The Ice Bowl, 50 years later: An oral history of the Packers-Cowboys 1967 NFL Championship Game
It would have been a great game if it had been played on a sweltering September afternoon or on a crisp autumn day in November or even indoors, if there were domed football stadiums in 1967.
That year, the NFL Championship Game pitted Vince Lombardi’s proud but aging Green Bay Packers, seeking an unprecedented third consecutive title, against Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys, an ascending team out for revenge after losing narrowly to the Packers in the ’66 championship game.
Eight Packers and four Cowboys who took the field that day would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Both coaches would be enshrined, too. The Packers had guile and experience and a field general named Bart Starr. The Cowboys had youth and superior team speed and their “Doomsday Defense.”
Yes, it would have been a great game on any day, in any kind of weather.
It would be played, though, on New Year’s Eve day in Green Bay, in the kind of weather that tested the limits of what a man could endure.
The official low temperature at Austin Straubel Airport that day was 17 below zero. With Arctic winds whipping out of the northwest, the wind chill dipped to 50 below at Lambeau Field, its turf frozen solid and topped by a layer of ice, so that players slipped and slid and fell on what felt like jagged concrete.
The game would be decided in the closing seconds, at the conclusion of a drive that bordered on the mystical, with Starr plunging into the end zone to put a symbolic exclamation mark on the Lombardi era.
Fifty years ago Sunday, on Dec. 31, 1967, the Packers edged the Cowboys, 21-17, in a game for the ages.
The Ice Bowl.
It was and remains the coldest game in NFL history. It is among the most memorable games in league annals because of the wretched conditions, what was at stake and the dramatic way it ended.
“I think it’s the most talked-about game, including Super Bowls, in history,” said Gil Brandt, then the vice president of player personnel for the Cowboys. “The ’58 Giants-Colts (championship) game doesn’t even compare. No comparison.”
For the Packers, the Ice Bowl was validation of everything they had learned from Lombardi, everything the great coach espoused and represented, a victory as hard-fought and as sweet as any they’d ever known, or ever would know.
“You play for 12 years and somebody says, ‘What’s your biggest moment?’ ” split end Boyd Dowler said. “There’s absolutely no doubt about it. That was it.”
For the Cowboys, the disappointment of coming so close, of falling short in a game they felt they should have won, still haunts and taunts and stings far worse than the decades-old, still-lingering effects of frostbite.
“I think about it all the time,” said halfback Dan Reeves. “I can still remember every play. People talk about that game more than any other. Unfortunately, they show us losing every year.”
On the 50th anniversary of the Ice Bowl, what follows is an oral history of the game, as told by those who played in it and witnessed it.
SETTING THE STAGE
But Green Bay went 9-4-1 in ’67 and limped into the playoffs on the heels of season-ending losses to the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers. Hall of Fame running backs Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung were gone. So, too, was the team’s aura of invincibility. This was an aging team that had lost key players to injury.
The Cowboys finished 9-5 in the regular season and then destroyed the Cleveland Browns, 52-17, in the Eastern Conference final. They were itching for a fight with the Packers.
Milwaukee Sentinel sportswriter Bud Lea: “This was not a very good Packer team. They had lost so many guys because of injuries. (Jim) Grabowski, Elijah Pitts … no Hornung anymore, no Taylor. And they were getting old. They still had Ray Nitschke and Herb Adderley and Willie Davis and Dave Robinson, but they were getting old.”
Dowler: “One thing we had in our favor was that was our final championship season, and we’d been there. We’d won four world titles before we hit the field in '67 and we’d won two in a row. Lombardi’s goal forever was to win three in a row. His goal pretty much became our goal.”
Reeves: “We had played them the year before in the championship game in Dallas. We had first and goal at the 2 (in the closing seconds) and couldn’t get in the end zone. I really felt they were the best team the year before, but I thought we had an excellent chance to beat them in ’67.”
Cowboys defensive end George Andrie: “I was very confident. It was going to be our day, there was no doubt about it in my mind. We knew we were better than they were. I knew we could handle them. We had the speed and the defense and we had the coach and we knew how to defend them. We knew we could shut down their running game and we knew we could get to Bart Starr.”
Brandt: “I thought it was two very, very good football teams. Green Bay had some great players. I think it was more of a veteran team against a young, ascending team. We had Ralph Neely, who went on to become an all-decade tackle. Mel Renfro is in the Hall of Fame. Bob Hayes is in the Hall of Fame. We had some very good players and a very good quarterback in Don (Meredith).”
Packers halfback Donny Anderson: “The Cowboys had a fabulous football team. Vince told us all week they were better than we were. He just did that to motivate us. But they really did have some great players.”
Brandt: “I would be lying if I said I didn’t think we were going to win.”
CALM BEFORE THE STORM
On Saturday, Dec. 30, both teams worked out in Green Bay, though Lombardi had to be ordered by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to let the Cowboys practice at Lambeau Field. It was a sunny, near-windless day and the temperature was a comfortable 25 degrees.
No one had an inkling of what was coming.
