The day of the Ice Bowl game was so cold, the referees' whistles wouldn't work; so cold, the reporters' coffee froze in the press booth; so cold, fans built small fires in the concrete and metal stands; so cold, TV cables froze and photographers didn't dare touch the metal of their equipment; so cold, the game was as much about survival as it was about skill and strategy. On New Year's Eve, 1967, the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers met for a classic NFL championship game, played on a frozen field in sub-zero weather. The "Ice Bowl" challenged every skill of these two great teams. Here's the whole story, based on dozens of interviews with people who were there—on the field and off—told by author Ed Gruver with passion, suspense, wit, and accuracy.
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The Ice Bowl
The Cold Truth About Football's Most Unforgettable Game
By Ed Gruver
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1998 Ed Gruver
All rights reserved.
The Making of St. Vincent
"C'mon, lift those legs, lift 'em. Higher, higher. Move those damn legs. This is the worst-looking thing I ever saw. C'mon, Caffey, move your legs. C'mon, keep them moving. C'mon, Willie Davis, you told me you were in shape. Faster. Crenshaw, you're fat. Ten bucks a day for every pound you can't lose. Move those legs. Dammit, what the hell's the matter with you guys. Let's move. LIFT THOSE LEGS!"
Vince Lombardi's voice reverberated across the two practice fields on Oneida Avenue, opposite Lambeau Field, the site of Packer home games in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The mid-July sun burned the steamy bluegrass turf, and brought small rivers of sweat from the 70 men who, clad in white shorts and T-shirts, were competing for the 33 roster spots on pro football's defending world championship team, the 1967 Green Bay Packers.
At the height of the Lombardi years, cars and trucks carrying spectators routinely arrived half an hour before the ten A.M. workout. Mothers with station wagons crammed full of wide-eyed children would pull to the curb and ask the policeman at the gate, "When do the Packers start to practice?" As many as two thousand fans, some from out of state, flocked to the sideline viewing areas and filled the low green bleachers. Children in the crowd wore youth-size Packer jerseys, the most popular being Bart Starr's number 15. They stood behind the railing near the spectator benches, where some of the famous players like Starr, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, or Willie Wood usually stopped after practice to autograph scrapbooks and footballs.
Most of the fans' attention however, was focused on Lombardi, who after arriving in Green Bay in 1959, had in just two years lifted the Packers off the bottom of the NFL standings to championship status. Lombardi directed the practices in a starched white T-shirt, forest green baseball-style cap with an interlocking "G" and "B" in gold on the front panel, beige football pants rolled up on his calves, thick white athletic socks, and black ripple-soled coaching shoes. The exposed skin on his neck, face, and arms, normally a Mediterranean, olive-colored tone, was tanned walnut brown by the summer sun. His hair was graying at the temples, and he had long arms and big, hard hands. He studied the proceedings from behind blackframed sunglasses, his face occasionally breaking into a gap-toothed grimace.
As Lombardi moved around the practice field, his was a presence people could feel. Bill Curry, who played center for the Packers in 1965–66, said it's difficult to articulate how forceful Lombardi's aura was. "It was unique," Curry said. "When Lombardi came around, everybody got afraid, but highly active. The voice, like the personality, had just the most indescribable intensity."
Between the two practice fields stood a 15-foot-high steel cameratower, with signs posted on either side reading: "KEEP OFF — POLICE ORDERS." At the top of the tower, a cameraman recorded the day's practices on film. Like almost everything else connected with the Packers, the camera tower has special significance in Green Bay. On a windswept July afternoon in 1960, one year after Lombardi came to town as head coach and general manager, a strong gust toppled the tower and landed it on Nitschke's helmeted head, knocking him to the wet ground. The hard plastic shell absorbed the blow, and although the helmet's web suspension was punctured by a tower bolt, it protected the future Hall of Fame player from serious injury.
By 1967, the tower had added significance. At the base of the structure was a chalk-drawn square, where members of the print media were sent to watch daily practices. The chalked territory was referred to in Green Bay as "the magic square." By Lombardi's orders, local newspapermen like Glenn Miller of the Wisconsin State Journal, Lee Remmel and Art Daley of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Chuck Johnson and Oliver Kuechle of The Milwaukee Journal, and Bud Lea of the Milwaukee Sentinel were told to stand there when observing Packer workouts. Visiting members of the media, like Leonard Shecter, who was in Green Bay in July of 1967 to interview Lombardi for Esquire magazine, were also assigned to the restricted area. Lombardi got away with such indignities because his word in Green Bay was absolute. When one of his assistants, Norb Hecker, tried to install a similar area after taking over as head coach of the expansion Atlanta Falcons in 1966, members of The Atlanta Constitution stalked off the field in protest. Hecker caved in; he didn't have Lombardi's clout.
