Day 736: Returning To The Frozen Tundra Of Lambeau Field

originally published January 5, 2014

If you’ve been anywhere near the sports pages this week, then you have probably heard all about the weather in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The hometown Packers, the tiny-market, publically-owned NFC North champs are hosting a playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers in wind chills that could smack that wretched point where Fahrenheit and Celsius collide, right around the -40 mark.

Edmonton’s air promises to be just as unforgiving today, and I’m already dreading the sprint from my car to the grocery store; I can’t fathom loping around a sideline for the better part of a 3-hour contest. This is the kind of weather that can scramble cogent thought. Walking through -40 makes one pray for a nearby explosion, just for the heat of the flames. It turns a loogie into a crusty green snotsicle before it hits the pavement.

And so football lovers will turn their pre-game focus to other chilling playoff epics. The mighty Dan Fouts-led San Diego Chargers could have jetted to the Super Bowl in early 1982 were it not for the vicious wind in Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. The hometown Packers were frozen out by the New York Giants in the 2007 NFC Championship game. But nothing – not even today’s game – will compare to the infamous Ice Bowl.

The 1966 NFL Championship didn’t earn its oft-marked page in the tome of football history for simply being the coldest game ever played. Its significance is spread all over the game like cream cheese on an excessively-dolloped bagel. This was Green Bay’s attempt at an unprecedented third consecutive championship. It would determine who would represent the NFL in the second Super Bowl. And most importantly, it was the last time the NFL championship was considered to be the most important game in the sport of football – Joe Namath’s league-rattling upset the following year would forever cement the Super Bowl at the top of the charts.

It wasn’t enough for the turf at Lambeau Field to be as cold as ice – it actually was ice. A heating-coil system embedded in the soil was supposed to keep the grass soft, but it malfunctioned. Then when the tarp was removed shortly before the players took the field, it left moisture behind, and that moisture turned to solid ice.

That morning, several Green Bay players woke up and found their cars were dead. Dave Robinson, a starting linebacker, had to flag down a fan to catch a lift to the stadium.

The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse put forth the first casualties of the day, as their marching band was scheduled to play pre-game and at the half. The woodwind instruments were rendered useless by the cold, and the brass players’ lips froze to their mouthpieces. A number of band members were brought to a nearby hospital to be treated for hypothermia. The bass drum players were rarin’ to go, but nevertheless the gig was cancelled.

Refs had to make a quick run to a nearby sporting goods store for long underwear, earmuffs and heavier gloves. When head referee Norm Schachter blew his metal whistle after the opening kickoff, he found most of his lips left his face when he pulled the whistle away. The officials had to resort to yells and hand signals for the remainder of the day.

Temperatures hit -48˚F with the wind chill. One elderly spectator literally dropped dead in the stands. This was a tough-ass afternoon.

The game itself was pretty fantastic. Green Bay put up a 14-0 lead early on, but Dallas’s ‘Doomsday Defense’ forced a couple of turnovers and narrowed the gap to 14-10 at the half. Two of the most brilliant football minds in the history of the game were coaching these teams: Tom Landry, the stoic, expressionless master of defense for the Cowboys, and Vince Lombardi, the passionate offensive genius behind the seemingly unstoppable Packers. The coaches knew each other well, having both been a part of the New York Giants’ coaching staff in 1954.

The Cowboys took a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter, and with 4:50 left to play, Green Bay had the ball. What followed was an incredible drive, bits of which are shown in slow-motion with dramatic horn music in any NFL Films recap of the game. It came down to a third-and-goal play from the 1 yard line with 16 seconds to play. Green Bay had no timeouts. 99% of coaches would either call a quick pass play (since an incomplete pass would stop the clock) or kick the tying field goal and take it to overtime.

Vince Lombardi is not 99% of coaches.

Lombardi told Bart Starr, his quarterback, to run the ball and end the damn game. Starr called for a wedge block. His running back might have had trouble getting traction from the backfield, so Starr kept it himself, dove in and won the championship.

In 1966 (well, technically January of 1967), the Super Bowl was an afterthought. The NFL champ would play the AFL champ, but as the Packers had proved a year earlier (and would prove a week after this game), the NFL still reigned supreme. Not only had the Packers won a third straight championship, but they had made stars out of guard Jerry Kramer and center Ken Bowman, two positions that are not accustomed to the limelight. And when the clock ran down to all-zeroes, the fans at Lambeau decided not to bolt for their cars and the subsequent toastiness of their homes, but instead stormed the field, knocking over players and coaches and tearing down the uprights.

The Packers openly wept with joy after the game. Bart Starr and several other players on both sides were treated for frostbite. Linebacker Ray Nitschke lost his toenails and saw his toes turn purple. Numerous players suffered flu-like symptoms as they tried to recover. Vince Lombardi, whose team had won five championships in seven years as well as the first two Super Bowls, would retire after the Super Bowl II win.

Landry’s Cowboys, shaken to their frosty core by the loss, would find themselves on top of the league four years later. But the Ice Bowl hit them hard.

When reporter Frank Gifford interviewed Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith in the locker room afterwards, the obvious chemistry between the two led to them being paired up with Howard Cosell in 1971 as the first three broadcasters for Monday Night Football. So that was one silver lining that emerged for a Cowboy that day.

Today’s game between the Packers and the 49ers will likely not squeak into the rank of all-time legendary games (though an argument could be made for yesterday’s Kansas City-Indianapolis bout). Unlike the original Ice Bowl, which solidified Lombardi’s place in the league’s history and ensured his name would end up on the game’s most coveted trophy, this is simply a Wild Card weekend battle, with the winner facing a deadly foe next week in Carolina.

But for the players it will be a monument to their spirit, one they can hold over their children for years to come (“It’s too cold to go out and shovel? I had to tackle Frank friggin’ Gore in -40 winds, you lazy shit.”).

I’ll be watching, with a fire in the fireplace, a thick blanket keeping me pinned to the couch, a tasty cup of whiskey-infused coffee at my side. As it should be.

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