Lea: “The Cowboys stayed in Appleton but they wanted to test the field. Lombardi told them, ‘Nobody touches my field. It’s lined for the game.’ Pete Rozelle was in Oakland for the AFL Championship Game. Jim Kensil was second in charge of the NFL and the Cowboys told him, ‘Get this idiot Lombardi to let us use the field.’ Kensil got a hold of Rozelle and Rozelle called Lombardi and said, ‘Darned right they’re going to use the field. It’s the championship game.’ They pulled back the tarp. I was out there that morning. It was about 21 degrees. No wind. Not bad.”
Brandt: “We worked out on Saturday afternoon and it was about 30 degrees, nice and sunshiny. We went to Oneida Country Club for an NFL function that night and it was still relatively nice. Clear skies, the stars were out.”
Packers fullback Chuck Mercein: “It was almost a balmy day, 30s or high 20s. Sunshiny, no wind that I can remember. We were running around like a bunch of colts in the field. I don’t think I even looked at the weather report for Sunday.”
Reeves: “We actually worked up a sweat. It was a nice day, and the forecast for the next day was the same.”
‘A DRASTIC CHANGE’
Weather forecasting was not as accurate in 1967 as it is today, and local meteorologists didn’t foresee Arctic air sweeping down from Canada in the overnight hours.
The Packers and Cowboys awoke on the morning of Dec. 31 blissfully unaware that the temperature had plunged into the double digits below zero.
Lea: “It was a drastic change. I guess it was Meredith who got the wakeup call at the hotel in Appleton, something like, ‘Howdy doody, Packer backers, it’s 7 o’clock in the morning and it’s 16 below.’ He said, ‘Sixteen below what?’ She said, ‘Go outside and you’ll find out.’ He went outside and said it was like getting hit in the head with a two-by-four.”
Mercein: “My clock radio went off that morning and I heard, ‘It’s 16 below zero’ and I just couldn’t believe what I heard. I even called the radio station and said, ‘I don’t think I heard that right.’ That was my awakening. I was incredulous.”
Packers linebacker Dave Robinson: “Win or lose, right after the game we were going back home to (New) Jersey. The night before the game I loaded all our belongings in the car. I was so tired I left the car parked outside. The next morning I went to cook breakfast and my wife said, ‘It’s 20 below zero.’ I said, ‘No, it’s not that cold. You mean 20 above zero.’ She said, ‘No, 20 below.’ I went outside and the car wouldn’t start. I called the towing service to get a jump and the guy said, ‘You’re No. 110 on the list.’ I saw a car running next door. There was a young guy in the car. I said, ‘I’m in trouble. Can you take me and my wife to the game?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. I’m visiting my girlfriend.’ I said, ‘I’ll give you two tickets if you take me to the game.’ He went inside and told his girlfriend and she jumped at it. That’s how I got to the game.”
Reeves: “I remember it very distinctly. Walt Garrison and I roomed together. We stayed in Appleton, Wisconsin. We always ate our pre-game meal four hours before the game. Walt and I put our coat and tie on and we went outside and we said, ‘Dang, it’s cold out here.’ Being from the south, which both of us were, we thought if it’s 32 degrees, how much colder can it get?”
Brandt: “I went downstairs at the Holiday Inn and I asked the woman at the desk how cold it was and she said the wind chill was 41 degrees (below zero). There were five bus drivers gathered around the fireplace. They were all wearing boots and when I asked about them they said, ‘These aren’t boots. They’re galoshes.’ I asked where they got them and they said, ‘Prange’s, but it’s closed Sundays.’ They said they cost $9 so I said, ‘For $25, would anybody have a size 12 and be interested in renting them for the afternoon?’ One guy said, ‘I got a size 12, and you got the boots.’ So I rented the galoshes.”
Andrie: “We woke up that morning and it was a shock. There’s no doubt about it, our attitude changed somewhat. Most of the guys on our team were from the south. It was a letdown the morning of the game.”
Robinson: “It was 13 below at kickoff, 20 below at halftime and 22 below when the game ended. That’s crazy. We shouldn’t have played. The only one who could have canceled it was the commissioner. Pete Rozelle was in Oakland for the AFL Championship Game. Why the heck would the NFL commissioner say he had to see the AFL game? He was there for one reason and one reason only: he wanted to be in California. He did a lot of things anti-Packer. I don’t think he and Vince got along very well. He made us play the game and it was terrible.”
AN OXYMORON: PRE-GAME WARM-UPS
The players arrived at Lambeau Field, many of them doubting the game would be played. They were poorly prepared for the brutal elements. Receivers and running backs did not wear gloves back then and cold-weather undergarments made from synthetic fabrics had not been invented.
The Packers hastily erected crude plywood dugouts, which offered little protection from the biting wind. Butane heaters were fired up on the sidelines and players stuck their feet in them until their rubber cleats melted.
No matter what they did, there was no escaping the cold.
