On November 22, 1963 I was a 16 year old high school senior. It started as a magical day.
We were scheduled to play the first football playoff game in the young history of my high school.
I was at a new high school and was part of the first graduating class. My class started there as sophomores. Even though I was small I was a starting defensive back and punt returner on the varsity football team. It was the first year we had seniors and we were league champions for the first time. At that time there was a rule in California that you needed to be 15 to play varsity football. As a sophomore I had played on the JV team where I was a 140 lb. middle linebacker, a position I loved because my role was to put my nose in the middle of every play. It was an important part of my football education. In my junior year the concept of a rover was popular at the college level and I joined the varsity at the rover position where I could play anywhere on the field I chose and the coaches let me make that choice. As a senior we mostly played a standard NFL four-man front with three linebackers and four defensive backs. I was the left corner.
We had great assistant coaches, including my coach, the defensive coordinator. He had been a small college All-American as a defensive tackle and taught us great individual technique and very sophisticated defensive schemes. We had beaten several teams who had better athletes because of our technique and teamwork. The following year my defensive coach would become a head coach at another high school and I would be a very junior assistant there for several years while I was in college. He told me then that I had been a coach on the field when I was a player, high praise from someone who never gave out false complements. He later became one of the most successful junior college head coaches in California.
Because we were scheduled to play that night when I arrived at school I went to the gym and put my number 43 scarlet game jersey on over my white shirt and tie. I was brimming with pride for all we had accomplished as a team, and looking forward to the most important football game of our young lives. Who could even imagine the shock that would happen just a short time later?
It was before lunch that the principal made an announcement that all the students and faculty were to assemble in the gym. We were all puzzled by the request and had no idea why we had been called to assemble in the middle of class. A short pep rally for the football team?
Once we were all assembled the principal announced that President Kennedy had been shot. I don’t recall that we knew then that he was dead, although that news came soon thereafter. It is hard to describe the sense of personal loss I felt, as did my entire family. We were all crushed that this handsome young hero had been taken from us. It was like we had lost a parent, or brother. He had touched us so deeply and personally. He had inspired us.
My family were devout Catholics and very active in Massachusetts Democratic politics. My parents and I had been born in Massachusetts, and before we moved to California my uncle had run in the Democratic primary for the Massachusetts state legislature. We had all worked on his campaign, including me on my bicycle putting flyers on doorknobs. Jack Kennedy was revered in our home; his framed picture was on the wall. JFK was our guy. We loved him. I have never felt that way about a politician since and probably never will.
Our football game was delayed until the following day. We met as a team and felt that President Kennedy, a man who loved sports, would want us to play and play our best in his honor. And we did. We won that game and the next week as well. We accomplished a lot, but we so missed our President and I still do, fifty years later.