It was to be the highlight of the season, both on the field and off.
Iowa football players had prepared hard for a home game against traditional power Notre Dame, the final game of the season at what was then known as Iowa Stadium.
It was a game that was to be the last at the college level for 14 Hawkeye seniors and as was the case anywhere Notre Dame played at the time, a game that drew considerable interest.
Hundreds of Notre Dame fans had traveled to the Quad-Cities, filling hotels.
A Friday night rally for supporters of both schools was to be held at the LeClaire Hotel in downtown Moline where Notre Dame athletic director Moose Krause was to be among the featured speakers. Across the river, a similar event was scheduled to fill a ballroom at the Blackhawk Hotel in downtown Davenport.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy earlier in the day on Nov. 22, 1963, changed everything.
The social events were canceled, and ultimately the football game between the Hawkeyes and Fighting Irish was canceled as well. It's the only game in Iowa football history that never was played in the season it was scheduled.
“It was a difficult decision, one that administrators from both schools went back and forth on again and again. Nobody was sure what to do. It was uncharted territory,’’ recalled Jerry Burns, then in the third season of his five as the Hawkeyes’ head coach.
Burns, who now lives in Eden Prairie, Minn., was as shocked as anyone when a secretary came into his office, interrupting an interview with sports reporter Bert McGrane of the Des Moines Register to inform him that President Kennedy had been shot.
“Bert McGrane dropped to a knee and said a prayer. I’ve always remembered that,’’ Burns said. “It was so stunning, such an unexpected thing.’’
The situation was complicated because the Notre Dame team had already flown into town, arriving on Friday afternoon and checking into a motel in Coralville.
Iowa players went through their final practice of a 3-3-2 season and were taken by bus to a motel in Mount Vernon, Iowa, where the Hawkeyes typically stayed on the night before home games.
“It was a big game, probably one of the most talked about of the season,'' said Mike Reilly, a Hawkeye linebacker recalling the Senior Day he never had. "We felt like we had a good chance of winning and then, any win against Notre Dame was a good one.
“There were a busload of people coming in from my hometown, Dubuque, and the plan was that when the game was over, I was going to ride home on the bus with them and there would be a big celebration, but it never happened.’’
Jerry Hilgenberg, then an assistant coach at Iowa, said officials wrestled with whether to play the game or not.
“We played Notre Dame fairly regularly then, so it was always a highly-anticipated game,’’ Hilgenberg said. “With it being the last game of the year, all the players had family coming to the game. It was to be the highlight of the season. Nobody was certain what to do. Some schools played. Some didn’t.’’
Like the teams, fans had traveled as well.
Among them was Rich Wolfe, a Lost Nation, Iowa, native who was a senior at Notre Dame at the time and looked forward to watching two cousins play for the Hawkeyes that day.
He joined five classmates who spent the weekend in the Quad-Cities, checking into a Bettendorf motel and planning to take part in pregame fun at the Blackhawk Hotel in Davenport.
“I went to the event two years earlier before Notre Dame played in Iowa City and it was a festive thing,’’ Wolfe said. “Dinner was served, there was a band playing and there were a lot of Notre Dame people there from all over, a lot from Chicago who would make a weekend of it.’’
Wolfe and his friends had learned of the assassination before they left the Notre Dame campus on that Friday afternoon, but piled into the car and headed west anyway.
“The news was so unexpected, so shocking, but as a college kid, I still expected things to go on, that the party would still go on,’’ Wolfe said. “Of course that didn’t happen. It had been canceled, but most of the people showed up at the hotel anyway. The spirit was different, but the spirits still flowed that night.’’
A crowd of 55,000 was expected for the game, paying $5 each for tickets, and across the nation, some games were held as scheduled although all Big Ten games were postponed. Conference commissioner Bill Reed told the Davenport Times-Democrat that leaders of most of the institutions in the conference felt it “would not be appropriate to play the games, considering the type of man the president was.’’
In Iowa City, director of athletics Forest Evashevski talked with Krause by phone initially and the pair met later that night at the University of Iowa Athletic Club, still uncertain what to do.
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Kennedy, then a United States senator, attended the 1959 Iowa-Notre Dame game in Iowa City according to a Times-Democrat story, and his support of fitness and physical activity were among the reasons that made the ultimate decision more difficult.
That Friday night, the athletic directors announced that the game would go on and Burns left for home that evening expecting it to be played.
Hours later, shortly after midnight and following consultation with Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, the decision was made that the game would not be played.
“By then, the players had already been put to bed and they were not told until the next morning,’’ Burns said. “Many of them had already had breakfast and had been taped up. They were ready to get on the bus to go to the game by the time they were told. It was a difficult day. It was a difficult time for everyone.’’
Wolfe and his classmates never made it to Iowa City, returning to South Bend instead.
“My parents back in Lost Nation weren’t pleased that I didn’t at least stop for a visit, but everything at that time was such a shock,’’ Wolfe said. “We went back to campus.’’
The timing of the game made rescheduling it difficult.
Notre Dame already had a game scheduled for the following Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, against Syracuse at Yankee Stadium. Iowa rejected an offer by Notre Dame to reschedule the game the following week.
Iowa officials released a statement following discussions by the Board in Control of Athletics, saying simply, “The board determined to extend the season two additional weeks would interfere too much with class work and other university activities.’’
Many Iowa players from that team returned to campus this fall and were honored on the field prior to the Hawkeyes’ season opener against Northern Illinois as part of a 50-year reunion.
“It was good for those guys to get together again,’’ Hilgenberg said. “They reminisced about being part of a good team and about that weekend. What happened is a part of their lives.’’