Chapter 24: Ice
Ed Sabol could not sleep the night before a title game. He and his son Steve had been working pro football championships for NFL Films since 1962, and every year he was nervous, as if he had never done this before. Were his cameras in the right locations? Would there be a dramatic story line? Would the weather create problems again? By seven on the morning of December 31, 1967, he already had been awake for two hours, and now he was standing at the window of his hotel room, staring out into the northern darkness. Friday seemed unforgiving in Green Bay, with heavy snow and a fierce wind, but on Saturday there was a brilliant winter sun and the temperature had soared toward thirty. Local forecasters had predicted more of the same for today's one o'clock game.
The telephone rang. Steve, who had been asleep in the other bed, fumbled for the receiver.
"Good morning, Mr. Sabol."
The wake-up message came in a gentle singsong voice.
"It is sixteen degrees below zero and the wind is out of the north. Now have a nice day."
"Dad," Steve said. "You're not going to believe this!"
The same words of disbelief were being uttered all over town. The phone at Paul's Standard station on South Broadway had started ringing at five that morning, and the overnight man couldn't handle it, so Paul Mazzoleni went in himself and took to the streets with his tow truck and jumper cables. One of his first stops was at Willie Wood's. The free safety was standing next to his dead car, shivering, convinced that even when Mazzoleni brought his frozen battery back to life he was not going anywhere. "It's just too cold to play," Wood said. "They're gonna call this game off. They're not going to play in this." Chuck Mercein, the new man on the Packers, brought in at midseason to help fortify the depleted backfield, was alone in his apartment, semiconscious; his clock radio had just gone off. Had he really just heard someone say it was thirteen below? He must have misunderstood. Wasn't it near thirty when he went to bed? He called the airport weather station to see if he had been dreaming. "You heard it right. It's thirteen below and it may get colder."
Lee Remmel of the Press-Gazette had arranged a ride to the stadium with a cityside writer, one of eleven reporters the home paper had assigned to the game. His colleague called at seven with the question, "Lee, do you know what the temperature is?" Remmel guessed twenty. No. Twenty-five? Go look at the thermometer. "I was aghast," he recalled. "The weatherman had been predicting twenty." Chuck Lane, the Packers' young publicist, had grown up in Minnesota and was familiar with the telltale sounds of severe winter in the northland. As soon as he stepped out of his downtown apartment on Washington Street, he knew this was serious. "You can tell when it's cold by the sound of your foot in the snow. I could tell by the first stride that this was damn cold. The sound has got a different crunch to it." By his second stride he could feel something else "the fuzz in your nose froze up."
Dick Schaap led a foursome of New Yorkers out to Green Bay for the big game, which he hoped would provide a narrative climax for the book he was writing with Jerry Kramer. As he and his editor, Bob Gutwillig, and their wives were driving downtown for breakfast, Schaap noticed the temperature reading on the side of a bank. It was -13. "Look, it's broken," he said. He had never before seen a negative temperature and assumed that the bank got it wrong. Dave Robinson was in his kitchen, eating his traditional pregame meal: scrambled eggs, the filet of a twenty-ounce T-bone steak, toast, tea with honey. His little twin boys hovered in the next room, waiting for their dad to leave so they could eat the rest of the steak. His wife came in and gave him a kiss. "It's twenty below out there," she said. "Twenty above, you mean," Robinson said. "Can't be twenty below."
There was a full house at Sunset Circle. Susan lived at home again after a short and unhappy stint at a Dominican-run secretarial school in Boca Raton. Vincent and Jill came down from St. Paul, and now they had two boys, Vincent II and John. Vincent was working days and going to law school at night. The father-son relationship had developed another odd twist. Vince rarely had time to watch Vincent play in college, but now he insisted that Vincent attend as many Packers games as possible. Lombardi the family man? Partly, no doubt, but there was also a measure of superstition involved. The Packers had won a key game the year before when Vincent was there, and ever since the Old Man thought of him as a talisman. Vincent loved football, he had grown up standing on the sidelines, but sometimes this good-luck business seemed more for his dad's benefit than his own.
At his father's request, he had once boarded a flight in St. Paul during a heavy storm to attend a game in Green Bay. The plane was diverted to Milwaukee and he ended up studying his law books and watching the Packers on television at the airport. Another time he brought Jill along for a preseason game in Milwaukee. They had left the boys with a babysitter and were excited about having a night alone at the Pfister Hotel. At dinner after the game, Vincent and Jill were startled to hear the Old Man suddenly announce "We're going home!"
"Jeez, Dad, it's kind of late," Vincent pleaded.
"I'll drive halfway and you drive halfway," Lombardi said, and that was that. Vincent and Jill packed up, and soon they were in the car with Vince and Marie, heading north to Green Bay. Five miles up the highway, Lombardi pulled over. "My knees are killing me," he said to Vincent. "You drive."
Maybe it had all done some good. The Packers had finished in first place again. They had finished first in the newfangled Central Division of the Western Conference with a 9-4-1 record, and then whipped the Los Angeles Rams in the playoff game for the western title. Critics were saying that the Packers were too old and slow aside from their one breathtaking rookie, Travis Williams, known as The Roadrunner, a return specialist who had run four kickoffs back for touchdowns, including two against the Browns in one game. Yet here they were, back in the championship, playing for their record third straight NFL title against the Dallas Cowboys. If standing on the sideline in subzero weather this afternoon could help them win one more time, Vincent was game.
Not much was said about the temperature in the Lombardi house. There was little talking about the game at all that morning. "Everybody was very uptight," Susan recalled. Vincent II had been up all night with a fever, distracting everyone, including the coach, who patted his grandson on the head before leaving for church. The cars were in the heated garage; Vince's Pontiac started right up. Silence on the way to mass. The priest prayed for the Packers. All quiet on the way back. Then Vince and Vincent left, driving clockwise south to the bridge crossing the Fox in downtown De Pere, then west to Highway 41, north to the Highland Avenue exit and east to Lambeau Field.
