After 47 years, Ice Bowl still sends a chill down spine

The NFL loves it when a good plan comes together. Or so it must seem for the poor Detroit Lions, whose play-off demise on Sunday was sparked by a highly-questionable refereeing decision.

After 47 years, Ice Bowl still sends a chill down spine

The upshot of the most talked about wildcard game of the weekend is that the Dallas Cowboys got back possession midway through the final quarter, made it count and took an ultimately unassailable lead, their first of the entire game. That’s how it goes. For the NFL, it meant a bonanza of intrigue. Instead of the Green Bay Packers hosting the not-great Carolina Panthers on Sunday evening in the divisional round play-off game, they will now welcome the Cowboys onto Lambeau Field.

It’s just over 47 years since their most famous encounter at the same venue, the still revered “Ice Bowl”, which took place on New Year’s Eve, 1967.

According to several accounts of the day, the Arctic air swirling around the Wisconsin Tundra had caused temperatures locally to dip to minus 25C, while the always inexact power of those winds made it often feel like those in attendance were experiencing something approaching minus 40C.

This was the second straight season that the Cowboys and the Packers were facing each other to decide the NFL title, with the bonus prize of a trip to the Super Bowl. The Packers had already won the first Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs in Los Angeles earlier that same year.

Coached by Vince Lombardi, a team of future Hall of Famers was being moulded around his forceful and forced personality; players such as Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke and Willie Davis.

Lombardi had sworn publicly and privately to the travelling press corps that the revolutionary undersoil heating at Lambeau would be more than adequate in ensuring the game would be unaffected — provided it didn’t snow, of course, and the weather forecast hadn’t predicted snow.

The Cowboys needed it to be as clear and dry as it could possibly be at the end of December in Green Bay. Their high-paced and highly-complex offensive game was dependent on it. The conditions on Friday and Saturday boded well and there was even a bit of sun on Saturday. The Packers were more about power football, keeping it simple. They were at home and favourites but, still at the back of everyone’s minds, was a feeling that a dip in temperatures and a flurry or two of snow would help their cause no end.

Players and fans alike woke up Sunday morning barely able to believe their ears and their eyes as they looked out frozen windows and listened to radio updates about the depths to which the temperatures had swung.

It wasn’t just the players. According to the Ed Grover book, The Ice Bowl: The Cold Truth About Football’s Most Unforgettable Game, none of the officials charged with refereeing the encounter had packed gloves or ear muffs and their misery would soon be compounded when their whistles froze in their mouths soon after kick off.

Lambeau was in its 10th year at this point. It was an old-fashioned college-football-style bowl stadium. No team in their right minds should play football outdoors at this time of year, but especially at a venue so exposed to the elements. But no, the Packers pride themselves on this sort of brutality and it’s somewhat down to the legacy built around the Ice Bowl.

It was touch-and-go whether or not it would be played and, of course, Lombardi pushed hard against the advice of medical experts who were concerned for players and fans alike. Ultimately, the NFL Commissioner gave the green light just as Packers officials were deciding privately that there simply was too great a risk in keeping the undersoil heating on, so great was the power required to run it.

By kick off, the members of the press were getting highly aggravated — coffee was freezing in front of their eyes and as for the glass window in front of them? They had two choices: keep it closed and not be able see through it, or open it up and freeze. But it was the players and referees who would suffer most, of course. The game itself ended in a dramatic 21-17 victory for the home team and would be able to stand up on its own merit as a memorable contest. But the intense nature of the conditions they faced that day meant that the Ice Bowl was an instant classic.

Players wept in the dressing rooms afterwards. Frostbite and flu symptoms abounded. The game had to go on and the NFL saw to that. Their reward resounds almost half a century later with this weekend’s harking back to a simpler time. The players will be better equipped to cope this time around.

* Contact: johnwriordan@gmail.com , Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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