Ice Bowl II? Packers, Cowboys who played in original know nothing can compare

BY Sam Gardner • January 7, 2015

When the Green Bay Packers host the Dallas Cowboys this Sunday in a divisional playoff matchup at Lambeau Field, it’ll be cold, no doubt — certainly below freezing. But you haven’t truly been cold until you’ve had one of your own teeth rip through your top lip without even realizing it.

Take it from Dan Reeves, who knows more than he cares to about that sort of thing.

Long before Reeves was the coach of the Broncos, Giants and Falcons, he was a Super Bowl-winning running back in Dallas, and on New Year’s Eve 1967, Reeves and his Cowboys came up on the losing end of what has since become known as the Ice Bowl — the last playoff meeting between Dallas and Green Bay at Lambeau and perhaps the most legendary game in NFL history.

Take the coldest day you’ve ever experienced and imagine it even colder. That was the Ice Bowl. The scoreboard at Lambeau Field in Green Bay read negative-16 degrees that afternoon, as the Cowboys and Packers played for the right to face the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II, but many of the players on the field that day believe it had to have been colder and that the thermometer, like their own bodies, was simply too frigid to operate properly.

Played on a surface that gave Lambeau its “Frozen Tundra” nickname, the game might as well have been at an ice rink, thanks to an underground heating system that left condensation on the grass and didn’t account for how cold Green Bay could get. Footing was hard to come by, the leather ball might as well have been an ice cube, and the ground was less forgiving than usual, with frozen patches of earth ready to wreak havoc on the uncovered arms of those who fell on them.

“I make the analogy that, if you laid down a stucco wall, it was like playing on a stucco field,” Packers running back Chuck Mercein told FOX Sports in a phone interview Tuesday. “Because all the clumps of mud that had accumulated over the year had adhered to the ground, and they weren’t moving. It was very bumpy and sharp, and during the game, and if you were sliding on the ground, you got abrasions and got scraped up pretty easily.”

Not everyone was so lucky to have walked away with just a few cuts, however. Reeves’ injury came early in the game, when he slipped to the ground during one of his 11 carries, a sweep to the right side.

No one had touched him, so he knew he could get up and keep running if he wanted, and he did. However, when he rose to his feet, Reeves felt a Packers defender bearing down, so he turned away from the impact — and right into Green Bay defensive tackle Ron Kostelnik, who was coming at him from the other side. The impact of Kostelnik’s helmet-to-helmet hit ripped Reeves’ facemask right off.

“When I got up, my facemask was gone,” Reeves told FOX Sports. “So I took my hand and felt around to see if anything was wrong, but there wasn’t any blood and I knew I had to get my facemask fixed. So I went over to the sideline and when I got in front of the heater, blood just went everywhere. One of my teeth went through my upper lip, and yet it didn’t bleed — now, that’s cold.

“I can look in the mirror right now and I’ve still got a scar where my tooth went through my lip,” Reeves continued. “And when I shave, I have no feeling there. So every morning when I shave, I have a constant reminder of the Ice Bowl.”

For Mercein, who had six carries for 20 yards and two catches for 22 yards in the win, the cold actually worked to his advantage, as miserable as it may have been. At one point during the game, Mercein had been kicked in the left arm, which would later cause a nasty hematoma to form. But because it was so cold, his arm didn’t swell and he didn’t feel any pain until long after he and his teammates had retreated to the warmth of the locker room.

“After doing interviews and all that, it was quite a long time before I got to shower, and after I finally warmed up, I looked down at my left arm and the tricep area had swollen up about twice the size of my other one,” Mercein said.

“My left arm had gone numb, but my right arm was numb, too, like the rest of my body, so I didn’t really realize it. In a way it was like having an ice pack on that left arm of mine, and it was probably good that I stayed in the game, or that might have really hindered me. But that’s how cold it was. It was virtually like having an ice pack on your entire body.”

It was the type of game that was miserable for everyone — even the Packers, who were supposed to be “used to it” by nature of living and playing in Green Bay.

Virtually everyone suffered in one way or another from the cold, even those who didn’t play in the game. As legend has it, referee Norm Schachter accidentally ripped the skin off his lips the first time he blew his whistle because the metal froze to his mouth. Even standing on the sidelines was miserable, with heaters and makeshift lean-tos doing little to help when players weren’t on the field. Perhaps the only place worse would have been the stands.