The Sabols were already there, positioning eleven cameramen around the stadium. They sent a technician up to the scoreboard to place a microphone near a camera that peeked through one of the number holes. When it came time for a pregame group meeting, one member of the crew was missing. What happened? He had brought a flask with him and had taken a few shots of bourbon to stay warm a few too many, it seemed. He had passed out cold and might have frozen to death behind the scoreboard had they not gone looking for him. The parking lots were starting to fill up by 11 a.m., two hours before game time, with many Packers fans insisting on going through their pregame rituals as though it was just another winter day in paradise. Not as many tailgaters as usual, but they were still out there. Folding chairs, card tables, brats and beer. One concession to the weather: more of them than usual were huddled around fires. Jim Irwin, a local TV sports director, arrived at the press box two hours before kickoff, and looked out and saw hundreds of people already stationed at their seats. "They didn't have to be in the stands," he noted. "They had reserved tickets. They chose to be out there when it was thirteen below."
Chuck Lane was heading out from the locker room to check the field when he met a group of assistants coming the other way. They had a message for the coach, an unwelcome one, the sort of news they would rather have Lane tell him. "Tell Lombardi that his field is frozen," one said. Tell Lombardi that his field was frozen? That, Lane thought, would be like "telling him that his wife had been unfaithful or that his dog couldn't hunt." But that was his job, so he turned around and found Lombardi, who was leaving the locker room to check the field himself when Lane intercepted him. Lombardi seemed crestfallen, then angry and disbelieving. "What the hell are you talking about?" he thundered.
The field could not be frozen. The previous spring, in his role as general manager, Lombardi had paid $80,000 for a gigantic electric blanket devised by General Electric. He had bought it from George S. Halas, Papa Bear's nephew, who was the central district sales representative for GE's wiring services department. The fact that the Bears did not have an electric blanket themselves, even though young Halas was also a Bears scout, did not make Lombardi suspicious; it just showed that he was less tight with his team's money than old George. Lombardi loved modern inventions, and this electric blanket seemed to mean more to him than any play he had ever devised. Only the day before, he had taken a group of writers on a science field trip of sorts, first giving them a lecture on the underground magic, telling them how electric coils were laid in a grid the length of the turf, six inches below the surface and a foot apart, with another six inches of pea gravel below the coils and a drain below that. Then he led them back to a tiny control room off the tunnel below the stands.
Bud Lea of the Milwaukee Sentinel was in the group. "He goes in that little room and all these lights are blinking, and he's like a mad scientist in there, showing these writers from New York and Dallas how it all works," Lea recalled. "All these bulbs are going on and off, and I don't think Lombardi understood one thing about it, but, by God, he thought it was working."
It seemed to be working on Saturday when the grounds crew pulled the tarp off the field to let the Cowboys practice. Puffs of steam came out like a low rolling fog. The ground was cool but not cold, the turf soft but not soggy. Lombardi had been so satisfied then that he yelled over to the project engineer and gave him the okay sign with his thumb and forefinger. Even Tom Landry, the skeptical Dallas coach, who hated to play in Green Bay, had deemed the field "excellent" though a little damp. No dampness now. Parts of the field were frozen "as hard as a rock," reported Jim Tunney, the alternate referee. It seemed that the coil system had malfunctioned. Heat might rise here and there and thaw parts of the field, drawing out moisture, but then the turf would quickly freeze again. George S. Halas insisted afterwards that there was nothing wrong with the system, but the controls had been mishandled. In any case, those who paced the sidelines that day were struck by the juxtaposition of a wide patch of frozen turf next to a sign warning: THIS FIELD IS ELECTRIFIED.
In the locker room, Willie Wood took off his street clothes slowly, reluctantly, still convinced that the game would be canceled. "Man, it's too damn cold," he said to his teammates. "They ain't going to play in this shit." The room was full of smoke, cigarettes burning from the built-in ashtrays on almost every locker. Dad Braisher passed out long underwear to everybody, even Lombardi. Coach said it was okay to wear it today, but he didn't want them stuffing too much underneath the uniforms; he had a thing about players feeling loose and easy. Lee Roy Caffey and Tom Brown wanted to wear gloves, but Lombardi vetoed that request. Linemen could wear them, but no gloves for anyone who handled the ball. Dave Robinson walked over to the equipment man as soon as Lombardi left the room. "Give me a pair of those brown gloves and he'll never know the difference. I'm the only linebacker with brown hands anyway." Braisher agreed to the conspiracy, and Robinson wore gloves the rest of the day.
When the players took the field for warmups, most of them kept their hands tucked inside their pants. Every deep breath was an arrow shooting into their lungs. Donny Anderson, a Texan, had never played in weather like this before, but he had no choice because Elijah Pitts, the other halfback, was out for the year. Pitts had been enjoying his best season until the game in Baltimore, when he suffered a severe ankle injury. Jim Grabowski had been hurt during that same game when Bobby Boyd smacked him in the right knee. Grabo was making his way back and thought he might play against the Cowboys; the knee had felt good all week in practice. Then, during warmups, he went out on a pass pattern, a little fullback hook, and he planted his right foot and felt something pop, and his comeback was over before it started. Chuck Mercein would get most of the action at fullback.
Of all the major characters in this game, Mercein was the unlikeliest. The former Yale star had begun the year feeling "humiliated, embarrassed" when Allie Sherman, coach of the New York Giants, had cut him from his squad. He practiced several weeks with the semipro Westchester Bulls, then was recalled by the Giants and cut again. After a tryout in Washington, Redskins coach Otto Graham agreed to sign him, and Mercein returned to Scarsdale and told his wife to start packing for Washington. Then, as they were loading the car that Sunday night, Giants owner Wellington Mara called. "Listen, Chuck, if you haven't signed yet, I've been on the phone with Vince Lombardi and he inquired about your availability," Mara said. Mara and Lombardi talked every Sunday night during the season; they'd been doing it for seven years. "I've recommended you to Lombardi, Chuck. Stay by the phone."
