PITTSBURGH – On the coldest day the NFL played, Packers guard Jerry Kramer took one look at Green Bay’s fabled frozen tundra, began shivering and never stopped until he was draped across the most famous yard of defended turf in football history.
During the riveting 1967 NFL championship game known as the Ice Bowl, Kramer almost felt sympathy watching the numbed Dallas Cowboys struggle with the minus-13 temperature and minus-48 wind chill of wintry Wisconsin. Almost.
“We were freezing,” Kramer said. “They were dying.”
More than any other sport, weather – bad weather, mostly – has helped create some of football’s greatest moments.
Now that the NFL playoffs don’t start until January, are you ready for some frozen football? Second-round games will be played this weekend in no-dome Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Foxboro, Mass.
Still, it won’t be anything like what Dan Fouts and Hank Bauer faced.
On the second-coldest day the NFL played, Fouts – the California-raised quarterback for the San Diego Chargers – knew he was out of his element in Cincinnati when he saw icicles hanging from his beard.
As a steamy fog shimmered surrealistically above the Ohio River during the “Freezer Bowl” AFC championship game in January 1982, San Diego’s Air Coryell offense was no match for Cincinnati’s cold air – minus-9 temperature and minus-59 wind chill.
The Chargers’ receivers couldn’t control passes from Fouts, and many wanted nothing more than to end the 27-7 loss and go back home.
“The ball is frozen, the laces are razor-sharp – the passes are cutting the receivers’ hands, but they’re not bleeding because it’s so cold,” said Bauer, then a Chargers special teams star and now a team broadcaster.
With temperatures in the low 20s predicted for Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field on Saturday, the New York Jets must worry not just about cover-2 defenses, but covering up to stay warm.
The current-era players’ Under Armour gear is warmer and drier than the thin cotton Kramer wore in clearing the path for Bart Starr’s decisive 1-yard sneak in the Ice Bowl, but nothing can fully protect against the cold, snow and sleet that can disrupt game plans and alter outcomes.
The New England Patriots might dispute that, seeing how Indianapolis Colts passing machine Peyton Manning broke down in the snow and chill of Foxboro, throwing four interceptions in last season’s AFC title game. Manning returns Sunday, and he’s certain to not like this: Gillette Stadium’s resodded turf was left uncovered during showers this week.
Were the Patriots possibly creating a slow-field advantage?
Patriots coach Bill Belichick played innocent, saying, “I’m sure the field will be the same condition for both teams. My job is not to pull weeds.”
But he also warned: “When you are in New England and you are playing at this time of year in January, you better be ready for just about anything.”
Such as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s disputed “tuck rule” no-fumble incompletion in the snow during an overtime playoff win over Oakland in January 2002.
Or the Patriots’ 3-0 “Snow Plow Game” victory over Miami on Dec. 12, 1982. With neither team able to score during a raging snowstorm, tractor driver Mark Henderson – a convicted burglar on a work-release program – alertly cleared a path with his snow brush for John Smith’s 33-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter.
Not surprisingly, the NFL quickly banned grounds crews from doing anything to create a physical advantage, but two heroes were born. The Patriots still use that John Deere tractor, and Henderson received a loud ovation when he drove it onto the field during a 2001 reenactment.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.