Ice Bowl etched in Cowboys' lore, too

Pete Dougherty
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Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith (17), white jersey at center,  falls back on top of a Green Bay Packers player as  players chase a fumble during the NFL championship game Dec. 31, 1967, at Lambeau Field.

The famed Ice Bowl is the pinnacle of the Green Bay Packers' storied 96-year history.

The game-winning drive, executed in the brutal cold of minus-46 degree wind chill, embodied the poise and will that Vince Lombardi had been forging in the franchise since 1959. It was the signature of the Lombardi era, which was the most dominating in NFL history with five championships in seven seasons.

But there also was a losing team that 1967 New Year's Eve day, for a much younger NFL franchise that nevertheless has a rich and successful history of its own. So where does the Ice Bowl fit in the Dallas Cowboys' story?

That's harder to say. It's probably the most painful defeat the Cowboys have suffered. But they fought the good fight in maybe the worst-ever conditions for an NFL game, and it remains the most-famous game in their history, just as it is in Green Bay's.

"(It) has always reminded me of what it is we're playing for," said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who's owned the team since 1989. "(A football game) is something in the moment, in the time, it's three hours but could probably live on for generations and generations. And that one has.

"Lombardi has enhanced that perception of what that game meant. The players themselves did. Bart Starr, I got to meet and enjoy him. There's always a murmur or something going on about the Ice Bowl. Although we didn't win the game, it's a real legacy of the Cowboys franchise."

The disappointment of the last-second defeat was profound, especially coming a year after the Packers had defeated the Cowboys in Dallas for the NFL title.

"I think it was one of the lower lights of this franchise," said Gil Brandt, who attended Milwaukee North High School and the University of Wisconsin, and was the Cowboys' vice president of player personnel from 1960 to 1988. "It was probably a lower light than losing the (Cowboys') first Super Bowl to Baltimore (in the 1970 season)."

Said Lee Roy Jordan, a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker: "It was devastating to get there and have a good shot. We'd lost the previous year to them at the Cotton Bowl (Stadium), and we felt like it was our chance to come back and make up for it and have a shot at the Super Bowl."

But it's also the game the players, coaches and scouts from that time are most asked about at parties and football functions. That's for a franchise that went on to win two Super Bowls and get to three others in the 1970s.

"Invariably everything comes back to the Ice Bowl, the Ice Bowl, the Ice Bowl," Brandt said. "Everywhere. (Whether you're in) Montana, Texas. Everywhere."

The Ice Bowl defeat was bitter for the Cowboys, but the game is famous precisely because they didn't crumble in the horrible conditions of bitter cold and a rock-hard, icy field.

Shortly after the game, quarterback Don Meredith told a national TV audience that he was proud of his teammates, and that their effort in those conditions was a reward of its own. But then, as described in a biography of Cowboys coach Tom Landry called "The Last Cowboy" by Mark Ribowsky, Meredith was morose on the plane ride home.

The defeat also caused the stoic Landry to break character later in the offseason. Famously inscrutable and distant as a coach, Landry had now lost the NFL title to Lombardi in back-to-back years, with both games coming down to the final seconds.

In 1966, the Cowboys had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds, but on fourth-and-goal from the 2, Packers linebacker Dave Robinson pressured Meredith on a rollout and forced the quarterback to fling a prayer into the end zone that safety Tom Brown intercepted.

Landry and Lombardi were friends and had worked together as assistants for the New York Giants from 1954-58, Lombardi as offensive coordinator and Landry as defensive coordinator. Both had been on the losing end of one of the other great games in NFL history, the 1958 championship game when Baltimore beat the Giants in overtime.

According to Ribowsky, Landry in a rare moment a few weeks after the Ice Bowl bared his soul to an executive from NFL Films, speaking aloud though almost as if to himself.

"It's a lack of character, in the team and in myself," Landry said. "We just don't have what it takes. Maybe we never will. Maybe I never will."

Many of the stories of the Ice Bowl have been told time and again, but here's how it looked from the Cowboys' perspective, based on interviews this week with three principals from that day: Brandt, Jordan and Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive lineman Bob Lilly.

After practicing at Lambeau Field the day before the game, the Cowboys were greatly encouraged. The high temperature was 22 degrees, and the sky was bright. The forecast called for a cold front to move in, but not until Sunday night.