A few seconds later Lombardi rang him. "Chuck, I understand you're available," Lombardi said, according to Mercein's recollection. "I want you to come out here and play for me. I don't want you to play for the Redskins. We're going to the Super Bowl, Chuck. You're going to help us get the world championship. You're going to be part of this team. We need you. We want you. If you want to be part of a championship, come out here and play for us." That was it. "Absolutely, instinctively and intuitively I knew this was where I was going to play," Mercein recounted. "I said, 'Yes, sir. I'll be on the next flight.' I hung up the phone and turned to my wife and said, 'Unpack the car.' She said, 'What?' 'Yeah, I'm going to the Packers.' It was great. I was thrilled. Playing for the great Vince Lombardi!" He took the flight of the Blue Goose to Green Bay that Monday, and personnel man Pat Peppler picked him up at the airport. And now, with Grabowski hurting again, here he was starting in the NFL Championship Game.
When the team returned to the locker room after warmups, the reality finally hit Willie Wood. "Well, it looks like we are going to play this game," he said to Bob Jeter. Then came another thought. If we're gonna play, we gotta make sure we're gonna win. We don't want to come out in these kinds of conditions and lose a damn ball game. Lombardi was of a similar mind, of course. He never wanted to lose any game, but especially not a game to Landry and the Cowboys. He had a thing about the Cowboys, according to Willie Davis. "Even in preseason he didn't want Dallas to beat us." Lombardi had always stayed one step ahead of his old Giants colleague and rival. He became a head coach in 1959, Landry in 1960. He turned a losing team around in one year, it took Landry six years before he could get his expansion Cowboys to a winning record. But now the Cowboys were being cited as the team of the future, with the flex and the Doomsday Defense and multiple offense, their flashy uniforms and speedy receivers.
In his heart of hearts, Max McGee thought Dallas had the better team. "Not that they could beat us," McGee said. "We had their number. Lombardi had the hex on Landry."
Gary Knafelc, the old tight end, was in the press box that day. His playing career done, he could not stay away and signed on as Lambeau Field's public address announcer. Looking out from his perspective atop the stadium, he was overwhelmed by the panorama. The players were the story, perhaps, and as the game went along they would rivet his and everyone else's attention, but at first it was hard to take one's eyes off the crowd in the stands. "There was this incredible haze of breath, tens of thousands of puffs coming out. Like seeing big buffaloes in an enormous herd on the winter plains. It was prehistoric."
To many fans, attending this game was a test of their resourcefulness. Carol Schmidt and her husband, who worked in the oil business, sat in Section 24 near the twenty-yard line, where they snuggled inside a makeshift double sleeping bag made from the heavy mill felt used at the local paper mills. To warm their feet they turned a three-pound coffee can upside down, punched holes in the top and placed a large candle inside on a pie plate. Bob Kaminsky arrived from Two Rivers with his wife's twin brothers and took his seat in the end zone, oblivious of the weather. "This is what I wore," he reported. "Longjohns. Work shoes. Over the work shoes I put those heavy gray woolen socks that came over the knees. Pair of galoshes over that. Flannel pajamas over the longjohns. Work overalls. A T-shirt. Flannel shirt. Insulated sweatsuit. Heavy parka. Face mask with holes for mouth and eyes. Wool tassel cap. And then I climbed into a sleeping bag. I had foam on the ground and seat for my feet and butt. I was not cold."
Lombardi's golfing pal Jack Koeppler and his son wore deer hunting outfits (red and black in that era, not yet the glaring orange). Two layers warmed their hands, first deer hunting gloves, then huge mittens. At their seats near the forty-yard line they zipped two sleeping bags together and slipped inside for the extra warmth generated by two bodies. Jerry Van, owner of the Downtowner Motel, where Hornung and McGee once lived, wore "two of everything." He cut up several thick cardboard boxes into twelve-inch squares and put three layers on the concrete floor to keep his feet warm. Lois Bourguignon, the wife of Packers executive board member Dick Bourguignon, wore a plastic garment bag under her winter coat to keep the heat in. Red Cochran, the former assistant coach who had quit the year before, watched the title game in the stands with his six-year-old son, both wearing bulky snowmobile suits. Teenager Gary Van Ness, who had come to the stadium planning to sneak in, was given a ticket near midfield by a doctor who had decided to leave, and found himself amid a group of rich folks; he had never before seen so many fur coats.
Fur coats? They were plentiful at Lambeau Field, even in arctic weather. The games were the social events of the year in Green Bay. Many women bought their fall and winter wardrobes with Sunday football games in mind and wore different outfits to every game. Mary Turek, Lombardi's dentist's wife, sat in prestigious Section 20, just above the players' wives, in her heavy fur coat with fur-lined stadium boots that extended over her calves. Around her she saw women in less practical attire, many of them exposing their legs to the weather in nylons and high heels. They tended not to last long. Tom Olejniczak, the team president's son, took a date to the game who left for the women's room midway through the first quarter and didn't come back until the game was over. Lorraine Keck, Lombardi's assistant secretary, got stuck in a restroom for more than a quarter, the door blocked by paramedics treating a girl who had passed out. Throughout the game bathrooms and passageways underneath the stands were jammed with people trying to get warm. When Red Cochran took his young son to the men's room, they got stuck in the human flow. It "was so mobbed," he said, "you had to go with the crowd, wherever it took you."
