The Sports Bookie -- Recalling the turbulent 1963 NFL season

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In 1973, a weekly national news magazine ran a feature story about the period from 1963 to 1973, calling it “Ten Years that Shook the World.”

Certainly, it was a turbulent time. There were the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. There was the Vietnam War and the protests that it inspired. The Cold War, a rebellion crushed in Czechoslovakia, two wars in the Middle East, an overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile, a destructive Category 5 hurricane named Camille, Kent State and Watergate were other key events. And that’s just skimming through the major events.

In sports, 1963 could be called the year that shook the world of professional football. There was a gambling scandal that led to the suspension of two high profile stars, a drug-related death of another standout player, and a commissioner’s ruling in the wake of a national tragedy that he never lived down.

But on the positive side, in September the Pro Football Hall of Fame opened in Canton, Ohio; the American Football League became a stronger organization; and in the National Football League, the Chicago Bears put together a magical championship for longtime coach George Halas.
All of these elements are woven into a tightly written narrative by veteran author Lew Freedman in “Clouds Over the Goalpost: Gambling, Assassination and the NFL in 1963 (Sports Publishing; hardback, $24.95, 328 pages).
Freedman has published nearly 60 books and has worked at the Chicago Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

He also was the sports editor of the Anchorage Daily News, and several of his books have focused on the outdoors, particularly in Alaska (“Timber! The Story of the Lumberjack World Championships,” “Fishing for a Laugh: Reel Humor from Alaska” and “Bad Friday: The Great & Terrible 1964 Alaska Earthquake”). He also has written about the Iditarod and Mount McKinley, in addition to an intriguing book about the Barrow Whalers, the only football team located north of the Arctic Circle (“Thunder in the Tundra”).

His next work is a biography of soccer great Pele, which will be released in late January.

In “Clouds Over the Goalpost,” Freedman’s main theme centers around Halas’ obsession in leading the Bears past the Green Bay Packers, who had been to the NFL championship game the previous three years and were the two-time defending league champions. Halas, a founding father of the NFL, was getting old, and so were the veterans he coached. The Bears had not been to the title game since 1956 and had not won an NFL championship since 1946. And now, their biggest rivals, the Packers, had eight league titles — one more than the Bears — and Halas wanted to pull even.
But before games were played, the NFL had some serious issues to deal with.

The NFL was jolted early in 1963 when Detroit defensive star Alex Karras and Green Bay running back Paul Hornung were suspended by Commissioner Pete Rozelle for gambling. Both would be reinstated in 1964, but as the 1963 season played out, Karras and Hornung were in limbo about their future.

Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb was “a sports figure who transcended cities.” His death of an apparent heroin overdose on May 10, 1963, remains shrouded in mystery. Many of Lipscomb’s friends and teammates thought the Colts’ defensive star had been murdered.

As disturbing as this was to NFL officials, Rozelle’s decision to play games the Sunday following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas generated the most criticism. Most college football teams canceled their Saturday games (the Oklahoma-Nebraska contest was a notable exception), and the AFL decided not to play.

But Rozelle ruled that the games should be played, and even though many players’ hearts were not into it, the games went on. The Dallas Cowboys were in Cleveland that Sunday, and players watching from a small television set in the visitors’ locker room witnessed the killing of suspect Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the county jail.

“Put your helmets on and keep ’em on,” quarterback Eddie LeBaron told his teammates.

The reaction by Cleveland’s fans was unusual, Freedman writes. “The Cowboys were met by compete silence when they jogged out onto the field for the start of the game,” he writes.

Freedman does a fine job of summarizing the tragedies, but he also breathes life into that dusty 1963 season with some lively game action reporting. He sprinkles those reports with interviews with the men who played the game for a well-rounded perspective. Some interviews are current and fresh, while the comments of players and coaches who are now deceased were culled from Freedman’s notes from previous talks. Freedman writes with a studied eye, lending perspective 50 years after the fact while still capturing the “here and now” feel of events during the ‘63 season.

That means every aspect of the season gets covered, with plenty of attention directed toward the AFL and a nice recap of the San Diego Chargers’ 51-10 win against the Boston Patriots in the league title game.

In the NFL, the Bears marched toward their eighth league title with an intensity that matched their coach.

Even though he coached several more years after the Bears defeated the New York Giants 14-10 in the title game at Wrigley Field, 1963 was Halas’ last hurrah. The five NFL titles won by the Packers during the 1960s would overshadow his team’s memorable effort. But for one season, the Bears had caught lightning in a bottle.

“Collectively, the sixties belonged to the Packers,” Freedman writes. “But temporarily, ’63 belonged to the Bears.”

The 1963 season in pro football was more of a bumpy ride than smooth sailing. Freedman provides an easy to read, vivid and thorough look at a turbulent year.
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