"We felt we had a pretty good chance," Lilly said. "Little bit apprehensive of the weather, but when we got there on Saturday we weren't at all."

On Sunday, the Cowboys got their now-famous wake-up calls at their hotel in Appleton telling them the time and temperature, which was in the minus-teens.

Brandt didn't believe it, so he went to the lobby, where a receptionist confirmed. The drivers for the three team buses were sitting by a fireplace in the lobby, and Brandt asked about their thick rubber boots.

"They're not boots, they're galoshes," he was told, and then was informed that the Pranges store where they bought them was closed on Sundays. So Brandt convinced one to rent his galoshes for the afternoon for $20. Brandt probably had the warmest feet of anyone on the Cowboys' sideline.

That's because the Cowboys were equipped for cold weather, but not this cold. They bought up Saran Wrap, and many of their players wrapped their feet before putting on socks. They also wrapped Ace bandages around their heads to cover their ears.

During warm-ups, icicles had formed on the noses of Lilly and several other players. A Packers trainer advised them to go into the locker room and let them melt, and put Vaseline in their noses and on their lips to keep them from freezing.

"That's when I realized how cold it was," Lilly said. "We almost froze to death, I'll tell you that."

Brandt remembers going onto the field during warm-ups a little more than an hour before game time, when Lambeau Field was mostly empty. After warm-ups, he went back into the locker room, and when the Cowboys came out a few minutes before kickoff, he was stunned to see a full stadium.

The Cowboys' sideline, which usually included about 20 VIPs, had none. The players huddled around heaters at each end of the bench, and behind the wind shelters built by the Packers' grounds crew that morning.

Ernie Stautner, the Cowboys' defensive line coach, forbade his players from wearing gloves.

"I told the defensive linemen, 'Guys I'm going to go out there, I'm not going to wear gloves either,'" said Jordan, who was a linebacker. "I can do it if you all can. After the first series, I came back to the sideline and got me a pair of gloves."

The field, which had been soft the day before, had frozen over quickly after the tarp was removed the morning of the game. The underground electric heating system that cost $80,000 wasn't working. Some accounts say it malfunctioned, and some of the Cowboys, including Jordan, are convinced Lombardi turned it off.

But the idea that Lombardi wanted a frozen field is implausible. In his definitive biography of Lombardi titled "When Pride Still Mattered," author David Maraniss characterizes the heating system as Lombardi's pet project, and that he was "crestfallen, angry and disbelieving" when informed his field was ice.

The Press-Gazette's story about the field after the game quoted the engineer who installed the system as saying it would work fine to about zero degrees. But at the temperatures that day, it simply couldn't generate enough heat to prevent freezing.

The Cowboys to this day think that was a huge factor, because it neutralized the deep threat of receiver Bob Hayes.

"The little strip in the middle was about the only place that wasn't totally frozen," Jordan said. "It was only about eight or 10 feet wide. It was just a horrible experience. I don't think it was an advantage (for the Packers) — the only disadvantage for us, we didn't get to show the speed our team had to play in that game."

Lilly remembers never feeling loose that day, and tightening up terribly when on the sidelines. He described the game as being played in slow motion because nobody could cut hard, and players were slipping all over. Most of the pain was not from player contact but from hitting the ground, which was jagged and frozen.

"You'd hit the ground and chunks of skin would come out," he said. "So we taped up our arms real good so that wouldn't happen. The only thing we needed was a screwdriver on that last play, could have dug some holes."

That last play was Starr's famous 1-yard sneak after taking over the final possession at his own 32 with 4:50 to play. The touchdown with 13 seconds left gave the Packers the 21-17 win. They went on to win the Super Bowl, whereas the Cowboys wouldn't go their first Super Bowl until the 1970 season and win their first until the year after that.

On the plane ride home, Lilly remembers basking in the warmth, and as the plane got airborne, a spectacular reddish sunset.

As he drank a beer, he thought, "We got out of this alive. Thank you, Lord."

"So that was all I thought about. And then on our way home, I started thinking, 'We lost. We had our chance again and we lost. I don't know if we'll ever get another chance.'"

— and follow him @PeteDougherty.

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