall, four in the district -- including our game.
        We were back in the race. Think practice at Woodlawn wasn't spirited that day?
        If Byrd could beat Bastrop that week, we had a chance to win the district. So we, for once, were rooting for Byrd. Our just rewards? Bastrop, an unheralded Cinderella-type team with three super players, beat Byrd 19-13 ... and deservedly won the district.
        So Bastrop was at home for its first-round game. Woodlawn, in second place, was on the road. On Thursday, as JFK and Jackie made their way to Texas, the Knights took the bus to New Orleans, with a stop at LSU for practice.
The most endearing moment of the long weekend of
the JFK assassination -- John-John salutes his father.
       Like the rest of the nation, we were mesmerized by the TV reports that afternoon. JFK wasn't popular in the South, but he was a charismatic man with a beautiful family (Jackie and two young children) and the news of the shooting from the Texas School Book Depository Building was riveting.
       Many of the Woodlawn students, including the cheerleaders, pep squad and band, learned of the shooting on their way to New Orleans.
       What I learned just recently, from Coach Williams, is that afternoon there was a lot of discussion with the East Jefferson people -- and the Louisiana High School Athletic Association -- on whether the game should be postponed. It wasn't.
       As far as I know, every game in the state was played that night. (So were the college games the next day and the NFL on Sunday ... a decision for which Pete Rozelle -- one of the great commissioners in sports history -- was criticized forever.)
        From our standpoint, it should have been postponed. It began raining in mid-afternoon, and it rained, and rained, and rained. There were some breaks, and it just drizzled some, but most of the game was played in a downpour. Especially when we had the ball.
        Sounds made up? Nope, I'm not kidding. I know this because I watched that game film hundreds of times. In fact, Coach Williams remembers that the East Jefferson coach (Bob Whitman) apologized to the Woodlawn staff at midfield at the end of the game because he knew his team had gotten the best of the weather deal.
        It was a 7-7 tie settled on first downs, which was the rule then (before overtime became mandatory). East Jefferson had six first downs to Woodlawn's five. If the first downs had been tied 6-6, we would have won on penetrations inside the 20; we had the edge, 3-2, because we had recovered two East Jeff fumbles inside their 20. We scored after one of them, but not the other.
         In the game's final minute, Trey Prather threw a fourth-down pass to my close friend Ken Liberto, who made a sliding, one-handed catch -- fabulous catch, really -- but out of bounds by inches. It would have been the first down we needed to advance.
         Instead, we were out. It was a loss (of sorts) for us.
        The country's loss that day? Immeasurable.
         Liberto loved that catch. Loved it so much that during the winter and spring, we had the game film and a Woodlawn projector at Trey's house and we watched the game and that play hundreds of times. That's now I know how hard it rained whenever we had the ball.
        The next day the bus ride home was long and quiet. We went through Baton Rouge, where LSU was playing Tulane, a 20-0 Tigers' victory before the most quiet Tiger Stadium crowd in history. After getting home on Saturday, we spent the rest of the day and most of the following two days watching TV.
         On Sunday morning, more stunning news -- Jack Ruby shooting alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas jail on live TV. I missed that; I was at the Woodlawn gym with Trey and Ken, who were shooting baskets because our basketball season was going to start on Tuesday. When Ken dropped me off at home, my mother gave me the news about Oswald.
         I'm not sorry I missed that scene.
        We didn't have school on Monday, the day of the state funeral. The images of that day are many and vivid in our memories. It was a sad, long day that concluded a sad, long extended weekend.
         For the generation before us, the "remember where you were" moment was Pearl Harbor. For this generation, it's 9-11. For the people my age, Nov. 22, 1963, was the darkest day.


  1. From Jesse Carrigan: A good read, Nico, for me 'cause I know the guys you're writing about and that game, etc.
    A couple of things: The ineligible player (at Byrd) was Ray Roush, my roomie at Tech our first year. He was the greatest guy, and totally unaware of the rules about playing in the district where he lived. His dad was a major at Barksdale and lived there, didn't know he had to play for Bossier. He had just moved to Louisiana in late summer. Also, didn't know Bastrop had beaten ya'll; of course, two of those guys at Bastrop were on our Tech freshmen squad: Morris Funderburk, the receiver, and Glenn Murphy.
    I was working in the Fair Park cafeteria at that time, cleaning tables and mopping the floors, to pay for my lunch ... When I returned to class, I went to Ms. Vines' classroom, and when I walked in she was crying ... and she hugged my neck. She married Coach (Clem) Henderson.

  2. From Sylvia Pesek: That was my senior year (at Haynesville High School). ... I was in typing class -- a class for which I could imagine no possible use at the time, but for which I have since thanked my lucky stars about a million times over. The announcement came over the intercom right before lunch time that the President had been shot. Unbelievably, many of the blockheads at HHS cheered -- you know they were just reflecting the opinions of their parents, since most of them undoubtedly knew more about quantum mechanics than they did about politics. My stomach turned over and it seemed like I suddenly couldn't really hear very well. I came home for lunch as I usually did, since we only lived two blocks from school, and Daddy was home for lunch, too. He was taciturn by nature, unless he had an audience outside the family, and he was noncommittal in his reaction, but at least Mama was less stoic. I cannot for the life of me remember whether I even went back to school that afternoon ... by then we had heard the announcement on TV that President Kennedy was, in fact, dead, but nothing seemed solid -- everything had such an air of unreality it could have been part of a Fellini movie. I imagine Mama insisted that I go to class, but I remember absolutely nothing about the rest of that day.
    Great piece, Nico, as always. My emotions are running pretty close to the surface today.