The temperature on the field as kickoff approached was thirteen below, with an estimated wind chill of minus forty-six. The leather ball felt heavy and airless. The field had already been rendered more dangerous from the warmups. Players said it was as if someone had taken a stucco wall and laid it on the ground. Clumps of mud had coagulated and stuck to the rock-hard ground. Blowers on both sides of the field shot warm air in the direction of the benches, but you had to be right next to one to feel it. Some players huddled in makeshift dugouts constructed from wood and canvas, like duck blinds. Lombardi paced the sidelines in his long winter coat and black fuzzy hat with muffs. No matter how cold the Packers felt, one look across to the other side made them feel superior. The Cowboys, said Chuck Mercein, "looked like earthmen on Mars. The outfits they wore. Most of them had hooded sweatshirts on underneath their helmets, which looked silly as hell. And a kind of scarf thing around their faces with their eyes cut out. They looked like monsters in a grade B movie."
For the first quarter and most of the second, the Cowboys played like anything but monsters. Their main receiving threat, Bob Hayes, known as the world's fastest human, also seemed to be the world's coldest, and unwittingly gave away every offensive play. If it was a run, he tucked his frigid hands into his pants as he lined up; if Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith called a pass play, Hayes pulled out his hands. "You can't catch a pass with your hands in your pants," said Tom Brown, the Packers strong safety. "We played eleven guys against ten whenever he did that. He was just stone cold."
The first time the Packers got the ball, Bart Starr led them on an eighty-two-yard drive that culminated in a touchdown pass to Boyd Dowler from eight yards out. In the second quarter he hit Dowler for another touchdown, this one of forty-three yards, and the score was 14 to 0. If a blowout seemed to be in progress, lingering in the back of everyone's mind was the memory of the previous year in Dallas, when the Packers had also bolted to a quick two-touchdown lead, then barely hung on to win the championship game on Tom Brown's last-second interception in the end zone. Could Dallas come back again? The weather seemed to argue no; conventional wisdom dictated that these Cowboys just didn't know how to play in subzero weather.
Four minutes left in the half. Green Bay holds the ball on its own twenty-six, first down. Starr drops back to pass. There is no protection, the entire Doomsday front line is roaring after him; he drops farther, turns away from Bob Lilly, retreating nineteen yards the wrong way, back to the seven, where Willie Townes hits him. Starr's hands are nearly numb, and he fumbles and George Andrie picks it up and plows into the end zone as he is being tackled by Forrest Gregg and Jerry Kramer and suddenly a seemingly secure lead is cut in half. Two minutes later Willie Wood drops back to receive a Dallas punt. Wood has the surest hands in the league. In eight seasons as a return man, he has fumbled only once, during a rainstorm in San Francisco, and that time he recovered his own fumble. Now he is standing near his own twenty, looking up, and Danny Villanueva's punt is fading on him. Wood is thinking too much: about how cold his hands are, about field position. Should he try to run it back or call for a fair catch? He puts his hand up, fair catch, and the ball fades away and when it hits his hands he can't really feel it. Fumble Frank Clarke recovers for Dallas. Four plays later the Cowboys get a field goal, and they race for the warmth of the locker room at halftime back in the game, trailing 14 to 10.
The Packers are supposed to be winter's team, yet ten points can be attributed to the weather and all ten are for Dallas.
Lombardi had little to say at halftime. His assistant coaches did most of the talking. Ray Wietecha, the offensive line coach, was distraught over the way Dallas's front line was breaking in on Starr. Another assistant pointed out to Starr that Dallas's linebackers were dropping straight back on pass plays, so deep that he should be able to complete short passes to the backs something to keep in mind. But mostly it was quiet, the urgency on getting warm, having a smoke, a Coke, a section of orange.
Paul Hornung was in the locker room, another of Lombardi's talismans. The coach had missed him all year, the good and the bad. He had missed having Paul to yell at, and he had missed having Paul to give the ball to in the clutch. On Friday, when Hornung entered the room during a press conference, Lombardi stopped in midsentence and put his arm around the Golden Boy, and the press corps watched the man who at times tried to bully them turn soft and sentimental. "Gentlemen," he had said. "This man is like a son to me." Perhaps a bit too much like a son, as far as Hornung was concerned. He had hoped to watch the title game from the press box, in relative warmth and comfort, but Lombardi insisted that he stand near him on the sidelines. Hornung and his buddy Max McGee, still in uniform, playing his last game in Green Bay, tried to position themselves in front of the blowers, but Lombardi kept looking around for them and calling them back to his side. Hornung was scheduled to be on national television at halftime, talking to Pat Summerall here in the locker room for CBS, but by then he was so cold that his mouth couldn't move and Summerall decided against the interview.
The wives of Dick Schaap and Jerry Kramer left at halftime and listened to the rest of the game on the radio. Schaap stayed in the press box, still uncertain how the final chapter of his book with Kramer would end. All season long Kramer had been talking into a tape recorder, providing daily material for the sportswriter to mold into a diary-style memoir. To this point, the story looked rich. Kramer had a poet's eye for detail and was a natural storyteller, making his rough draft more in need of cutting than reshaping. For every five minutes of Kramer on tape, it seemed, four minutes were usable. Schaap had suspected that might be the case. When a publisher had first asked him if he could recommend a football player to keep a diary the way Jim Brosnan had for baseball, Schaap had answered immediately, "Sure, Jerry Kramer." He barely knew Kramer at the time, but was basing his answer largely on an unforgettable first impression. It was at training camp in 1962, when Schaap was in West De Pere reporting a story on Jim Taylor. Kramer was then Taylor's roommate, and when Schaap entered their dorm room he saw Taylor on one bed sleeping and Kramer on the other reading Wallace Stevens poetry aloud to himself.