“The only thing I remember about the game, really, is I was sitting over on the bench by (fullback) Don Perkins, and Perk and me were sitting there, and I said, ‘Perk, we’ve got to be stupid to be out there,’” said Walt Garrison, a reserve running back for the Cowboys, in a phone interview Tuesday. “But he said, ‘Look behind you.’ I said, ‘What?’ and he said, ‘Those people in the stands paid to come in here. We’re getting paid.’”

And perhaps the most cruel part of all is that no one saw it coming. The day before the Ice Bowl had been balmy by winter-in-Wisconsin standards, and in an era long before iPhones, the Internet and 24-hour weather channels, most of the players expected more of the same for the big game.

“It might have been 30 or 40 out, on the high side, and we were just running around like colts out to pasture,” Mercein said of the team’s final practice, the Saturday before the game. “It was really nice and we had a walkthrough with the sun out, and nobody was thinking about inclement weather coming in.”

Added Reeves: “We worked out and you worked up a sweat, and the field was in great shape, so we were excited that the weather wasn’t going to be that big of a factor.”

By the next morning, it was clear that conditions had changed. Mercein says he was awakened by his clock radio in his apartment near Lambeau to a radio DJ saying the temperature was minus-13. He called the station just to make sure he wasn’t hearing things. Reeves and his roommate Garrison, meanwhile, left the team hotel in Appleton for the pregame meal wearing only a coat and tie. It didn’t take long for them to retreat to their room and bundle up.

“We went back and got a coat and walked outside, and then we started jogging, then we started sprinting to the restaurant,” Reeves said. “We got inside and said, ‘Dang it’s cold out there,’ and the woman said, ‘Well it ought to be, it’s 17 below.’ I thought when it got to 32 degrees, ice freezes and that’s as cold as cold could get. But I was wrong.”

When the players arrived to the stadium later, there were legitimate questions from some — mostly those from warm-weather climates, like Packers safety Willie Wood, who arrived in Green Bay via USC — about whether the NFL and commissioner Pete Rozelle would even allow the game to continue in such conditions. But the game would go on, the league said, and seemingly everyone responded with their own strategy for staying warm.

“We went to the dressing room and some guys told us to put saran wrap around our feet before we put our socks on, then put the socks on over them and it would help keep your feet warm,” Reeves said. “So we did that, and it worked until you made your first cut and you’d tear the saran wrap and feel the cold air come through.”

Packers offensive lineman Jerry Kramer grew up in Idaho and played his entire career in Green Bay, so he says he approached the Ice Bowl the same way he would have approached duck hunting in the winter as a kid.

“Comfort, in my mind, was a big thing, and familiarity with the cold,” Kramer said. “So I put on some long underwear, thermal underwear, top and bottom, and cut the bottoms off at the knees and cut the top off at the elbows, and then I put a wool dickie around my neck and kind of down the chest and back a little bit, and then I put some gloves on. I remember (lineman) Gale Gillingham coming up and saying, ‘Are you going to wear gloves?’ and I said, ‘Hell yes, I’m going to wear gloves, it’s freakin’ 50 below out there.’”

Gloves weren’t an option for most of the players, though. Given the rudimentary technology of the era, about the only gloves available were brown cotton ones, similar to gardening gloves, and both Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi wouldn’t allow them for those who would have to catch or carry the ball. That meant players had to come up with other means of keeping their hands warm, and sometimes those methods turned out to be more of a disadvantage than the gloves might have been.

“Bob Hayes had his hands in his pants,” Kramer said of the speedy,  Florida-born, Cowboys wide receiver. “(Packers cornerback) Herb Adderley picked that up in the first quarter. He tells the story about favoring the center of the field and playing closer to the safety when Hayes came out with his hands in his pants because he knew he wasn’t going to catch the ball. And Herb made an interception because of that. And that one possession in that one game could have certainly made the difference.”

Reeves also used the hands-in-pants method of keeping warm when he could, but unlike his teammate, Hayes, his strategy actually worked out well on a trick play on the first play of the fourth quarter.

“We had to stay out on the field in between the third and fourth quarter, so we’re out in the huddle and (quarterback) Don Meredith says, ‘What do you think about a halfback pass?’ and I told Don I thought it would be a good play,” Reeves said.