Alternate referee Jim Tunney: “I’m a California kid. My blood was thin. (The officials) went to Mass at St. Willebrord and then we went down to the Army-Navy store. It was closed because it was New Year’s Eve day but there was a guy inside doing inventory. We banged on the door until he opened it. We bought everything we could to stay warm – mittens and pantyhose and garbage bags. We cut holes in the plastic bags and put them over our heads and taped them around our waists. I wish Mr. Gore had been around to have invented GoreTex.”
Reeves: “We went out for the pre-game warm-up and the football felt like a brick. I held for field goals and extra points. Usually, you’d be out there for 20 minutes. We were back inside in six or seven minutes.”
Andrie: “During warm-ups, we had our hands on the ground and they were getting cold. The whole defensive line, we went to the equipment guy and said, ‘We need some gloves.’ Ernie Stautner, our defensive line coach, said, ‘You don’t need to be wearing gloves. We need to show them we’re tougher than they are.’ ”
Brandt: “When we came out to take pre-game warm-up, there wasn’t a person in the stands. It was completely empty. We went back into the locker room and came out 15 minutes before kickoff and there was not an empty seat.”
Packers PR director Chuck Lane: “I was in charge of the press and the problem was the press box wasn’t heated. I asked some of the press crew to go across the street to the Mobil station and had them pick up some antifreeze. We splashed that against the windows, so at least we could see out. Of course, the stuff ran down the windows and onto the tables and made a mess.”
Lea: “Every time a guy opened the damned door to the press box, it was like the Arctic Circle blowing in. Honest to God. Our typewriters froze. I moved back to the second row and had coffee there and it froze on the ledge.”
Anderson: “Lee Roy Caffey and Tommy Joe Crutcher, my Texas buddies, we were saying, ‘I wonder if they’re going to play this game?’ We kept thinking Lombardi was going to come out and say, ‘The game’s been canceled.’ (Center) Kenny Bowman and (holder) Bart Starr and (kicker) Don Chandler and Willie Wood, the return man, went outside to practice kickoffs and field goals. They came back in and Willie looked like he was frozen. Bart looked like Santa Claus; his cheeks were as red as could be. We were waiting for Vince to tell us the game was canceled and he came out and said, ‘All right, guys, let’s go get it.’ ”
THE ELECTRIC BLANKET
During the summer preceding the ’67 season, Lombardi spent $80,000 on an underground heating system, a first in the NFL. A grid of electric coils, buried inches below the surface of the Lambeau Field turf, were designed to keep the grass soft and provide a good playing surface in cold weather.
There was one problem, though. The field was covered overnight with a tarp, which trapped the heat and created condensation. When the tarp was removed before the game, the moist turf immediately started freezing.
Mercein: “No one realized when you put a tarp on top of that thing, the heat condenses and goes back into the ground. The ground was very, very moist and soft. As soon as they took the tarp off, it fast-froze. You could almost see it freezing. It was incredible.”
Packers receiver Bob Long: “Lombardi was proud of his electric field. The day before the game, he was telling everybody the field was going to be perfect. They pulled the tarpaulin off and that wind out of the west just froze it like an ice rink.”
Lane: “I’d gone out on the field that morning and I was walking around with Bob Schnelker and Ray Wietecha, two of our assistant coaches. The ground appeared to be freezing up. We said, ‘Somebody’s got to go tell the coach.’ They didn’t want to do it so they said, ‘Why don’t you?’ I did an interview with NFL Films a while ago and they said, ‘How’d it go?’ I said, ‘I’d rather have to tell Vince that his wife was cheating on him.’ He loved that electric field. He loved the gadgetry of it. He thought he was ahead of everyone else in the league. And he was. But he was real upset when I told him about the field.”
Lea: “Lombardi got mad at Chuck Lane, like he did something to the system. He swore at him: ‘What do you mean? Damnit!’ So Vince goes down to the field and, my God, it’s freezing. He looks over at (Cowboys general manager) Tex Schramm and says, ‘It’s not going to be bad.’ Schramm is shaking his head and saying, ‘This is terrible.’ ”
BATTLING THE ELEMENTS
Nothing about the game would be routine.
Metal whistles stuck to officials’ lips, pulled away skin when removed and were ditched in favor of verbal commands. Players slipped and fell in comedic fashion on the icy turf.
The halftime show, featuring the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse marching band, was canceled because instruments froze and wouldn’t play; 11 members of the band were transported to local hospitals and treated for hypothermia after a pre-game practice.
One person died in the stands.
Tunney: “We used a metal whistle in those days. I think it happened to (referee) Norm (Schachter) and Bill Schleibaum, the line judge. They tried to blow their whistles and the metal stuck to the their lips and pulled the skin right off their lips.”
Robinson: “The officials decided not to use whistles. The ref said, ‘When it’s ready for play we’ll say ready and when the play’s over we’ll say stop.’ In regular games, some guys hit late. In that game, everybody hit late. ‘Didn’t you hear stop?’ ‘No, I’m waiting for the whistle.’ ”
Reeves: “Offensively, you had a little bit of an advantage as far as running routes, but it certainly wasn’t conducive to an offensive game. When you think about it, that’s what football ought to be. You play in all kinds of elements.”