Six weeks after the first inquiry about a football diarist, the publisher called again, asking Schaap to find out if Kramer was interested. Kramer said he was, as long as Schaap would help him. The next day Kramer flew to New York to meet with his co-author and a literary agent, Sterling Lord. As the three men were walking down a street in midtown Manhattan after lunch, a stranger yelled out "Jerry Kramer!" The stunning realization that an offensive lineman for a team in Green Bay was recognizable in New York City, Schaap would say later, "raised the contract price of the book." Now he needed a similar exclamation point for an ending to raise the sales of the book.
The third quarter was nothing but frustration. Neither team scored. Bill Schliebaum, the line judge, had his whistle freeze to his lips and lost a layer of skin yanking it loose. Jim Huxford, working the chains, had to pull off his ski mask after part of it froze to his mouth. Ray Nitschke refused to go near the blowers he had a tradition of kneeling on one knee near the coach when the defense was off the field and now he was starting to get frostbite in his toes. Chuck Mercein's left tricep felt numb after a tough hit in the second quarter. Steve Sabol, stationed on the ledge above the end zone stands, and shivering in his cowboy boots, discovered that his camera had broken, the focus wheel on his telephoto lens frozen at a thirty-yard distance. Pat Summerall, whose assignment for the second half was to work the Green Bay sideline, was getting blistered every time he went near Lombardi. The fact that he had once played for the coach in New York made no difference. "Get the hell away from my bench," Lombardi barked. "This is my office!"
The press box had its own share of discontent. Reporters stationed in the front row found that their portable typewriters were freezing on the ledge. The game was down there somewhere, but the writers and broadcasters were having an increasingly hard time seeing it through the big picture windows, which were either too steamed or too frosted. Writers took to scraping small patches of visibility in the window with their credit cards. Chuck Lane had zipped across the street at halftime to buy some deicer at the service station, and one press box attendant was squirting deicer on the windows like lighter fluid while another used a squeegee to clear away the condensation. Every time someone opened the side door letting in a blast of cold air, Bud Lea called out, "Holy God, shut the door!" Ray Scott, calling the game for CBS with Jack Buck and Frank Gifford, insisted on having a window open in their booth. "You don't have the feel of the game, otherwise," he said. Gifford was losing his feel for anything. "I think I'll take another bite of my coffee," he muttered famously on the air.
As the third quarter ended, Dallas had possession at midfield. The Cowboys were now dominating the game. Twice in the third quarter, they had threatened to score, but one drive was thwarted when Lee Roy Caffey made Meredith fumble on the Green Bay thirteen, and another ended with a missed field goal attempt. The Packers seemed hapless, having gained only ten yards in the quarter. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Dan Reeves took the handoff from Meredith and ran wide to the left. Green Bay's defensive backfield played it as a run, and by the time they realized it was an option and Reeves was passing, receiver Lance Rentzel had slipped behind everyone, and Tom Brown could only chase him into the end zone. Dallas held the lead, 17 to 14.
Over the next ten minutes Green Bay got the ball twice but failed to score. Their one chance to tie the game fizzled when Don Chandler missed a field goal from the forty, wide to the left. Dallas picked up two first downs on its next possession and held the ball for nearly five minutes before they were forced to punt. Willie Wood thought of nothing but catching the ball this time. He cradled it safely at his twenty-three then burst nine yards upfield. The Packers were on their thirty-two, first down, sixty-eight yards to go for the winning touchdown, four minutes and fifty seconds remaining in the game.
Ray Scott had left the broadcast booth to work his way to the winner's dressing room. The quickest way to get there was to walk down through the stands to the field. He reached the Green Bay sideline just after Wood was tackled. The return team was running off the field and the offense was heading out to the huddle. Ray Nitschke, the emotional leader of the defense and special teams, had lost his voice. His toes were numb. Scott watched him as he rumbled off the field this one last time, his fist clenched, and yelled hoarsely but fiercely to the offense, "Don't let me down! Don't let me down!"
Dick Schaap had also left the press box with five minutes left, following a crowd of reporters to the field. He figured the game was over. Kramer had told him about one of Lombardi's favorite sayings: The Packers never lose, but sometimes the clock runs out. That's what would happen now, Schaap thought. At long last the clock would run out on the Packers. Run out for this championship game, but also for the whole incredible run the team had been on since Lombardi came to Green Bay. The game was changing, these Packers were old, time was moving on. That was it, Schaap thought. He had the title for the book: The Year the Clock Ran Out. Great title, he said to himself as he walked down the aisle, through the primordial scene in the stands, the huge buffalo herd, fifty thousand puffs of breath, fifty thousand fans warmed by four quarters of brandy, bourbon and beer. Still buzzing. Didn't they realize this was over?
Vincent realized it and had begun inching toward the dressing room a few minutes earlier. For most of the game he had been with the doctors, trainers and priests on the far right end of the bench, freezing in his green and yellow Packer jacket. Now he was on the far left end, near the end zone and the tunnel. He could not wait to warm up in the locker room. His sister, Susan, was also pessimistic. When Wood fielded the punt, she turned to her boyfriend, Paul Bickham, and said, "We're not going to win this!" Out in Sheepshead Bay, Harry and Matty were watching on television in the living room of the original Izzo homestead on East Sixteenth Street, now the home of Matty's younger sister Millie. Harry and Matty had moved back from Englewood and taken an apartment across the street, restored to the embrace of the vast Izzo family. Ten or twelve of them were here now, watching Vince's team. Harry was almost deaf; the volume was turned all the way up. "We were all scared to death," said Matty's niece Clara Parvin. "Especially Uncle Harry." He had survived two heart attacks, but these final five minutes were intolerable.
