On December 31, 1997, approximately 25 Kennedy family members and friends gathered for their last run of the day atop Aspen Mountain’s Copper Bowl. As the mountain emptied and the light grew flat, the high-spirited group organized into teams and packed a water-bottle with snow in preparation for their customary game of ski-football.
Eyewitnesses have said that the group set off at a high rate of speed down Copper Bowl, tossing the “football” back and forth between the teams, using trees and sign posts as goals. The game turned tragic when 39-year old Michael Kennedy, said to be the most gifted skier and athlete in the family, looked up for a pass just as his ski caught an edge on the icy slope and he slammed headfirst into a tree. His sister Rory immediately began to administer CPR while Michael’s relatives, including his three young children, looked on in disbelief. Ski patrol was on the scene four minutes after the accident and performed lifesaving methods all the way down to a waiting ambulance, but Michael’s head and neck injuries were too severe and he was pronounced dead 90 minutes after impact.
The Kennedy family had allegedly received several friendly requests over the years from Aspen ski patrol to stop the reckless ski-football game. An official from Aspen mountain had supposedly phoned Ethel Kennedy to caution the family about their risky behavior on the slopes. The Kennedy family denied receiving any warnings.
There is no evidence that a helmet would have saved the life of Michael Kennedy but his highly publicized skiing accident, along with Sonny Bono’s deadly collision at Heavenly Ski Resort the very same month, highlighted the importance of protective headgear and ski helmets soon became commonplace on ski mountains in North America.
The Kennedy family has impacted the sport of skiing, just as they’ve influenced so many aspects of American policy and culture:
- The aptitude and appreciation that Edward, Robert and Jack Kennedy shared for skiing brought national attention to the sport.
- The rambunctious Kennedy brood glamorized ski vacations with their pilgrimages to Colorado and Idaho and the scandals that followed in their wake – Did Ethel really refuse to pay her Christmas catering bill? Did the Kennedy children actually put cherry bombs in the toilets of their Aspen condominium? And did Jackie (whose stylish stretch pants from Saks Fifth Avenue will forever be chronicled in the history of ski fashion) seek more than solace in the arms of brother-in-law Bobby at his Sun Valley home after Jack’s assassination?
- Teddy Jr. became a poster child for adaptive skiing when he was photographed skiing with outrigger poles after losing a leg to cancer.
- And finally, Michael’s tragic accident marked the start of helmets becoming a mainstream gear staple.