“Then when he said he was going to call it, I’m out there in the huddle and I’m so cold, I’m trying to keep my hands warm, and I’ve got them as far down in my pants as I could. So I had them down as far as I could put them, and we stayed in the I-formation. Then when we shifted over, at the last second, I pulled my hands out, hoping I’d have some sort of feeling for the ball.”

Clearly, he had enough, because the pass caught the Green Bay defense flat-footed, and Lance Rentzel took it 50 yards for a touchdown to give Dallas a 17-14 lead. On that play alone, Reeves and Rentzel accounted for more than a quarter of Dallas’ offense for the entire game.

“You don’t expect it to be that wide open, but they had been coming up really fast when we pitched the ball,” Reeves said. “We went to the left because I hadn’t thrown the pass a lot and Coach Landry thought it would be a surprise to them if we did it to the left because, being a right-handed person, they didn’t think you could throw it going to the left.

“So we worked on it all week going to the left and it caught them by surprise. The corner, (Bob) Jeter, came up and the safety came up, and Lance did a great job faking the safety like he was going to block him. Gosh, he was just so wide open, it was incredible.”

At that point, it seemed the Packers might be done for. Green Bay hadn’t scored since early in the second quarter, and, like warmth, yards and first downs had been hard to come by for most of the afternoon, particularly after the half. So when Bart Starr and his offense took over with 4:50 to play, they knew this was probably their final chance.

“We got the ball 68 yards from the goal line, and as the offense was entering the field of play, the defense was exiting and (Packers linebacker) Ray Nitschke came right toward our offense screaming at us, ‘Don’t let me down! Don’t let me down!’” Mercein said. “It was like an apparition. You can imagine Ray Nitschke — no teeth, snot coming out of his nose and all that steam blowing off his head — just screaming at the offense. I certainly wasn’t going to let him down, that’s for sure.”

And let him down they didn’t. Starr completed passes to Mercein, Boyd Dowler and Donny Anderson to move the Packers deep into Dallas territory, and runs by Mercein and Anderson set Green Bay up with a first-and-goal at the 1. On the next two plays, Anderson struggled to gain footing on the ice and was stopped short, so on third-and-goal with 16 seconds left, Starr decided to take matters into his own hands.

Earlier in the week, Green Bay had devised a game plan to run a wedge at Cowboys defensive tackle Jethro Pugh in the event of a short-yardage situation. So after consulting with Lombardi — who famously told him to “run it and let’s get the hell out of here” — Starr came back with the call, a 31 Wedge at Pugh, except Starr planned on keeping the ball himself, rather than risk handing it off to Mercein.

“There was never any question of, ‘Let’s kick a field goal,’ or ‘Let’s run a quarterback rollout,’” Mercein said. “That was not the way we played, and that was not Coach Lombardi. It was almost as if he said, ‘If we don’t get this yard, we don’t deserve to win.’ He was that confident in our team, that we could do what we needed to do to finish that drive.”

“It was kind of by guess and by golly,” Kramer said. “I noticed on that final play there was a chunk of turf missing, and it was like a divot from a golf club, and my left foot fit into it perfectly. My right foot is normally my back foot, and I’d usually drive off that, but that left foot was like a starting block, almost, so I had excellent footing there and I was able to get a really good start. But that was happenstance, you know? Sometimes you would, sometimes you wouldn’t. Sometimes you’re slipping all over the place, so you try to do the best you can. But it helps to have a little luck.”

Neither team could get off the field fast enough after the game, and though the Packers would go on to win the Super Bowl over Oakland two weeks later, it’s the Ice Bowl that still lives on in infamy.

There have been plenty of snow games between then and now, and the Packers and Cowboys could be in for a frosty one this weekend — especially if the current temperatures in the upper Midwest hold. But for those who lived through the original, no other game could ever compare.

“It’s hard to explain to anybody,” the south Georgia native Reeves said. “The best explanation I have is that you can tell, being in the south, when you go from 70 degrees to 102. You can feel every degree of that, and you can feel every degree going from 15 degrees down to 17 below.”

“People tell me that with the wind chill, it was 57 or 59 below zero, something like that — really arctic conditions,” Mercein said of the game. “So I kind of do chuckle when guys said, ‘It’s going to be really cold; it’s going to be 10 degrees.’ Nine or 10 degrees is cold. I mean, when the wind blows, you’re going to feel it. But it won’t be the Ice Bowl. You can call it Ice Bowl II, but it’s not quite the Ice Bowl.”

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