On the sideline at Lambeau Field, Doc Brusky was called over to help Jim Huxford on the chains crew. Huxford was recovering from a heart attack and the tension was getting to him. He needed another nitroglycerin pill. Ockie Krueger left his seat next to Marie Lombardi and started for the exit. He had driven Marie to the game in her car and wanted to make sure that it would start and be warmed up for her when the game ended. Paul Mazzoleni, after his busy morning jump-starting stalled cars, had watched the game from a seat in the south end zone, sharing a thermos of brandy with four guys from Kenosha. He, too, was heading for the exit, preparing for another long night of work ahead. Steve Sabol, his camera completely useless now, came down from his end zone perch to take a position near the Packers bench, as close to Lombardi as he could get. Sabol worshiped pro football and considered Lombardi the game's patron saint, the main character in the romantic story that he and his father were telling. The young filmmaker was among those who believed. He thought he was in a great spot to witness football history.
Before trotting onto the field, Starr had talked to Lombardi about what they would try to do. They had decided not to go for the quick score, but rather "just try to keep moving the ball." In the huddle, Starr seemed inordinately calm. "This is it," he said, looking directly at his teammates. "We're going in." Bob Skoronski had struggled all day to keep George Andrie out of the backfield. Earlier in the game Lombardi had lit into him on the bench, accusing him of falling asleep during this critical game. But now Starr's demeanor had a transformational effect. Ski was fully awake and confident. He looked at Starr and saw Lombardi, the reminder of everything they had learned in nine seasons with their coach. All of Lombardi's schooling was for precisely this moment, all the hundreds of times that he had run them through the sweep, convincing them that they could respond to anything, that no matter what the defense tried, they had the answer. There is nothing they can do to stop us, Skoronski thought to himself.
Chuck Mercein, the fullback, had played only six games with the Packers, yet he felt the same way. "The feeling I had was that we are going to score. I felt calm. I felt that everyone in the huddle was calm. I didn't sense any anxiety or desperation. Determination, yes, but not desperation. Bart just said a few words, 'We're going in,' but he had this tremendous presence. He was the on-field personification of Lombardi." Donny Anderson, the halfback, was more composed than any of his teammates had seen him before. He had tried to present himself as a latter-day Hornung, but before now the similarity had been most noticeable in his playboy persona off the field. Now it seemed as though he had grown up in one long cold afternoon. "If you dump me the ball, I can get eight or ten yards every play," he told Starr. The play had been there all afternoon, but as important as the sagacity of his observation was its fearless message: with the game on the line, he wanted the ball, just like the Golden Boy once had.
On first down it worked: Starr dumped a little pass to Anderson good for six yards. Then Mercein ran around right end for seven more and Starr hit Dowler for thirteen, and with those three successful plays the Packers had taken the ball into Dallas territory, forty-two yards from the end zone. Anderson lost nine on the next play, caught in the backfield by Willie Townes on a busted sweep, but he came back with two consecutive little gems, taking dump passes from Starr and picking his way cautiously down the ice-slicked field, eluding the linebackers for twelve yards and then nine more. The clock was down to two minutes. Mercein had noticed something during those plays and felt confident enough to bring it up with Starr.
"I'm open on the left side if you need me." The ball was on the Dallas thirty, only one minute and thirty-five seconds left. Starr went back to pass, Mercein swung to his left, Starr looked for Dowler and Anderson, then saw Mercein in the clear and went to him, the ball floating in the wind, behind Mercein and high, but he snared it on the run and slipped by the linebacker and was moving past the cornerback, nineteen yards and out-of-bounds at the Dallas eleven. Gil Brandt, the Dallas personnel man, called that catch a killer, one of the best he had ever seen, considering the conditions.
Then came what Starr considered the best call of the game. All week Lombardi had told him to look for the perfect spot and use it only when he really needed it. Now was the time. It was known as GIVE 54, an influence play. It looked like a variation of the Green Bay sweep, run from what was called the Brown formation, with the fullback lined up directly behind the quarterback, instead of Lombardi's preferred red formation, in which the halfback and fullback were spread. On the sweep from this formation, the left guard pulled and the fullback was assigned to block the guard's man, which in this case would be Dallas's Hall of Fame tackle Bob Lilly. Lilly was so quick and smart that he could shoot through the hole and bring down the runner from behind before the sweep unfolded.
The GIVE 54 was designed to take advantage of Lilly's aggressiveness. Starr would fake the sweep and hand the ball to Mercein, who would run through the hole vacated by Lilly. It could be a dangerous play. If Lilly held his ground there was no one to block him. But when the guard pulled, Lilly followed, and Mercein came busting through. Skoronski made a clean block on the left end, sealing an alley, and a linebacker went the wrong way, and as Mercein came through he saw "a helluva great hole there." He thought that if he could only get behind Forrest Gregg for one more block he might take it in, but the field was almost all ice down in the shadows of the scoreboard, no footing at all, "like a marble tabletop," according to Starr. Mercein picked up eight crucial yards. "I can still hear the sound of his feet clicking on that ice," linesman Jim Huxford said three decades later. "You could hear it on the ice. He was slipping but he kept going." All the way to the three, where he stumbled into Gregg and fell to the ground.
On the next play Anderson barely picks up the one yard needed for a first down. The Packers are one yard from the goal line. Anderson again, no gain. Twenty seconds left. Timeout. Anderson again. This time he slips on the ice as Starr hands him the ball, almost fumbling. Again, no gain. Green Bay calls its last timeout with sixteen seconds remaining, and Starr jogs to the sideline to talk to Lombardi.
A field goal would tie the game and send it into sudden death overtime, but bringing in the field goal team is not even discussed. Nothing needs to be said about a field goal. After playing for Lombardi for nine seasons, Starr knows exactly what his coach is thinking. He is conservative, he goes by the book, but he's a winner. Run to win. Lombardi had been preaching that motto to his team all through the final difficult weeks of this season, quoting St. Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians: All the runners at the stadium are trying to win, but only one of them gets the prize. You must run in the same way, run to win." Also, Lombardi is freezing his tail off, like everybody else in the place.
Hornung, in his street clothes standing near the coach, thinks they should try a rollout pass; that way even if it falls incomplete the clock stops and they can get in another play. He wonders whether Lombardi knows there are no timeouts left. Lombardi doesn't seem to be listening. Starr says he wants to go with the wedge play, where the runner pounds between the center and guard, but he wants to be certain that Jerry Kramer, who has to make a key block, can get good footing. It looks like an ice rink down there at the one. Watching films of the Cowboys earlier that week, they had noticed that Kramer's man, Dallas tackle Jethro Pugh, stood the highest in goal line situations, making him the easiest defender to cut down. Mercein is out on the field, he can't hear the discussion, but he's thinking the same thing, "one hundred percent certain" that they're going to give him the ball on the wedge, the simplest play in football.
"Run it!" Lombardi says. "And let's get the hell out of here." Starr trots back to the huddle.
Pat Peppler rarely stands anywhere near Lombardi during a game, but now he can't help himself. He moves closer to the coach and asks, "What's he gonna call?"
"Damned if I know," Lombardi says.
Starr asks Kramer if he can get good footing.
"Hell, yes," Kramer says.
"Huddle up," Starr says. He calls the play. Brown right. 31 wedge. That's the 3 back (fullback) through the 1 hole (between center and guard). Mercein hears it and thinks, This is it. I'm going to score. But as Starr is calling the play, a thought flashes through the quarterback's mind: No matter how good the block is, if Mercein should slip, he won't be able to reach the hole in time. Starr remembers a game against the 49ers in Milwaukee in 1966: an icy field, at the end of a long drive, he called the wedge, then kept the ball himself and scored on a sneak. The Packers didn't even have a quarterback sneak in their playbook. Never practiced it. But the improvisation had worked once, why not now? I can just hug the block in there, just get one step and go right in, Starr thinks to himself. He doesn't tell anyone. All his teammates think Mercein is getting the ball.
The Packers break from the huddle. The Doomsday linemen Lilly, Pugh, Townes and Andrie are kicking the ice at the goal line, desperate to find a patch of unfrozen turf so they can get a quick start off the ball. Jerry Kramer takes his position next to center Ken Bowman and there it is, a soft spot in the ground, just for him. He digs in with his right foot, certain that he can cut Pugh at the snap. On the Packers bench, Willie Davis is "thinking of all the possibilities, a bad snap or whatever." Aw, hell, he says to himself, and turns his head away. He can't watch. Willie Wood puts his head down. Looks hard at the ground. "Sometimes you don't want to see bad things," he explains later. Lombardi wonders whether they'll have enough time to bring in the field goal team if they don't make it.
Vincent has worked his way back down the field to this end, standing in the shadows. Steve Sabol is nearby, thinking to himself, Here I am watching history. Ockie Krueger never made it to Marie's car; he's standing atop a seat down near the field, shouting like everyone around him. Paul Mazzoleni is in a crowd that has jammed one of the exit ramps, on his tiptoes trying to get a better view. Dick Schaap is still on the far end of the field, nearly a hundred yards away. He has no clue that his co-author is expected to make the crucial block on the season's most important play. Vernon Biever, the Packers' official photographer, has been standing behind the end zone with his son John, his fifteen-year-old assistant. It makes no sense for them both to be shooting from the same spot, so he says to John, "You stay here. I'll change film and go to the bench area, so if they score I'll get the emotion over there." John Biever stays in the end zone and lifts his Nikon motorized camera, anticipating the final play coming his way.
One year earlier, in Dallas, the Cowboys were down near the goal line, threatening to score in the final seconds, and one of their offensive linemen was penalized for moving before the snap. Now the Packers are in the same situation, and Kramer is coming off the ball fast and hard, and Jethro Pugh thinks it is too fast, that Kramer is offside, but no call is made, and Kramer cuts Pugh off his feet and then Kenny Bowman knocks him back into a linebacker and Pugh falls on top of Kramer, and the wedge opening is there. Mercein gets a good start, no slips. "I'm psyched, I want this thing to go right," Mercein recalled later. "I'm taking off and lo and behold, Bart's not giving me the ball. He's kept it and he's in the end zone." Mercein is coming right behind him, and he doesn't want the officials to think he's pushing Starr forward, which would be a penalty, so he throws his hands above his head, trying to say, see, I'm not assisting him, and it looks as though Mercein is signaling the touchdown in midair.
John Biever clicks his Nikon and captures the moment for history: Kramer's block, Starr's sneak, Mercein's dive. Vernon Biever is near the bench and gets a shot of Lombardi lifting his hands jubilantly: touchdown. Victory. Dick Schaap knows that he has to change the title of his book. The clock did not run out. Harry Lombardi is whooping and screaming at the television set in Sheepshead Bay. Henry Jordan turns to Phil Bengtson and says in a deadpan, "Whadaya say, Coach. Another day, another dollar, huh?" Mercein is surprised, but not disappointed. He might have scored and been the hero, but he knew that he had done more in that one game than he ever could have dreamed. He was lucky enough to be in the right spot at the right time. Bart Starr had been in the right place doing the right things for nine years. With Hornung no longer in uniform, Starr had to be the one to go in for the winning score.
The coach, it could be said, had nothing to do with that final drive in a game that would be remembered thereafter as the Ice Bowl. Starr called the plays and scored the touchdown, Anderson and Mercein offered helpful advice and made the key runs and catches, Kramer and Bowman threw crucial blocks. Yet to every Packer on the field, and to many of those watching from the sidelines and in the press box, that final drive, more than anything else, was the perfect expression of Vince Lombardi. The conditions were miserable, the pressure enormous, and there were no fumbles, no dropped passes, no mistakes, just a group of determined men moving confidently downfield toward a certain goal. In his speeches Lombardi talked about character in action, and here it was, in real life. "Of all the games I've done," said Ray Scott, "that final drive was the greatest triumph of will over adversity I'd ever seen. It was a thing of beauty."
