Charlie Williams was in Preston dormitory at the University of South Carolina when he heard the announcement 50 years ago today that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.
“It was broadcast all over the school,” said Williams, a North Augusta dentist who five decades ago served in ROTC and played football and baseball for the Gamecocks. “It was a sad day. All the classes on the Horseshoe were closed down.”
On that Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, shock and grief were the primary emotions across the nation. Nobody knew quite how to react.
For Williams and his Gamecocks teammates, however, their emotions were told to be put on hold. The next day, South Carolina was scheduled to play its arch rival Clemson at Carolina Stadium. The team met for practice that afternoon, as South Carolina president Thomas Jones and Clemson president Robert Edwards had decided the game would go on.
It was supposed to be the first Gamecocks-Tigers rivalry game televised on CBS.
Head coach Marvin Bass, a giant of a man, gathered his whole team to pray before practice.
“It was an unusual thing,” Williams said of trying to go about the practice of football in a time of national mourning. “We were preparing for the game ... in kind of a ... I wouldn’t say lethargic mood, but we were in a sad mood because the president had been shot. That was a sad time for anybody, having the highest person in the nation shot. It was depression. We weren’t discouraged about playing Clemson, but saddened as a group of individuals.”
The assassination of President Kennedy is one of those frozen moments in American history. Everyone who was alive at the time can remember exactly where they were when they heard the news. As it unfolded, nobody knew the appropriate way to react.
Nowhere was that national confusion more visible than in football, where organizational chaos reigned around the nation.
That weekend was to have been one of the showcase dates on the college calendar, with many programs concluding the regular season with highly anticipated rivalry showdowns. And in point of fact, on the Friday night of Kennedy’s assassination, N.C. State beat Wake Forest 42-0.
Harvard, where Kennedy had gone to school, was the first to announce the cancellation of its game against Yale. Dartmouth and Princeton followed suit. Navy – in which Kennedy had served as an officer – cancelled its game against Army.
However, at the specific request of Kennedy’s widow, Jacqueline, the game was rescheduled and played 15 days later. Midshipman quarterback Roger Staubach led Navy to a victory in front of more than 100,000 fans in what was considered an “uplifting moment for a reeling nation.”
NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle decided his league would play as scheduled on Sunday, even though CBS refused to televise any entertainment until after the president’s funeral the following Wednesday. Rozelle later called that decision his “biggest regret.”
The rival AFL cancelled its slate of games, in large part because Raiders owner Al Davis told his fellow owners he would refuse to let his team play.
Colleges were similarly split.
Nebraska and Oklahoma played that Saturday with the Big Eight championship at stake, which the Cornhuskers won 29-20. Among the other games played were Auburn-Florida State, LSU-Tulane, Notre Dame-Iowa and Tennessee-Kentucky – though reports said the old wooden beer barrel usually claimed by the winning team went untouched by the victorious Volunteers.
My uncle, Bob Bayley, was one of the record 57,773 in the Orange Bowl that Saturday for the Florida-Miami game. Miami president Henry King Stanford reportedly had an 11th-hour change of heart and tried to rush to the press box to cancel the game before kickoff, but was too late.
My uncle, a former three-sport athlete for the Hurricanes, attended with one of his friends, who went to Florida. When his friend coincidentally returned from the concession stand during a moment of silence in honor of the slain president, his poorly timed shout of “Go Gators!” at the top of the tunnel was met with scorn and nearly got them ejected.
That was not the best emotional environment to play football in, particularly a rivalry game. And many Clemson and South Carolina fans expressed displeasure about the contest going forward as scheduled. One Gamecocks cheerleader reportedly called a radio station to protest.
“What have we to cheer about?” she said.
Before the end of the day, the South Carolina and Clemson presidents had reconsidered and postponed the game for five days to be played on Thanksgiving instead – a day after Kennedy’s funeral. Jones cited “the solemnity of the hour” in his postponement notice. Despite all the years of playing a “Big Thursday” game against Clemson during State Fair week that ended in the late 1950s, this remains the only South Carolina game ever played on Thanksgiving.
Williams, who was recently inducted into the North Augusta Sports Commission Hall of Fame, doesn’t remember much of the details about the postponement other than relief.
“I tried to forget all of that because I was sad,” he said. “I don’t like to be sad.”
He doesn’t even remember what happened in the game – which might not have anything to do with his breaking 17 helmets during his years on the team, earning him the nickname “Steelball” Williams.
After Thanksgiving dinners, 27,414 witnesses showed up at Carolina Stadium to see Clemson prevail 24-20. The Tigers ended the season with five consecutive wins to finish 5-4-1, while South Carolina’s 1-8-1 record was the Gamecocks worst since going 1-7-1 in 1942.
For his part, Williams caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jim Rogers, spinning into the end zone to give the Gamecocks a 14-7 lead at halftime.
Until the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, that was the only postponed game in Gamecocks history. Both Clemson and South Carolina even played home games the weekend after Hurricane Hugo ravaged much of the Palmetto state in 1989.
Just as the Kennedy assassination, 9/11 was seared into the national consciousness. It also inspired confusion in the sports ranks for several days until every major sports league eventually decided to take a week’s pause.
Nine days after 9/11, South Carolina and Mississippi State played the first Division I-A football game after the terror attacks, with the Gamecocks winning 16-14.
“I think it was important for America to see a football game because football is America’s sport,” then head coach Lou Holtz said.
Sometimes though, in the face of great tragedy, even America’s sport needs to take a back seat.
Williams understood that all too well 50 years ago.
“We had the pride of the football team, but we were a sorrowful nation,” he said.