50 years later, Ice Bowl frozen in time

The penultimate day of 1967 was as beautiful as it gets in Green Bay in late December. Chilly, yes, but the Dallas Cowboys enjoyed the sunshine as they practiced at Lambeau Field for their New Year’s Eve game against the Green Bay Packers.

 

“You could work up a sweat,” said Dan Reeves, then a running back for Dallas. “You just knew the next day was going to be a great day for football.”

It was sure looking that way for everyone who loved the NFL. Bart Starr was under center for the Packers, and the Cowboys countered with Don Meredith and Bob Hayes, the 1964 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist.

The Cowboys and Packers were meeting for the second straight year for the NFL championship, with the winner going to Super Bowl No. 2 (the NFL had yet to get around to Roman numerals) against the champions of the American Football League.

That night, opposing coaches Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry got together with NFL officials and other team members at the Oneida Country Club for a dinner. The mood was upbeat for a league still trying to digest the merger with the AFL and turn the Super Bowl into a must-see game.

Things were not so cheerful the next morning, when the wakeup call at the Holiday Inn sent startled players to their windows to see what it was all about.

“Good morning,” the operator said. “It’s 7:30 a.m. and 17 below zero.”

It’s one of the defining games of the NFL, a contest played on tundra that truly was frozen by men who really weren’t prepared for the conditions. The game that became known as the Ice Bowl joined the 1958 NFL championship game and the 1969 Super Bowl as one of a trio of iconic contests in the space of a decade that cemented the league into the consciousness of America’s sports fans.

Cowboys executive Gil Brandt wasn’t thinking of history that morning as he stood in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Appleton. He just wanted something to keep his feet warm as the Cowboys waited for the buses to take them to Lambeau Field.

He found them on the feet of one of the bus drivers.

“I asked if somebody would rent me their boots for $20,” Brandt said. “They said they weren’t boots but galoshes. But one guy rented me his.”

Players were just as ill prepared. They had long underwear and heaters on the sidelines but little else. For the Cowboys, that meant no gloves for their hands.

“Our (defensive) coach, Ernie Stautner, told our defense that we weren’t going to wear gloves. Said, ‘Gloves are for sissies,’” Cowboys lineman Bob Lilly said. “Well, we go out to warm up and all the Packers had gloves on.”

It was, as Sports Illustrated would write the next week, the coldest New Year’s Eve in the cold history of Green Bay.

“It should have been canceled, but I think the commissioner was watching the West Coast game in Oakland,” Dallas linebacker Lee Roy Jordan said. “He probably had a nice comfortable day out there.”

How cold was it? The reading at game time was 15 below, with wind chill in today’s calculations at minus-48.

It was so cold that when referee Norm Shachter blew the metal whistle to start play, it froze to lips. When he tried to pry it off, it tore a chunk of his lip off with it.

“He bled most of the game,” Jordan said. “After that, the NFL went to plastic whistles so it wouldn’t freeze to lips.”

Lambeau Field had heating coils underneath, but they were no match for cold this extreme. Compounding the mistake was putting a tarp over the field overnight, which kept moisture in that would later freeze when it was pulled off.

Wide receiver Carroll Dale’s toenails froze and turned black. His frostbit ears are still sensitive today, 50 years later.

The Packers scored the first time they got the ball, with Starr mixing the running and passing game beautifully. The lead soon became 14-0, and the Cowboys looked like a team that wanted to be anywhere on Dec. 31 than in frigid Green Bay.

Hayes, the star Cowboys receiver, was so cold he kept his hands in his pants when his number wasn’t called, something Green Bay defenders quickly picked up on.

“The first mistake of the day was made by Bob Hayes when he came out of the huddle with his hands in his pants,” Packers offensive lineman Jerry Kramer said. “When he was in the pattern he took his hands out.”

The Cowboys managed to cut the lead to 14-10 at halftime thanks to a fumble recovery for a touchdown and a field goal. But the Packers still seemed in control until Dallas made adjustments at halftime and shut down the Packers’ offense for most of the second half.

If it was cold on the field, it seemed even colder in the stands.

There, people fiddled with their kerosene hand warmers, trying to keep them lit.

Fans layered in clothing jammed together on aluminum benches, the condensation from their breaths forming an eerie cloud of fog over the stands.

“The people were too cold to complain,” said John Des Jardins, who was 15 at the time and would later become a county judge. “We were all in our own little agony.”

Ten minutes before kickoff, Brandt looked around and saw no one in the stands. By kickoff, there were 50,861 people in the stadium.

“We didn’t have any choice, but we’re saying what are these people doing there?” Reeves said. “You were scratching your head and saying, good gracious what are they doing there? It shows you how tough those people are.”

Late in the fourth quarter the field was a sheet of ice, looking more like an outdoor Wisconsin hockey rink than a place to play football.

There seemed no way the Packers could mount a drive when they got ball back with 4:50 left in the game and 68 yards to the end zone.

“In the previous 31 plays we had a minus-9 yards,” Kramer said. “We had 10 possessions in that 31-play period — 10 possessions, minus-9 yards. It’s now 57-below zero (with) the wind chill. … We’re about out of energy, we’re about out of time, we’re about out of everything.”

But this was a championship team already, and Starr was the quarterback. The Super Bowl was at stake, along with a possible $27,500 for each player — more than some earned in the season.

A short pass to halfback Donny Anderson started the drive with some promise. As the clock wound down inside a minute, the Packers had made it to the 11-yard line.

A misdirection play fooled the Dallas defenders and got the ball to the 3. Two runs later it was at the 1 with 16 seconds left. The Packers took their final timeout.

Everyone in the stadium, including the players defending the goal line, thought Starr would try to throw for the winning touchdown, most likely on a rollout. Instead, Starr called a “wedge” play normally designed for the halfback, and Kramer pounded his cleats into the frozen ground trying to get some traction for a block.

Starr took the snap, Kramer got underneath Jethro Pugh with one of the most celebrated blocks in NFL history, and Starr tumbled into the end zone for the winning score.

“It was a great call,” Jordan said. “I just wish Bart had slipped or something.”

The old 8 millimeter footage taken in the end zone shows fans half-delirious from the cold and the dramatic finish storming the field and tearing down the metal goal posts. Green Bay would go on to beat Oakland 33-14 in the second Super Bowl, but at the time, the NFL championship seemed like a bigger win.

 

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