Today is the 51st anniversary of The Ice Bowl – one of the games that came to define the National Football League.
On New Year’s Eve 1967, the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys squared off in the NFL Championship Game. It was a rematch of the previous year’s title game – won by Green Bay – and pitted two future Hall of Fame head coaches — Tom Landry for the Cowboys and Vince Lombardi for the Packers –against each other.
The game was played at Green Bay’s storied Lambeau Field, where the temperature at game time was a frigid 13-below zero. More than 50,000 parka-clad fans braved the elements on the final Sunday of 1967. A loyal and hearty bunch, the Packer Backers turned out in Eskimo weather to see their team seek a record third consecutive NFL title.
Prior to the 1967 season, Lombardi had an $80,000 turf-heating system installed beneath the playing surface at Lambeau. When the tarpaulin was removed before the game, it left moisture on the field. With the wind chill reaching minus-36, the field began to gradually freeze in the extreme cold, leaving an icy surface that worsened as the game progressed.
It was so cold many of the Packers were unable to start their cars, forcing them to find alternate transportation to the stadium. Once the game began, referee Norm Schacter and his officiating crew abandoned their whistles, which froze to their lips soon after kickoff. Instead, they relied on voices and hand signals to control the contest. An elderly fan in the stands suffered hypothermia and died. Alicia Landry, the wife of the Cowboys’ coach, missed the game’s decisive play because her eyelids had frozen shut.
Several Cowboys suffered frostbite so severe that it caused permanent damage. Packer linebacker Ray Nitschke developed frostbite in his feet, causing his toenails to fall off and his toes to turn purple. During the game, Cowboys running back Dan Reeves slipped while trying to turn the corner on a sweep. When he smashed face-first into the tundra, his facemask snapped off. As he made his way back to the huddle, Reeves discovered he had two teeth sticking through his frozen lip. “There was no blood,” said Reeves. “It was too cold.”
The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Marching Chiefs band was scheduled to perform pregame and halftime shows. However, the woodwinds froze and the brass instruments stuck to the band members’ lips. Seven Marching Chiefs were rushed to local hospitals for hypothermia and the band never took the field.
A six-point favorite, Green Bay built an early 14-0 lead on quarterback Bart Starr’s two touchdown passes to Boyd Dowler. Dallas scored a touchdown and a field goal after two Packer fumbles to cut the deficit to 14-10 by halftime. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Dallas took the lead on a 50-yard option pass from Reeves to Lance Rentzel. Suddenly, the upstart Cowboys — who were in their eighth year of existence — had the world champions on the ropes.
With 4:50 left in the game and down 17-14, Green Bay took possession at its own 32-yard line. Behind future Hall of Famer Starr, the Packers marched down the field. With 16 seconds remaining and the temperature down to 18-below zero, the Packers found themselves inside the one-yard line. Starr called Green Bay’s final timeout. The field was like a sheet of ice.
The two previous running plays had gone nowhere, as Packer halfback Donnie Anderson slipped both times. With no timeouts left, a running play was risky as the clock could run out. A pass play could win it but would be difficult to execute on the frozen field. An incomplete pass would stop the clock so the Packers could set up a game-tying field goal and send it to overtime.
After consulting with Lombardi on the sideline, Starr returned to the huddle. On third-and-goal from the one, the cool veteran called “31 Wedge” – a dive play up the middle to halfback Chuck Mercein. Instead of handing off, Starr famously kept the ball. Behind the blocks of center Ken Bowman and guard Jerry Kramer, who combined to take out Cowboys defensive tackle Jethro Pugh, Starr scored on the most famous quarterback sneak in pro football history.
On a playing surface that was more hockey rink than gridiron, Starr had taken the Packers 68 yards in 12 plays for a 21-17 victory. It was the Packers’ third straight NFL championship, and their fifth title in seven years – both records. The game and the call cemented Lombardi’s legacy. “We gambled,” said the Packer coach following the game, “and we won.” Two weeks later, the Packers faced the AFL’s Oakland Raiders in the second-ever NFL-AFL Championship Game, rebranded as the Super Bowl the following year. In Lombardi’s final game as Packers coach, Green Bay prevailed, 33-14.
The Ice Bowl game, which involved 16 future Hall of Famers, marked the end of an era. It was the last time the NFL Championship Game was considered more important than the Super Bowl. In 1968, Joe Namath and the New York Jets staged an upset victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. The game validated the upstart AFL and shifted the balance of power in pro football. In September 1970 – just 31 months after winning the biggest game of his coaching career — Vince Lombardi succumbed to cancer at 57.
A few months after the Ice Bowl, Lombardi invited friends and family to his home to watch The Greatest Challenge, the 1967 Packers season highlight film. Produced by Ed and Steve Sabol, founders of NFL Films, the piece is narrated by “The Voice of God,” John Facenda and is considered a masterpiece. “They will be remembered as the faces of victory. They will be remembered for their coach, whose iron discipline was the foundation on which they built a fortress. And most of all, they will be remembered as a group of men who faced the greatest challenge their sport has ever produced – and conquered.”