Sunday, December 31, 2017

Half a Century Since the Ice Bowl

"I'm going to take a bite of my coffee."

Frank Gifford, CBS color commentator

I have written here before of the legendary Ice Bowl of 1967. I am a lifelong student of history so I often write in my blogs about historic events — but my policy has been not to write about events I have written about before.

As my grandfather would say, I don't like to chew my cabbage twice.

But today is the 50th anniversary of that NFL championship game played between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisc., and on this milestone occasion, it deserves more than a cursory examination.

The game got its moniker from the extreme conditions in which it was played. The game-time temperature was about –15°. Under standards in use at the time, the wind chill was –48°. (National Weather Service standards have since been revised; under those standards, the wind chill would be a comparatively balmy –36°.)

Lambeau Field had a heating system installed beneath the playing surface, which was supposed to keep it in good condition in inclement weather, but the system failed. When the tarp was removed before game time, moisture was left on the field that froze instantly.

That gave rise to the rumor that Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi had manipulated the system in some way so that the brunt of the conditions would be more difficult on the visitors from Texas than the hometown Packers. That rumor was fueled by the perception that Dallas' players were more athletic than the aging Packers.

But it wasn't just the weather that contributed to the game's almost mythical status. In the few short years of the Cowboys' existence, the teams had developed a rivalry that persists to this day, which included a down–to–the–wire battle in Dallas for the NFL championship the year before. That added to the drama going into the game; it was punctuated by a thrilling conclusion.

Once, when I was working on the sports desk of the Denton, Texas newspaper, the sports editor and I had lunch with a friend of his — sportscaster Bill Mercer, a local icon who covered the Ice Bowl for Dallas radio station KLIF. My memory of that lunch conversation is that Mercer was a virtual walking encyclopedia of North Texas sports history. Much of it he had witnessed personally — and much of it focused on the Ice Bowl.

Now retired and living on the East Coast, Mercer reflected on the game for a new documentary about it.

"I can still see that game in my mind," Mercer said. "I'm 91 years old now and it's like it was yesterday. ... I can imagine it's going to go on and on. That game will live forever."

In such brutal weather, many myths gained traction. If they weren't entirely true, they had at least a nugget of truth in them — unlike the allegations about Lombardi.

Most of those allegations were made in jest, though. Even Lombardi's players joked about Vince's influence on the weather and the field conditions.

"I figure Lombardi got on his knees to pray for cold weather," said Green Bay defensive tackle Henry Jordan, "and stayed down too long."

The Packers and Cowboys brought decidedly different histories into the game.

The Packers had been fixtures in the National Football League for nearly half a century. They were two–time defending NFL champions and winners of more NFL championships than any other franchise.

The Cowboys began as an expansion team in 1960, but Dallas coach Tom Landry built them into Super Bowl contenders in less than a decade.

And they had plenty of motivation to win this time. They lost the NFL championship game the previous year in Dallas to those same Packers.

Adding to the intrigue was the fact that Lombardi and Landry had served together on Jim Lee Howell's New York Giants coaching staff in the 1950s.

Dallas had not played in Green Bay since its first year of existence. When the Cowboys arrived in Green Bay a couple of days before the game, the temperature was in the 50s, and quarterback Don Meredith mugged for the cameras, cupping his hands and saying the championship game was going to be "easy money."

The Cowboys knew a cold front was coming, but it was not expected until after the game was over.

It wasn't the first time meteorologists got it wrong.

The Packers scored first, capping a nine–minute drive with an eight–yard touchdown pass from Bart Starr to Boyd Dowler in the first quarter.

The conditions seemed to have put the Dallas offense in the deep freeze as it continued sputtering, but the Packers kept rolling.

In the second quarter, Green Bay took a 14–0 lead when Starr hit Dowler for another touchdown, this time from 46 yards.

It looked like the Cowboys were in trouble. In fact, it looked like the Cowboys would rather be anywhere else than Green Bay. As cold as it was, who could blame them?

And, indeed, the offense continued to struggle against the Packers' defense.

But now the Packers' offense began to struggle, too.

Later in the second quarter, as Starr went back to pass, the Cowboys' pass rush trapped him behind the line and stripped him of the ball. George Andrie picked it up and ran seven yards for a touchdown, cutting the deficit in half with about four minutes remaining before intermission.

After recovering a fumbled punt on Green Bay's end of the field with less than two minutes to play, the Cowboys added a field goal.

In keeping with the freakish nature of the game, Dallas did not get a single first down in the second quarter yet scored 10 points and trailed by only four at halftime.

The Cowboys' offense performed much better in the third quarter but still failed to generate a touchdown. The Packers were the ones who were sputtering, and the third period was scoreless. Going into the final quarter, Green Bay still led 14–10.

That would soon change.

On a halfback option, Dan Reeves hit Lance Rentzel for a 50–yard touchdown strike, and Dallas had its first lead of the game 17–14 with only eight seconds gone from the final period.

Finally staked to a lead, the Dallas defense appeared to have new life while the Green Bay offense seemed to have none.

The score remained 17–14 until the game was nearly over.

With just under five minutes to go, the Packers fielded a punt and started their final offensive possession of the game at their own 32. Field conditions were deteriorating by the minute.

All things considered, the Packers' effort in that final drive may never be matched in terms of execution or heroism.

The drive seemed to stall in the final minute with the Packers in the shadow of the Cowboys' goal post. Green Bay called its last timeout with 16 seconds remaining and the Packers a yard away from the end zone on fourth down.

Green Bay could have kicked a field goal and hoped to win the game in overtime. That would have been in character for Lombardi, who was not known as a gambler — in fact, he was noted for saying that "everybody loves a gambler until he loses" — and the field goal certainly would have been the conservative option. But apparently, it was never seriously considered.

"I didn't figure all those people up there in the stands could take the cold for an overtime game," Lombardi said. There was probably more to it than that, but he told Starr to take it in for the touchdown. And he did.

Fullback Chuck Mercein, a late–season acquisition for the Packers, played a key role in the winning drive — and is the person you can see with his hands raised in the photos of Starr after he scored the winning touchdown (he is number 30 in the photo at the top of this post).

Many people assume Mercein was signaling that Starr had scored, but he said he was trying to show the referees that he hadn't pushed Starr into the end zone. That would have resulted in a penalty, and the Packers almost surely would have had to settle for a field goal.

"I realized that was a singular moment in my career," Mercein, who made some important gains to set up Starr's game–winning play, said. "It means more to me because I was able to pay it forward, the faith that Vince Lombardi had in me. There were plenty of other backs he could have picked up. Seldom does it happen where you can repay someone for their faith in you."

For half a century the Ice Bowl has remained vivid in memories and no doubt would continue to do so with little help, but Meredith's son Michael, who was only a few months old when his father played in the game, has made a film about it that premiered recently on the NFL Network.

Sadly there is no known complete copy of the Ice Bowl telecast in existence. Radio broadcasts do still exist, including the one of Mercer calling the game for KLIF. Meredith used video clips that do exist and interviews with participants to tell the story.

That should heat up those memories of an already memorable day.

No comments: