50 Years Ago Today: Deacons and NC State Played Following JFK Assassination
Nov. 22, 2013
by Steve Shutt, Associate Athletic Director/Athletic Communications
The mood on board the bus was bright. The Wake Forest Demon Deacons were headed to Raleigh and the final game of the football season. Fresh off a big win over South Carolina, the Deacons were still basking in the glow of that 20-19 win over the Gamecocks. The victory had marked a coming-out party of sorts for junior fullback Brian Piccolo. The Fort Lauderdale native had almost single-handedly led Wake Forest to the win over USC, ending what had been an interminable losing streak.
The players on the bus had reason to be optimistic. The win over the Gamecocks had snapped an 18-game skein that dated back to the start of the previous season. The Deacons trailed USC 19-7 late in the third quarter at Bowman Gray Stadium when Piccolo scored on a 16-yard run to pull Wake Forest to within six points. With 7:15 remaining in the game, quarterback Karl Sweetan scored on a 4-yard run to tie the game and Piccolo booted the PAT for a 20-19 lead. After Wake Forest held the Gamecocks and quarterback Dan Reeves to three plays and a punt, Piccolo went to work, carrying on seven of the next 10 plays, gaining 48 yards and three first downs to help the Deacons run out the clock and secure the win. The 18-game streak was over. Piccolo finished with 140 yards on 21 carries and also caught a pass for 12 yards.
The task ahead in Raleigh was daunting. NC State was 7-2 and would be playing for a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference title. The Wolf Pack had fallen to Florida State the previous week and had only Wake Forest standing between them and a bid to the Liberty Bowl.
For a number of Deacon seniors, it would be the final game, not only of the season, but of their career. This game would be special: an unusual Friday night game without any collegiate competition anywhere else in the country.
And for the Demon Deacons, the bus trip to Raleigh on Thursday, November 21, 1963, was their last before the innocence was lost.
For at 12:30 p.m. EST on Friday, November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
"I remember we had had lunch and we were sitting around watching TV when it came on," said Bill Faircloth, then Wake Forest's starting right tackle and today, the assistant athletic director for football operations.
"We kept watching the TV and more and more happened," said Faircloth. "I don't remember the meetings or anything else. I just remember seeing it on TV. Coach (Billy Hildebrand) called us together and they were trying to figure out what to do. Since we were already there, they decided to play. It was my last game at Wake."
With the nation in shock following the assassination, sports executives across the country were faced with a daunting decision. Should the games go on or would it be disrespectful to the memory of the President. A nationally-televised boxing match from Madison Square Garden was cancelled. All the major horse racing tracks on the East Coast were shut down. The NBA postponed its slate of games as did the American Hockey League. The fledgling American Football League soon followed suit. Heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and his wife Geraldine wept when they heard the news.
NFL games went on as scheduled on Sunday though under heavy criticism. Commissioner Pete Rozelle said "It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy. Football was Mr. Kennedy's game. He thrived on competition." The full seven-game slate was played though none of the games were televised.
At the college level, the traditional final big weekend of the year featured a number of games that would decide bowl bids for January 1. Duke was expecting a sellout crowd of 47,500 as it hosted UNC for the ACC title on Saturday. The Big Six (now the Pac-12) called off its games including a game which could have determined the league's Rose Bowl representative. The Harvard-Yale game was postponed along with the rest of the Ivy League schedule. Elsewhere in the ACC, Virginia at Maryland, Clemson at South Carolina and North Carolina at Duke were rescheduled for Thanksgiving Day. Notre Dame called off its game with Iowa.
The NCAA left it up to the colleges as to whether to play or not but executive director Walter Byers asked that if games are played that they include "an appropriate, dignified opening ceremony and whatever other memorial tribute you might think appropriate at half-time."
In Raleigh, representatives of Wake Forest and NC State huddled before making a decision. The Wake Forest team was already in Raleigh. There were just hours remaining before the scheduled kickoff. NC State Chancellor John T. Caldwell made the following statement:
"This is a day of deep tragedy for our Nation and mankind. Let not the playing of this game tonight diminish our sense of respect for our great departed President and the office. President Tribble of Wake Forest joins me in this request: that those present and all who hear us join in one minute of silent prayer for the United States of American and the welfare of all mankind, at the conclusion of which I shall read the last stanza or our National Anthem, followed by its presentation by the combined bands. Will you please rise and pray silently."
A crowd of 15,200 took part in a moment of silence before the game as the two marching bands combined to play the National Anthem. All halftime ceremonies were canceled.
"It was your last game," said Faircloth. "You felt bad. You'd come off a game where you had lost 18 in a row. It was kind of crazy, it was up and down. I always wanted to play in that stadium (at NC State) but not in that situation. When they played the National Anthem, there wasn't a dry eye. I was a game captain and I can't remember if we won or lost the toss. "
The details of the game, at least for Demon Deacon fans, are probably lost to memory. An inspired Wolf Pack team raced to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, extended it to 35-0 at the half and came home with a 42-0 victory.
Chancellor Caldwell later explained how he and Dr. Tribble had arrived at their decision. From a statement, Caldwell said:
"First, the game would be played now or later and our sense of respect for the President would, I hope, not later be diminished or our grief assuaged. To play it now means a vast saving in time and money for many people. "Second, I learned that our players desired to play the game as scheduled. "Third, I deeply believe that President Kennedy would have wished the game to go on. "Fourth, the decision was not a simple one for me., though it might seem so for anyone else not charged with the responsibility to make it. "Fifth, we have seized the opportunity to pay our respect and pray solemnly for our country and our fellow man everywhere. "Sixth, no one who felt a compulsion to stay at home or ignore the event was prevented from following his own conscience."
That weekend, with memorial tributes and hymns replacing halftime entertainment, about 20 games were played across the nation. The Southeastern Conference maintained its full slate of contests. Nebraska beat Oklahoma to earn a bid to the Orange Bowl in the only Big 8 (now Big 12) game that was played that day.
Fifty years later, few who were alive on that day will ever forget where they were when they heard the news. And 50 years later, the memories of a mourning nation are still alive.
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