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JFK, my father and high school football

When national tragedy trumped private hopes

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Editor's note: On Nov. 22, 1963, at approximately 12:30 p.m., Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed President John Fitzgerald Kennedy while he and first lady Jacqueline toured Dallas, Texas. That day, longtime CL columnist John Grooms, a freshman at the time, joined the rest of his hometown of Gaffney, S.C., to cheer on the local high school football team as it played Lancaster High's. The following account is part of a longer memoir, published in CL in 1995 and in a book of columns, Deliver Us From Weasels.

My high school's football team played for the state championship on the day John Kennedy was assassinated. No one tried to postpone the game, even though the murder that stunned the world occurred a mere, inconvenient six hours before kickoff. And there was no way I was going to miss the game. There was too much riding on it.

The news came to me as I waited in line at a water fountain before going into the last class of the day.

"Just shot, that's all I heard," said the girl who ran up to our line to tell us about it. "Just shot." Imagining that the president had been hit in the arm or shoulder and that he'd be all right, I gulped the cold water and walked into Latin class.

The game — Gaffney High's last of the season — would happen 60 miles to the east, against Lancaster High. Both teams were undefeated, and the winner would be declared state champion (South Carolina had no playoff system then).

Small Carolina towns like Gaffney and Lancaster, rooted in textile mill and Southern Baptist cultures, were short on things to get excited about in those days. Perhaps they still are. Very often, the high school football team became the focus of the town's energy, both incubator and repository of its dreams.

We were lucky. Gaffney's Indians were a perennial high school football team powerhouse. In the years when we had a truly great team, as we did that autumn, townspeople were likely to be whipped into a frenzy. With a season-ending state title game against an undefeated opponent thrown into the mix, it was almost more than the town could stand. No one had talked about anything else for a couple of weeks, from students and teachers to radio DJs and newspaper columnists.

School boosters had the idea, unprecedented at the time, of chartering buses for the drive to Lancaster. They had no trouble filling them, of course. The championship game had become a juggernaut, and the town was wrapped up, secure in our own drama, our self-contained world, basking in small Southern towns' traditional disconnection from the national picture.

During football season, Friday's last class was cut short so students could hold pep rallies in Gaffney High's wobbly old auditorium. Our rallies were famously raucous. For a half-hour or more, we let loose with wild, deafening cheers and screams, befitting a town where speaking in tongues at revivals wasn't unheard of.

On Nov. 22, however, most of us filed uneasily into the auditorium at 2:15 p.m., wondering about President Kennedy. The principal, undertaker-like in his black suit, walked across the stage and stood in front of the cheerleaders. He motioned for silence and announced, "The radio news says the president is critically wounded, but he's OK." The rally went on as scheduled — one of the wildest and loudest ever, a wall of noise blocking entry to the outside world and its dark corners.

When we left the rally, we heard right away that Kennedy was dead.

My father had bought tickets for us on one of the chartered buses, and so, later that afternoon, mom drove me out of the "better" part of town, where we'd moved after her remarriage, to drop me off at Dad's house, which sat three blocks from a cotton mill.

When she asked if I was sure I wanted to go to the game, considering the day's events, I'm sure I looked at her as if she had lost her mind. Along with the prospect of a potential win, my enthusiasm had become entwined with the idea of sharing the game with dad. We had seen more of each other lately and seemed to be moving toward a restoration of our splintered bond. To my adolescent mind, the title game would seal the deal. Instead, it was the most awkward evening I've ever had, and awkward in an indescribable way, as nothing like it has happened since to compare.

At dad's house, the assassination absorbed all our conversation. We talked numbly, neither of us meeting the other's gaze. Eventually, we got into his car and drove to the high school stadium, where a fleet of buses awaited. Everything felt different, and different in ways we could neither grasp nor fend off. It was as if we had no choice but to talk about the killing, react to it any way we could, just to see if our ramblings would by chance make sense of it. They didn't. Dad parked the car, and we climbed aboard our bus.

Rather than the all-American communal football fever we riders had anticipated, our high spirits fought against uneasy silences, and all our conversations dodged Dallas, the new snake in our path. Just under the surface of our rolling pep rally lurked a strong sense of guilt for going ahead with the game in spite of Kennedy's death. Cheers often erupted, like fireworks exploding over a fog.

As Lancaster's small stadium came into view, a scream went up from the Gaffney buses that startled townspeople walking to the game, bundled up against the cold. We scrambled off the buses and practically ran to the visitors' side of the stadium, filling it easily. We settled in and waited for the game to start.

Ah, the game. The Game. That great contest for the state title, this battle of undefeated young gods that had nearly been the center of our lives for days, was reduced to a complete anticlimax. Flat.

The good citizens of Lancaster were less inclined than we to swallow their shock at the president's death. Their cheers sounded forced, and a preacher delivered a long-winded pre-game prayer of "sympathy for Mrs. Kennedy and her little children" and asked God to "give strength to President Johnson." President Johnson. I winced at the strange new words.

Beyond that, Lancaster High's driving force, a big running back named Jimmy "Muletrain" McGuirt, had turned 21 earlier that week, rendering him ineligible for this game. Gaffney's team, intact and ready to play, romped 27-0. After the first two touchdowns, the night became a bore. Things weren't turning out the way I thought they would.

For the rest of the game, I split my time between friends — roaming the stands, buying Cokes, cracking stupid jokes — and my dad, who, although never a terribly expressive man, was more distant than usual. We talked about the game, but there wasn't a lot to say except that Lancaster sure missed their big guy and that the whole thing was a "smear." I wanted to know what he was thinking about — football, Kennedy, mom? — but I never asked. When the game finally, mercifully ended, our crowd was subdued as we walked back to the buses, took our seats and headed home.

The ride back to Gaffney was by turns jubilant and uncomfortably silent, as the late night of Nov. 22 lurched unnaturally between championship fever and the dazed anxiety the rest of the country was enduring via TV. My father and I sat next to each other, but we might as well have been in different vehicles. We were unused to talking about anything more substantial than TV or movies or sports, and the disabling enormity of the day — and the letdown of the deflated game — dashed any chance we had at reconciliation. If there had ever been a chance.

My father and I got back to his house after midnight, and I went to sleep in a bed that seemed foreign. In the morning, we rehashed the game over breakfast, trying to conjure some retroactive excitement. We finally gave up. I grabbed the newspaper lying on the kitchen table and read aloud the latest details of the tragedy that had fragmented so many fragile plans. Breakfast over, I packed up my clothes from the previous day and dad drove me home.

It took me years to realize what I'd been after on that trip, just as it was only in retrospect — after riots, Vietnam and more assassinations — that we would see the beginnings of the downward slide the country embarked on after Kennedy's murder. No, that Saturday morning it all felt a lot simpler. I just knew something awful had happened.

At the top of my driveway, I got out of dad's car and talked to him through the open window, agreeing to maybe go to a movie in a couple of weeks, although I knew it wasn't going to happen now. I walked down the hill and through the sliding glass doors of my home, where my mother and stepfather were watching the televised aftermath of Kennedy's death. They looked me up and down to see if I was all right. Then, after a brief exchange about Friday night's game, the three of us turned to the TV and slipped into the four-day shared national intimacy of grief.

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