When the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys face each other in the on Sunday it will be the first time they have met at Lambeau Field in the postseason since arguably the defining game in the history of the NFL - the Ice Bowl.
The Cowboys have produced ‘Ice Bowl II’ T-shirts but while Green Bay has asked for help clearing expected snow, nothing that can happen on Sunday will come close to matching the significance of the game from New Year’s Eve 1967.
Played in a temperature of -15 °F (−26 °C) and with a wind chill of −36 °F (−38 °C) on a field which turned into a sheet of ice, Vince Lombardi’s Packers secured a record third straight championship against the club that was to become ‘America’s team’.
Victory was won in dramatic style with a stirring drive from a battered and weary Packers culminating in a game-winning touchdown, on a quarterback sneak from Bart Starr, with just 16 seconds left on the clock. It was a battle which involved 15 future Hall of Famers and pitted two of the game’s great coaches - Lombardi and the Cowboys’ Tom Landry - against each other.
But while all of that made for a memorable game, it doesn’t in itself quite explain how the Ice Bowl has come to take such a central place in the NFL’s self-narrative.
The game which was considered the quintessential pro football encounter had been the 1958 NFL Championship won 23-17 in sudden death overtime by the Baltimore Colts over the New York Giants and immortalised as The Greatest Game Ever Played. That game, broadcast nationally, is widely credited with elevating professional football from a sport with hardcore fans to one which appealed to a broader demographic. The Ice Bowl took it all to another level.
“The Colts-Giants game was on television, the Packers-Cowboys game became mythology because of the way it was handled cinematographically by NFL Films,” says Sal Paolantonio, ESPN broadcaster and author of How Football Explains America. “It transcended the small box in your living room … that is why it lives on as the pivotal moment in catapulting the NFL into the great national story that it has become.”
NFL Films did more than just show the action and interview the protagonists, they captured the drama of the event and the personalities involved in a way that had never been seen before in sports broadcasting.
The fans keeping warm by swigging from hip flasks, steam rising from them in the Arctic conditions, weren’t just a backdrop to the game, they became part of the documentary-style production.
Viewers could almost eavesdrop on the conversation between Lombardi and Starr on the sideline before the game-deciding play, captured by a close-up camera and partially by microphone. Super-slow motion altered the way rushes and tackles were viewed, personalising the combat and the heroism.
A stirring musical score accompanied by the baritone voice of narrator John Facenda transformed a highlights package into a Hollywood production and mass marketing tool for the game.
The timing of such a remarkable game in such extraordinary conditions was perfect.
NFL Films had been created in the early 1960s by Ed Sabol as Blair Motion Pictures but in 1965 the NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle, persuaded the club owners to buy the company and charged Sabol with the task of transforming the presentation of the game to mainstream America.
“Rozelle was implementing a whole slew of marketing public relations activities to promote the sport. Not just to have it reported but to frame the sport in a particular way that would appeal beyond the people who had liked football up to that point,” says Travis Vogan, Assistant Professor at the University of Iowa and author of Keepers of the Flame – NFL Films and the Rise of Sports Media.
“NFL Films was a league-owned propaganda organ essentially, whose whole responsibility was glamorising the league. So the Ice Bowl came at this time when the league had all this activities aimed at selling itself as something that was more interesting, more dramatic and more powerful than baseball, boxing and college football”.
But even with this presentation, would the game have captured the imagination of the American public and established itself as a landmark moment in the history of professional football had it involved other teams and other personalities?
In the midst of the political and cultural divisions of the late 1960s, football, of course, offered escapism but the success of the small town Packers, also represented something reassuringly wholesome.
“It was a time of the Vietnam war, upheaval in the streets and the Packers stood for Middle America, Vince Lombardi was a symbol of authority, Bart Starr was from the South. That game became a place of refuge for the silent majority on a national scale,” says Paolantonio.
The figure of Lombardi also managed to appeal to both conservatives and liberals. A stern disciplinarian with an intense belief in the work ethic, according to Packers running back Chuck Mercein, Lombardi told players arriving at the club their priorities should be “God, Family and the Green Bay Packers”. But when Richard Nixon, who had popularised the phrase ‘silent majority’ considered him as a running mate, he discovered the Brooklyn-born son of Italian immigrants was a Democrat.
Both left and right can find famous Lombardi quotes to support their ideological positions but there was one issue, a pressing one for the era, on which he was unambiguous.
“If Lombardi had not been color-blind in his racial views, the Packers wouldn’t have won their third straight title,” notes club historian Cliff Christl. “They no longer had a potent offense in the mid-60s. They won thanks to their stifling defense, which included six African-American starters at a time when most of the other NFL powerhouses were starting two, three, four blacks at the most. The racial makeup of pro football was changing and Lombardi was in the vanguard of the movement,” he argues.
Lombardi used his first-round draft pick in 1963 to select linebacker Dave Robinson, an African-American out of Penn State.
“When I came out of college, it was uncommon to draft African-American players in the first round, it was done but it was uncommon. The common thinking was – you never take a black ballplayer until the third round,” says Robinson.
“In defence of the league, most of the black players coming out of school in 1963, came from the small black colleges of the south, they didn’t have real good equipment or maybe the top-notch coaches, you had to work with them to get them ready for pro ball,” he added.
“The story I heard with me was that the board of directors came to Vince and said ‘we aren’t going to tell you what to do but we think you are wasting draft choices because no one is going to pick black ballplayers to the third round and you are wasting a first-round draft pick. He said ‘listen, I draft here by football ability not by colour. The only colours we have here in Green Bay are green and gold. You handle the financial part and I’ll take care of the team.’”
And what a team it was.
The symbolism of the Packers may have captured the imagination of the public at a time of societal strain and NFL Films may have transformed the perception of the game but the Ice Bowl would not have such a fundamental role in the mythology of the NFL if it wasn’t such an extreme example of the character and above all toughness needed to excel at ‘America’s game’ in the most testing conditions.
“The ball felt like a frozen brick,” says running back Mercein, whose intelligent and powerful rushes were vital to the game-winning final drive.
Mercein suffered a nasty kick to his left arm but such was the cold that he didn’t notice the damage until, having heated up in the locker-room after the game, he noticed a large hematoma had formed. “It was like I had been playing with an icepack on it, so the swelling and bleeding didn’t appear,” he said.
The referee, recalls Robinson, only blew his whistle once, early in the game, and was forced to shout his calls throughout the encounter because he had ripped the skin off his lip when forcing the whistle out of his mouth.
With the gloves of that era too slippery for ball handling, Cowboys running back Dan Reeves, says he kept his hands warm in his pants before throwing to Lance Rentzel for a 50-yard touchdown to give Dallas a 17-14 lead.
Reeves also had his facemask broken after a hit and went to the sideline to get it fixed. “I couldn’t get my tongue between my upper lip and my teeth, I had my lip put through by a tooth and yet there was no bleeding whatsoever. Now that’s cold.
“The tooth was sticking out of my lip but it was only when I got in front of the heater the blood came pouring out. I still have a little white scar where that happened so when I shave every day, I don’t have any feeling there but I do have a reminder of the Ice Bowl.”
The stories will surely be told again on Sunday when Mercein and Robinson will be among the former players at Lambeau to watch the duel between Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo.
They have a lot to live up to.