Tunney: “I was the alternate referee. My job was to keep track of the down and distance. I stood on the Packers’ sideline and whenever there was a break in the action I was over at the bench with my fanny at the heater. Those guys on the field couldn’t really run. They kind of wobbled around.”
Long: “Our defensive backs figured out early in the game that Bob Hayes, the great speedster for the Cowboys, he was so cold that he put his hands in his pants when he wasn’t in the pattern. When he was going to receive a pass, he’d take his hands out of his pants. It was a giveaway. Our defensive backs shut down Bob Hayes that day, and Hayes was a big weapon.”
Reeves: “The field was such a factor that it was difficult to get anything done. It was hard to cut if you’re a running back, hard to throw it if you’re the quarterback, hard to fire out of your stance if you’re an offensive lineman.”
Robinson: “The field had a crust on it. When we came out for the third quarter, you had to stomp on it. By the end of the game it was frozen solid. In hindsight what they should have done – because the halftime show was canceled – they should have covered the field with a tarp. That probably would have softened it up some for the second half. With the wind blowing, the elements, it just froze solid.”
Reeves: “You can’t explain to people who haven’t been in that kind of weather how cold it was. Seeing those people in the stands … we didn’t have a choice, but what the heck were they doing out there?”
PACKERS TAKE COMMAND
The Packers jumped out to a 14-0 lead, with Dowler catching touchdown passes of 8 and 43 yards from Starr in the first and second quarters. Both times, he beat Cowboys safety Mel Renfro on post patterns.
Anderson: “We wouldn’t have been in the game if Boyd hadn’t caught those two touchdowns. He was a quarterback in college and he understood defenses. This story, which very few people know, we were in a tight formation on the weak side on Boyd’s first touchdown. Boyd was in tight and nobody was guarding him. So Bart called an audible and Boyd released from the line of scrimmage. I don’t know if Mel forgot to cover Boyd, but that was the first touchdown.”
Dowler: “The second touchdown, we were third down and about a foot. We did play-action pass a lot in that situation. That was also a post pattern from the left side, but I was split; I wasn’t in tight like I was on the first touchdown. The first word in the huddle if it was going to be a pass was ‘fire’ or ‘pass.’ Bart said, ‘Pass 36 left post.’ I left the huddle early and I was messing around with Renfro a little bit. Renfro looked like he was inching up (to the line of scrimmage). I ran at him like I was going to block him. I don’t know what happened to the corner. It was really a breakdown in the defense. When Bart threw the ball, I thought, ‘I better get moving.’ I thought he might have overthrown me but the wind was against us. The ball was perfect.”
Packers center Ken Bowman: “I do remember Boyd telling us he could beat (Renfro) on a post. The thing that Bart did great, when the receivers came back and said, ‘I can beat this guy on a square in or square out,’ he categorized that and put it in the back of his head. When he needed it, he would call the route: ‘All right, you told me you’d get open. Don’t be lying to me now.’ ”
Long: “I saw Boyd practice every day and I’m telling you, I don’t think I ever saw him drop a pass. In my opinion, he was the Randy Moss of the ’60s – 6-foot-5, long stride, great hands. But we hardly ever passed. A typical game for Bart Starr would be 12 for 15, no interceptions and one or two touchdowns. If you caught three passes, that was a lot. Now you see guys catching 10, 12 passes a game and they may have 18 thrown at them. If Boyd played today he’d be in the Hall of Fame.”
Dowler: “People have asked me, ‘How do you catch the ball when it’s that cold?’ Well, you put your hands together. When it’s thrown that well, there’s no reason to drop it, whether it’s below zero or 80 degrees.”
Bowman: “Boyd Dowler is kind of the forgotten man. He scored 14 points. They want to talk about people on that team that belong in Canton, there’s a guy who belongs in Canton. He was the prototype flanker.”
TWO MISTAKES, AND A NEW GAME
With help from the Packers, the Cowboys rallied to score 10 points before halftime.
First, left defensive end Willie Townes knocked the ball out of Starr’s hands and Andrie picked it up and ran 7 yards for a touchdown. Then the normally sure-handed Wood muffed a punt, Dallas recovered and Danny Villanueva kicked a 21-yard field goal.
Suddenly, the score was 14-10.
Andrie: “On my touchdown, we knew it was a passing down. I didn’t get a real good start off the ball but I recovered. Willie came in from the left and stripped the ball and it bounced right in front of me. I was thinking, ‘Do I fall on it or try to pick it up?’ But it bounced perfectly into my hands and I rumbled into the end zone. I like to say I sprinted, but the writers said I rumbled, whatever that means. It was a big play at the time. Not because I made it. It was a big uplift.”
Bowman: “George Andrie from Marquette scooped up that fumble and ran it back into the end zone. I know because I tackled him in the end zone.”
Andrie: “It was Bowman? I always thought it was Jerry Kramer who tackled me.”
Robinson: “Willie Wood had some of the surest hands on the team. He just dropped it. Just one of those things.”
Dowler: “We hurt ourselves. We had some things that didn’t go well. We got sacked and fumbled. Our pass protection broke down a little bit. … I’m glad we had 14 points in our pocket when we started screwing up. That would have been a terrible thing to go home with a loss after having a 14-point lead on a day like that.”
A STALEMATE, AND THEN …
The game devolved into a slippery, sloppy shoving match in the third quarter, with neither team doing much of anything offensively.
Then, on the first play of the fourth quarter, Reeves peeled out to his left and took a pitch from Meredith. The Packers’ defense reacted to run but Reeves suddenly stopped and threw a pass to Lance Rentzel, who had gotten behind Packers’ safety Tom Brown and was wide open.
The Packers had practiced for the option pass but the Cowboys almost always ran it with the right-handed Reeves running to his right.
The 50-yard touchdown was the longest play of the game and gave the Cowboys a 17-14 lead.
Reeves: “Coach Landry said the Packers wouldn’t expect it going to the left. We had run the running play several times in the game and their defensive back was coming up fast. Don Meredith told me he was going to call the (option). I was just trying to keep my hands warm. I actually came out of the huddle with my hands in my pants. We shifted from the I formation to what we called the green formation and I moved over to left halfback and at the last second I took my hands out of my pants. Gosh, Lance was so wide open. The safety, Tom Brown, was supposed to stay back and when I pulled back to throw he said a cuss word. I thought, ‘Gosh, don’t overthrow it.’ ”
Robinson: “The play they scored on, we practiced for it all week. Phil (Bengtson, the defensive coordinator) assumed that Reeves being right-handed, he always threw it running to his right. The guys on that side of our defense hadn’t seen it. I knew what the play was as soon as they lined up, but they ran it to the other side.”
Reeves: “We got the lead and you think, ‘We’ve got this thing won.’ Because the field was so bad.”
AN UNLIKELY HERO
After Pitts (Achilles’ tendon) and Grabowski (knee) were injured on consecutive series in a loss to the Baltimore Colts on Nov. 5, the Packers were desperate for help at running back.
Lombardi called Milwaukee native Chuck Mercein, a fullback who had been cut by the New York Giants and was about to sign with the Redskins. In fact, he and his wife had packed their car and were headed for Washington the next morning.
Mercein idolized Lombardi and jumped at the opportunity to join the defending world champion Packers. And he would play a critical role in the Ice Bowl.
Mercein: “I was completely familiar with the Packers. Great organization. Great coach. I was thrilled. (Redskins coach) Otto Graham was a little upset with me for a while. It wasn’t a hard decision. I was honored Coach Lombardi asked me to play. My life changed dramatically and forever. I got to be a part of the legendary third championship in a row and to play for the greatest coach in the history of the game. Just a wonderful experience.”
Brandt: “During the middle of the year, both the Cowboys and Packers lost running backs. We got into a (bidding war) for this young man from Yale. I lost the recruiting battle. Chuck later told me Vince called him personally, but was it really Vince? That’s the oldest trick in the book. I wasn’t smart enough to call him and say, ‘This is Tom Landry.’ I wanted to sign him.”
Lea: “Chuck was a Milwaukee kid growing up. He loved Lombardi and, my God, to play for Coach Lombardi? He came right up to Green Bay.”
68 YARDS TO HISTORY
Throughout the third quarter and most of the fourth, the Packers had gone nowhere on offense, generating just three first downs. Starr had been sacked eight times. The field was impossible. Several players had frostbite on fingers and toes.
The Packers’ dynasty was teetering on the edge of collapse.
Wood fielded Villanueva’s final punt at the Packers’ 32-yard line. There were 4 minutes 50 seconds left in the game.
To a man, the Packers knew this was their last chance.
Dowler: “I didn’t think, ‘We haven’t done anything worth a crap.’ That didn’t cross my mind at all. We had a whole team full of winners.”
Mercein: “The thing I vividly recall, the offense is running on the field and the punt return team is running off and Ray Nitschke was on the field, screaming at the offense, ‘Don’t let me down! Don’t let me down!’ He was an intimidating figure. He had no teeth, snot was coming out of his nose, there was blood and mud on his uniform.”
Robinson: “When the offense went on the field, some of us were yelling, ‘You guys have to do something.’ Subconsciously, we were thinking the offense isn’t going to get more than 10 yards. We said, ‘Listen, we have got to get ready. If we go back in there we’ve got to get a turnover.’ ”
Mercein: “Truthfully, we had enough time left. We got in the huddle and Bart stepped in and said just a few words: ‘OK, this is it. Let’s get it done.’ I looked into the eyes of the guys in the huddle and saw nothing but poise and confidence. There was no fear. We hadn’t done a damned thing in the whole second half, but that’s what we were built for. The last two minutes of a game.”
On first and 10, Starr faked a double handoff to Mercein and Anderson and then threw a swing pass to Anderson, who gained 6 yards in the right flat. Mercein then ran right for 7 yards and a first down.
Starr hit Dowler over the middle for 13 yards. Dowler suffered a concussion on the play when Cowboys cornerback Cornell Green tackled him and his helmet slammed into the frozen ground.
On the next play, Mercein missed a chip block on Townes, who tackled Anderson for a 9-yard loss. But then Starr threw consecutive passes to Anderson in the right flat. The first went for 12 yards and the second for 9 and a first down.
Then Starr lobbed a pass to Mercein, who was alone in the left flat. Mercein eluded linebacker Dave Edwards and gained 19 yards before stumbling out of bounds at the Cowboys’ 11.
Dowler: “When I got my head banged on the ground, I went out of the game for a few snaps. The play after that, Donny got thrown for a loss because we missed a block. We were second and 19 and we overcame that loss. Bart threw two balls in a row to Donny. If those plays don’t work, we’re dead in the water.”
Anderson: “You couldn’t talk in Bart’s huddles. If you wanted to talk, you had to do it outside the huddle, before the play was called. I was always checking the linebacker and I told Bart, ‘I’m out here and Chuck Howley is not watching me. If you need me, I’m here.’ ”
Dowler: “Bart called the right plays at the right time. Yes, you have to execute. But he could have called any number of plays that wouldn’t have worked.”
Anderson: “It was probably a little bit of a miracle that we could do what we did. The conditions were so pitiful. The ground was frozen. People have asked me, ‘How did you run?’ You actually ran flat-footed because you couldn’t dig into the turf. I guess I had a head start on them. I knew where I was trying to go and they didn’t.”
A PERFECT CALL
On first and 10 from the 11, Starr called “54 give,” a dive to the fullback off left tackle. The Packers called it the “sucker” play.
There were two keys to making the play work. Left guard Gale Gillingham pulled to his right and had to influence the Cowboys’ great defensive tackle, Bob Lilly, to follow him. And left tackle Bob Skoronski had to keep Andrie from sliding left and covering the hole vacated by Lilly.
It worked to perfection. Lilly followed Gillingham, Skoronski sealed off Andrie and Mercein burst forward for 8 yards to make it second and 2 at the 3-yard line.
Packers right guard Jerry Kramer: “Bart comes back to the huddle and says, ‘Ski, can you make that block on Andrie?’ Instead of Skoronski saying, ‘Gee, I think I can. I’ll do my best. Let’s try it,’ Ski says, ‘Call it. On two.’ He had to get off the ball and get position on Andrie, or Andrie was going to kill Chuck in the hole.”
Anderson: “Lilly was always quick off the ball and he would follow the (pulling) guard. We called it the sucker play. Gale Gillingham pulled out and Lilly followed him and Chuck went right up the middle behind him.”
Long: “That drive made Chuck’s whole career. He’ll be forever remembered for that drive. He made those great plays.”
Mercein: “I realized that was a singular moment in my career. It means more to me because I was able to pay it forward, the faith that Vince Lombardi had in me. There were plenty of other backs he could have picked up. Seldom does it happen where you can repay someone for their faith in you.”
ANDERSON’S PHANTOM TOUCHDOWN
On the next play, Anderson took the handoff and scored. Or, at least he thought he did. Many of the Cowboys later admitted they thought Anderson had gotten in the end zone, too. But the officials ruled Anderson had come up just short and placed the ball a foot from the goal line.
Still, it was good for a first down.
Robinson: “All the guys I talked to from Dallas said Donny definitely scored on the play. You see it on film. Guys throw their hands in the air and grab their helmets. They thought the game was over.”
Anderson: “There wasn’t any doubt in my mind that I scored, because I was halfway across the goal line. But they didn’t give it to us. I remember when I got up the official moved the ball back about 10 inches from the goal line. My waist was across the goal line. I said to myself, ‘How did he determine where I was?’ That’s what Lombardi said in the film (review) on Tuesday: ‘Well, it looked like they took one away from you there, kid.’ I kind of lived with that.”
PLUNGE TO DAYLIGHT
Anderson got the call on first and second downs, but slipped in the backfield and barely made it back to the line of scrimmage each time.
Starr called the Packers’ final timeout with 16 seconds left and trotted to the sideline to confer with Lombardi. He told the coach that if he called a wedge play – a handoff to Mercein – he thought he could keep the ball, shuffle his feet and dive into the end zone behind the blocks of Bowman and Kramer.
“Then run it, and let’s get the hell out of here.”
Because it was third down and Green Bay was out of timeouts, Landry reportedly told his defense to be ready for Starr to throw a pass. If no one was open, he would throw it away and the Packers would attempt to send the game into overtime with a field goal.
Lea: “The Packers didn’t even have a quarterback sneak in their playbook. They had never run it. Ever.”
Dowler: “Bart didn’t tell us he was going to keep it in the huddle. Now, there are a couple guys who will tell you they knew. It doesn’t matter. Maybe Bart felt he’d get a better action from Mercein by not telling anybody. All I know is it worked.”
Mercein: “I was convinced I would be getting the ball. We didn’t have a whole lot of plays for short yardage. We had a couple dives and we had a wedge play. Bart said, ‘Brown 32, wedge right.’ I never heard him say, ‘I’m keeping the ball.’ I had 34 of the 68 yards on that drive. I thought that was going to be the cherry on the cake.”
