Today’s National Football Conference championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears is expected to be played in fairly frigid conditions with highs in the teens and wind chill factors hovering around zero. The field has not been re-sodded most likely in an attempt by the home team to slow the fleet Packer receiving corps, and will be patchy, hard, and slippery. Not ideal conditions for a match of superb athletes and their fast twitch fibers and highly developed coordination. No matter. The conditions will be positively balmy compared to the arctic tundra of the greatest game ever played under the worst conditions ever devised, the 1967 National Football Championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys on December 31, 1967 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
The farther one gets away from the game referred to as the Ice Bowl, the more deservedly mythic it becomes. The conditions were absolutely inhuman and atrocious, with a game time temperature of 15 degrees below zero and a wind chill of 46 below. The surface conditions, as intolerable as they were, were magnified by the complete absence of an adequate playing surface. The field had an underground wiring system to maintain ground thaw in cold conditions that had to be turned off in preparation for players standing above the electric grid. The result was the melting permafrost from the day before quickly froze and turned the field into a literal ice skating rink, as hard as it was slippery. The clothing technology for the players in the 1960’s were no match for the conditions and frost bite, muscle spasm, and wandering concentration from direct exposure to arctic conditions became the reality of the day.
Yet what a game they played. The Dallas Cowboys, theoretically the “southern” team, initially looked overwhelmed by the conditions as Green Bay struck for two early touchdowns and seemed dominant. Green Bay, however, was the older team, and coming to the end of its spectacular run as the definitive NFL team of the 1960’s. The younger Cowboys, soon to be a perennial Super Bowl contender, toughened up defensively, and forced the Packers into uncharacteristic errors, with a Bart Starr fumble leading to a touchdown, and a Willie Wood muffed punt leading to a field goal. Suddenly, in the third quarter, a spectacular trick play, a halfback option pass from Dan Reeves to Lance Rentzel for a touchdown, stunned the home crowd and the Packers, and the “warm weather” team took the lead 17 to 14. The game essentially seemed over as the field became unplayable, with neither offense achieving any traction or identifiable offense.
It all came down to the last four and one half minutes. The Packers held the ball one last time, and over 60 ice filled yards between them and the end zone. That last drive is the defining event of the legendary status of the Green Bay Packers and perhaps the national football game itself. A perfect drive in incalculably intolerable conditions led the Packers to the 1 yard line with a third down, 16 seconds and no time outs left. A field goal would tie the game and send it into over time, but a kick in such conditions was completely unpredictable. A running play if not successful, would have the Packers unable to get another play off. Two previous unsuccessful running plays had shown the footage at the south end end zone where the saga was to be played out completely unstable. The quarterback of the ages, Bart Starr, came to the sidelines to converse with the coach of the ages, Vince Lombardi, and informed the coach he planned to run a quarterback sneak, and take the onus to succeed or fail upon himself. The cold coach stated matter of factly, “Well then, score, and lets get the hell out of here.” Starr told no one in the huddle his plan and called a running play, timed the snap count and drove himself over guard Jerry Kramer’s shoulder in the spot where Cowboy defensive tackle Jethroe Pugh had stood, and scored. The best game ever played in the worst conditions ever played was over, and the legend of the greatness of the Green Bay Packers was sealed.
The weather will be cold today, but it will look like a cold weather game, not an epic battle for survival and triumph. The Ice Bowl deserves a special place in history in what people are capable of when all else around them is challenging their very capacity to perform. I hope today’s Packers see the historical achievement possible today as another in the long line of great Packer moments. Go Pack Go.