It is forecast to be somewhere between minus-5 degrees and minus-15 degrees Sunday in Green Bay, Wis., where the Packers are hosting the San Francisco 49ers in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs.
Chuck Mercein will be watching, but he’ll be doing it next to a fireplace, stretched out under a blanket, 46 years removed from his participation in The Ice Bowl, one of the NFL’s most legendary games.
"My wife sometimes thinks I’m an imposter, " he said. "She can’t believe she can walk around with a tank top on and I’ve got a sweatshirt on. "
Jerry Kramer, who played on the offensive line for the Packers in the Ice Bowl, said you should ignore any 49ers or Packers who are downplaying the weather.
"There’s a lot of bulls**t that goes on prior to a game about, ‘Oh, it’s not going to bother us. We’re only going to be out there for three hours. No problem,’" Kramer said. "You can’t bulls**t yourself. Yourself will go along with it for a while, but when you step into that weather, yourself will go, ‘You lying son of a bitch, it’s cold out here.’"
The Ice Bowl, as it is best known, was the 1967 NFL championship game between the Packers and the Dallas Cowboys. Game-time temperature was minus-15 degrees, but the wind chill made it feel like it was minus-48 degrees.
It was, as the narrator in this video explains, "a day savage enough to make a St. Bernard wimper. "
But that day, Mercein had no blanket or fireplace. He didn’t wear any special undergarments or socks or hats. He was too superstitious for that.
"I wasn’t about to change what got us there," he said.
As the story goes …
… It was so cold at Lambeau Field that when the referee went to blow his whistle for the first time, it stuck to his lips. When he pulled it away, it ripped the skin off and when he started bleeding the blood froze. "That was the last time a whistle was blown in the Ice Bowl," Mercein said. "We played the whole game with the referees yelling at us to stop."
… It was so cold that Mercein suffered an elbow injury that didn’t start swelling until he got inside. "It was as if I had an ice pack on the whole game," he said.
… It was so cold the NFL considered postponing the game.
It was an advantage for the home team, all right. It wasn’t just that the Packers lived and practiced in the upper Midwest as opposed to the Cowboys’ more habitable Texas winters, but the Packers also had a lot of players who were natives of the area.
The temperature was the same for both teams, but for the Cowboys it was more of a crisis.
"The thing I remember was (Cowboys receiver) Bob Hayes was the world’s fastest human," Kramer said. "He was the world’s fastest human heading for the locker room that day."
The Packers noticed that Hayes, a Florida native, kept coming out of the huddle with his hands in his pants. If it was a passing play, he’d pull them out. But if a running play had been called, he kept his hands inside.
"He would run down the field doing whatever the hell he was supposed to do, " Kramer said, "but he would have his hands in his pants. Surprise, surprise, surprise, we picked that up."
Mercein said the Packers didn’t feel sorry for the Cowboys and didn’t share any words with them about their shared experience, either. There was no camaraderie to it. In those days, it was Us and Them and, by golly, you didn’t pal around with each other. Not in the NFL Championship Game — not ever.
"There wasn’t any camaraderie at all," Mercein said. "I don’t go along with this camaraderie you see in the league these days. … That’s not the old-school way of playing football."
Nobody could do much of anything on offense. The only pass patterns that would work on the icy surface were basically hooks and swing passes – stuff where you didn’t have to cut. The running game was OK so long as the running back needed to run only in a straight line. Green Bay outgained the Cowboys 195 yards to 192.
The Packers scored the game’s first two touchdowns, but the offense stalled out almost completely in the second half, and Dallas took a 17-14 lead on a 50-yard pass from Dan Reeves to Lance Rentzel.
With 4:50 left in the game, the Packers got the ball. So technically there was hope, but by that point there was no reason to believe Green Bay was going to drive 68 yards for a game-winning touchdown.
"In the previous 31 plays, we made minus-9 yards," Kramer said. "Ten possessions, 31 plays, minus-9."
What happened next is one of the great legends in NFL history. Quarterback Bart Starr said something unremarkable in the huddle – Kramer remembers it being, "Let’s go" – and the Packers looked at each other, each man knowing in his heart that letting down coach Vince Lombardi would be just about the worst feeling in the world.
Starr completed three passes on the drive, the last one a 19-yarder to Mercein, the fullback. He had noticed that, on account of the poor footing, the Dallas linebackers had been dropping straight back into coverage, leaving the flats open. Mercein’s catch and run took the ball to the Cowboys’ 11. He ran for another 8 yards to set up the most famous goal-line situation in NFL history.
The temperature had dropped to minus-20 degrees.
Running back Donny Anderson slipped twice on handoffs and couldn’t get past the 1-yard line. Starr thought he’d have a better chance on a quarterback sneak and during a timeout, Starr asked Kramer if he thought he could get enough traction to get a push against Dallas’ defensive line.
He said he could.
"I got a little lucky on the particular sneak," Kramer said. "I saw a divot, like a golf divot, probably three-quarters of an inch deep, where my left foot would go. It was a little bit like a starting block. I snuggled that left foot down in there and I got a nice start. That made a hell of a difference to the whole scene of things."
Kramer was right. His block with 16 seconds left wedged enough room for Starr to get in, and the Packers won their third NFL championship in a row.