Kramer: “I got up to my position on the line and when I put my left foot down, it was in a little bit of a divot and I kind of wiggled my foot back and forth and it was like a starting block. It was a perfect thing. It gave me tremendous traction. If you watch Ski at left tackle, his feet slip out from under him and he goes flat on the ground. He doesn’t hardly get out of his stance.”
Bowman: “We broke the huddle and Jerry was out there trying to dig a trench. I’ve often thought that was a mistake. (The defense) has got the upper hand if they know it’s a pass play or a run. And you don’t try to dig a trench if you’re pass-blocking. I’ve always thought that almost gave it away.”
Kramer: “I anticipated (left defensive tackle) Jethro Pugh being high. I watched him on film in short-yardage situations. On every play, Jethro was high. So I believed strongly he was going to be high. You look at Lilly, he’s got his nose about 8 or 9 inches from the dirt and he stays down. Jethro flat came up.”
Mercein: “As soon as I saw I wasn’t getting the ball my next worry was, ‘Don’t assist Bart. Don’t push him.’ It was very hard to stop so I just raised my hands in the air to show I didn’t push him because that would have been a penalty. It would have been catastrophic.”
Anderson: “I didn’t even know it was Bart who scored. I was on the weak side. I thought Chuck threw up his hands because he scored. I didn’t find out Bart scored until I got to the sideline.”
Bowman: “I talked to Jethro about 20 years ago and I told him, ‘You had 13 years with the Cowboys and it’s a damned shame the only play they’re going to remember you for is the Ice Bowl play.’ I tried to give him some kudos and tell him he was a great player. I told him, ‘The one thing that always bothered me, I couldn’t believe when I came off the ball how high you were.’ I came off the ball and all I saw was ribcage. I’m licking my chops. Jethro said, ‘When you guys called that timeout and Bart went over to the sideline, Tom Landry told us the only thing that made sense was Bart was going to call a quick slant and if it wasn’t there he was going to throw it away and play for overtime.’ I don’t know how truthful that was, but Jethro’s excuse for being high was he was going to pass rush.”
Robinson: “Landry said the only thing Bart Starr can do is run a bootleg or roll out and pass because if they run it and don’t get in, they won’t have time for another play. The Cowboys I talked to said that came from Landry. They were favoring the outside. They weren’t looking for anything up the middle.”
Andrie: “I really thought (Lombardi) was going to kick the field goal and we were going to go into overtime. I’ll say this: Bart Starr took it on his shoulders and he performed.”
Dowler: “I talked to a person who played for the Cowboys – I’m not going to say his name – at a function a number of years ago. He said the sneak was not a good call because if Bart wouldn’t have gotten in we wouldn’t have enough time for another play. Well, who knows that? It’s subjective. I told him, ‘I was in the huddle for nine years with Bart and in all those games I don’t think he ever made a bad call. So that’s so much for your opinion.’ ”
Lea: “Afterwards, Landry said it was a stupid play because if it didn’t work time would have run out and the Cowboys would have won the game. Landry said, ‘Lombardi’s not a gambler. He took a hell of a gamble and won.’ ”
A CONTROVERSY LINGERS
Though Bowman and Kramer executed a double-team block on Pugh on the winning touchdown, Kramer always has received the bulk of the credit. All these years later, it still rankles Bowman.
Bowman: “I came in after the game and basically my toes were all white and frostbit. Domenic Gentile, our trainer, he had me and Nitschke put our feet in ice water. That’s the way they treated it. It took about 45 minutes and by the time I got out of the training room and had my toes all nice and pink again the place had pretty much cleared out. But I heard Jerry got up on the podium and took the bows.”
Kramer: “You know, I’ve watched that play 1,000 times and I can’t see Kenny make contact. I got into Jethro and I moved him back. Kenny may have hit his elbow, but I can’t tell. But I know that I got into Jethro’s chest with my head up and my legs moving. Jethro was going to do one thing: he was going to move backwards. If Kenny had gone out and gotten a hot dog, the same thing would have happened. There’s no pride of ownership here. That’s just the way it was.”
Bowman: “I remember Lombardi calling Jerry to the podium before I went into the training room. He passed my locker as I’m getting undressed and I told him, ‘Don’t forget to tell them it was a double-team.’ I didn’t think I had to remind him. He said, ‘You’ve got 10 more years to make another block like that. Let an old guy get the glory.’ I guess that’s what he did. He took the credit in his book, ‘Instant Replay.’ Somebody interviewed Jethro and he actually said I got a better block on him than Jerry. I didn’t write a book. Jerry did.”
Long: “I think Kenny, in looking back, should have gotten more credit on his assistance of the block that Jerry Kramer made. Kenny was kind of frustrated at not getting more credit for the block.”
'THE ESSENCE OF LOMBARDI'
The Packers had won their third consecutive NFL title with a 68-yard drive in the harshest conditions imaginable, after stalling for much of the second half.
It neatly summed up the Lombardi era. Somehow, the players reached deep within themselves and found the strength and determination to move almost unerringly down the field.