The locker room was a jangle of cameras and lights when Lombardi got there after the game. He evicted the press and talked to his men alone, telling them how proud he was: for running to win, for persevering and meeting their greatest challenge, winning three straight championships. He barely stifled the tears that came so easily to him, then fell to his knees and led the team in the Lord's Prayer. When he returned to his dressing room and began taking questions from the press, he could not stop fidgeting in his chair. He rose, sat down, got up again. He claimed with a touch of whimsy that the decision to gamble for the touchdown was dictated largely by the weather. "I didn't figure those fans in the stands wanted to sit through a sudden death," he said. "You can't say I'm without compassion, although I've been accused of it." But the story was "out there, not here," he told the media, nodding in the direction of the outer locker room from which only minutes before he had evicted these same reporters.
Glacial tears burned the cheeks of Ray Nitschke. The offense had not let him down, and now he said he felt a deep sense of satisfaction. He was also cold and numb and had frostbite on both feet. He and several teammates were soaking their feet in a bucket of lukewarm water. The hot water in the showers disappeared quickly, and Tom Brown and Willie Wood came yelping out of the shower room when it turned cold. They decided to take their showers at home. Jim Grabowski, who had watched the game from the bench, wishing he could have contributed, now took in the postgame scene with feelings of loneliness and separation as injured players always do, even in the midst of their teammates' joy. Grabo nonetheless sought out his replacement for congratulations. "Chuck, you just did a great job," he said to Mercein. "As good a job as I possibly could have done. Better, maybe."
Jerry Kramer could not stop talking. As Dick Schaap observed from the edge of the crowd, Kramer told one huddle of reporters after another about the last drive and the block, which CBS replayed in slow motion over and over. It was only then that Schaap was struck by the serendipity of the day's events. The last play of the biggest game, and his colleague had made the block, and now an enormous television audience was listening to him talk about it, and also about this special team and its uncommon coach. Kramer was the narrator of his diary, but he shared the role of main character with Lombardi, a looming presence in almost every scene. Kramer hated Lombardi and loved Lombardi, but he thought that he and his teammates knew him in a way that no outsider could. Weeks earlier, Esquire had published an article by Leonard Shecter that had portrayed Lombardi as a bully and tyrant. "Many things have been said about Coach," Kramer now told his TV interviewers. "And he is not always understood by those who quote him. The players understand. This is one beautiful man."
Red Blaik was watching the postgame interviews on television, and when he heard Kramer's remark he picked up the phone and called the Green Bay dressing room, getting through right away, much to his surprise. "Vince," he said to his former assistant. "A great victory, but greater were the remarks of Kramer, who has stilled those who were skeptical about you as a person."
Vince and Vincent drove home together, retracing the route they had taken hours earlier. As Lombardi steered the Pontiac out of the parking lot, he turned to Vincent and sighed. "You've just seen me coach my next to last game," he said. They rode in silence the rest of the way. That evening, in the basement party room at Sunset Circle, "everyone was floating on the ceiling," according to Jill Lombardi, Vincent's wife. The Old Man was so excited amid the hubbub of toasts and congratulatory phone calls and New Year's Eve jollity that he even kissed a few journalists. At one point he put his arm around Marie, and called for quiet and loudly thanked his wife for "making it all possible," a public declaration that made Marie squirm and shudder with embarrassment. Ed Sabol had been invited to the cocktail party with his son Steve, and entered the basement shouldering a small Bell & Howell camera to capture the scene. Lombardi was taken aback when he saw the lights. "What are you doing?" he barked. Just taking a few shots, Ed Sabol said. A few shots for history.
A few days later Chuck Mercein's parents called him. "Chuck," said his mother. "Guess who's on the cover of Sports Illustrated?" Starr, he guessed. No, his mother said. You. Mercein thought back to sitting in the barber's chair when he was a child in suburban Chicago, reading SI's "Faces in the Crowd" column and hoping maybe he could get in there someday. Now he was on the cover.
A few weeks later Jerry Kramer was in New York as a guest at Schaap's journalism class at Columbia. He was describing his block on the final play of the Ice Bowl and how the television kept showing the play over and over. "Thank God for instant replay," Kramer said.
Aha, Schaap thought. There's our title.
Instant Replay would become one of the best-selling sports books of all time.
A few months later the crowd that had gathered in Lombardi's basement on the night of the game reassembled there, now to watch the highlight film of Green Bay's championship season produced by Ed and Steve Sabol. They draped a bedsheet against the wall to serve as a makeshift screen, then turned off the lights. The film, titled The Greatest Challenge, was narrated by John Facenda, who was being phased out as a newscaster at Channel 10 in Philadelphia when Ed Sabol asked him to be the voice of NFL Films. With his deep and melodramatic tone, Facenda became known as "the voice of God." He read his scripts without ever looking at the pictures that accompanied them.
At the climax of the film about the 1967 Packers, Jerry Kramer said that he played pro football because of all the men who had been his teammates during the Lombardi era in Green Bay. "I'll tell you in a nutshell, if you can understand this: I play pro football because of Emlen Tunnell, Bill Quinlan, Dan Currie, Paul Hornung, Fuzzy Thurston, Max McGee, Henry Jordan, Herb Adderley, Ray Nitschke, Dave Robinson, Bart Starr." Then came Facenda's voice: deep, reverberating, sentimental. "They will be remembered as the faces of victory," he said. "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."
When it was over, the room stayed dark and the projector ran on and on, the film flapping noisily over the reel. Someone belatedly turned the light switch, and there stood Lombardi. He had been watching football film for decades, and he had run this projector himself, the old pro. But this time he was not grading the blocking technique of his players with ones or twos or zeros. He had a handkerchief out, and he was crying.
Copyright © 1999 by David Maraniss