As they had done so many times under Lombardi, when the Packers needed to make plays, that’s exactly what they did.
Lane: “I always contended that was the essence of Lombardi, that he willed victory with his strength of character and all he stood for – precision, hard work, the simplification of roles. The Cowboys were kind of a high-tech team and the Packers were a sledgehammer operation, highly disciplined. It was a reaffirmation of Lombardi’s values and his influence. That final drive was the hallmark of Vince Lombardi.”
Lea: “It was the greatest drive I saw in Packer history. And I covered a lot of games. Less than 5 minutes to play, they’re losing 17-14 and they go 68 yards. There were no mistakes, no fumbles, no dropped passes. Nothing. Nobody is ever going to have a drive like that in those conditions.”
Dowler: “I don’t know if I had these real big thoughts of, ‘This is why we came here,’ or, ‘We’re going for our third straight championship.’ I didn’t have time to think about that stuff. I thought about doing what I was supposed to do. Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t make mistakes. Do what you’ve been trained to do. In hindsight, you can make it bigger than it was.”
Andrie: “How they did it? Well, you know, that’s a question I guess we’re still living with. They just kept throwing those short passes, making 8 yards, 10 yards. They had big backs. Our speed in that particular situation was nullified and their methodical power was the difference. … The clock wasn’t ticking fast enough.”
Dowler: “When it’s crunch time and it’s time to make plays, some teams do and some don’t, some players do and some don’t.”
Anderson: “That drive was what Vince and his players were all about. We never had a thought about losing the game. He had taught us how to be extraordinary when the chips were down.”
Kramer: “It’s really an amazing thing, that final drive. We had not had much success before that. Something turned on inside of us and all of a sudden everybody is doing their job and we’re moving down the field. I’ve wondered for years how to define and explain that. I use the analogy of the lady lifting a car off her baby. It’s impossible. It can’t happen. But something happens in her body and her mind. She has to lift that car to save her baby and somehow she does it.”
Robinson: “Some of the Cowboys said they lost because of the field. That is the biggest bunch of bull there is. When the game started the field was muddy. We were winning at halftime, before the field got really bad. We scored 14 points. We dominated. So it wasn’t the field.”
Kramer: “I don’t think it was the field. It was their mistakes that made the difference. They were a damned good team but they were an inexperienced team playing an experienced team."
Dowler: “We were an unusual group of people. A bunch of winners, I know that. I guess you learn how to win, and we did. We learned it pretty quickly and we learned it well. We knew what we were doing and we knew how to do it. And that’s just what we did.”
Of the 44 starters for the Packers and Cowboys in the Ice Bowl, only 29 are still living. The average age of the 15 remaining Packers is 78.3; the average age of the 14 surviving Cowboys is 76.5.
Two players declined to participate in this oral history, saying they had been diagnosed with dementia. A handful of others, including Starr, would not have been able to contribute much, if anything, because of cognitive issues.
Andrie said he was still bothered by the lingering effects of frostbite.
“I am affected when it gets real cold,” he said. “My hands get numb.”
Reeves has a scar in his upper lip, the forever reminder of a collision with Packers defensive tackle Ron Kostelnik.
“He busted my facemask,” Reeves said. “I had a tooth knocked through my upper lip. I see that scar every time I shave.”
The Packers went on to win Super Bowl II. It would take three more years for the Cowboys to get to the Super Bowl and four before they would finally win it.
As the years have gone by, the Ice Bowl has taken on near-mythic status. The attendance at Lambeau Field was 50,861, but players say they still run into people who claim to have been in the stands that day.
Those who really were there will never forget it.
“Obviously, if we’re still talking about it after 50 years,” Anderson said, “it must have been a pretty good game.”
The following is the list of people interviewed for the oral history of the Ice Bowl:
Donny Anderson: Packers running back, made several big plays on the winning drive.
George Andrie: Cowboys defensive end, recovered a fumble by Bart Starr and returned it for a touchdown. Played college football at Marquette University.
Ken Bowman: Packers center, helped throw one of the most famous blocks in NFL history to help Starr score.
Gil Brandt: Vice president of player personnel for the Cowboys. He pioneered many of the scouting techniques used by NFL teams today.
Boyd Dowler: Packers receiver, caught two first-half touchdowns.
Jerry Kramer: Packers right guard, teamed with Bowman to block Cowboys defensive lineman Jethro Pugh on Starr’s winning sneak.
Chuck Lane: Green Bay’s public relations director at the time.
Bob Long: Back-up wide receiver for the Packers.
Bud Lea: Covered the Packers for the Milwaukee Sentinel.
Chuck Mercein: One of the heroes of the Packers’ final drive. Vince Lombardi signed him after running backs Elijah Pitts and Jim Grabowski were injured in the same game earlier in the season.
Dan Reeves: Cowboys running back, threw an option-pass touchdown to Lance Rentzel. Later head coach of the Denver Broncos, New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons.
Dave Robinson: Packers linebacker and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jim Tunney: Alternate referee during the Ice Bowl, now 88 and living in Pebble Beach, Calif.