Lombardi was distrustful of the press, and preferred to keep the media at a safe distance. Miller felt the Green Bay boss met each question like it was "a stab in Packer territory and must be defended against." Lombardi almost visibly flinched whenever a sportswriter asked him a question, and he occasionally lashed out at them. "Gee, that's a stupid question," he would say, or "Why in the hell would you ask a question like that?"
Once in awhile, a reporter would lash back. Jerry Izenberg of the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger engaged in a memorable verbal sparring session with Lombardi on September 26, 1965. The Packers had just defeated their Western Conference rivals, the Baltimore Colts, 20–17, and this without Starr, halfback Paul Hornung, and fullback Jim Taylor, all of whom were on the injured list.
At the postgame press conference, Izenberg asked Lombardi, "Did you ever think you could win a game without Starr, Hornung, and Taylor?"
"You mean you never had any doubts?"
"I told you, certainly!"
Izenberg could see Lombardi getting angry, and he said, "Look, I'm not trying to badger you. Let me ask you this in a different way. Did you ever think you'd have to coach a game without them?"
Getting red in the face, Lombardi snapped, "That's a very stupid question, mister!"
Insulted, Izenberg snapped back. "I don't think you coached such a brilliant game, mister!"
"How dare you say that! You don't know a damn thing about football!"
"Agreed," Izenberg said. "And how dare you tell me my question was stupid. You don't know a damn thing about journalism. You stick to football and I'll stick to journalism. If you don't want to answer, don't answer!"
Smart enough to know when he was wrong, Lombardi settled down. "What do you want to know?" he calmly asked Izenberg.
Off-the-cuff statements were not Lombardi's strong point. "My game is football," he gruffly told one reporter. "Not 'Twenty Questions.'"
"I have seen too many seemingly sound statements blow up in the faces of too many sound coaches," Lombardi told writer W. C. Heinz in the 1963 book, Run To Daylight, "and I'm not at my best when I'm walking off the practice field, honestly feeling that my whole future will depend upon my discovery of some way to rearrange our blocking on our 49-Sweep ... and a sportswriter comes up to me and says, 'Well, coach, what do you think today?'"
Lombardi maintained a guarded persona, and was selective in granting interviews. He at first refused the Esquire request, but relented. Though the reasons behind his change of heart are unclear, it may have had something to do with Shecter being a native New Yorker like himself. Born in New York City, Shecter attended New York University and started his career in journalism as a copy boy with the New York Post. Over the next 20 years, he was a reporter, night editor, and sports columnist for the Post, then left the paper to become a freelance writer. Gifted with an impassioned, descriptive writing style, Shecter's work appeared in numerous national magazines, and it was with these credentials he arrived in Green Bay in the summer of '67 to interview Lombardi.
To Shecter, the 54-year-old Lombardi looked less like the "toughest man in football," as the Esquire article later proclaimed, and more like an Italian papa. "He has a bit of a weight problem," Shecter noted, "and walks with his belly sucked in and chest expanded, like a pigeon's."
Lombardi's loud instructions to his team were delivered in what Shecter described as an odd New York accent, a product of Vince's upbringing in the 1930s in Sheepshead Bay, then a tough, Italian immigrant section of Brooklyn. Each Lombardi edict was accompanied by the sounds of large men drawing increasingly short breaths and the pounding of cleats and bodies on ground baked hard by the sun. When Lombardi yelled "Front!" the players threw themselves face down in the grass. No sooner had they touched the turf when the call would be "Up!" and they would jump to their feet and resume running in place.
The Packers survived Lombardi's grass drills because of their dedication to year-round physical conditioning. Bill Curry, who played for three NFL teams in his career, including the 1968 and 1970 Baltimore Colts Super Bowl teams, said the Packers were the most impressive physical specimens he had seen. "Standing in the Packer locker room," Curry said, "gave you the strong feeling that everyone in there could push over a wall."
While most NFL teams in the 1960s began practices with 15 side-straddle hops; the Packers started with a hundred. At the conclusion of the calisthenics, which were led by an assistant coach, Lombardi would walk to the front of the group, and with what Curry remembered as a "sadistic grin," would begin the grass drills.
Players ran in place, pulling their knees high up to their chests, then at Lombardi's command diving to the ground and bouncing up again. Sometimes Lombardi would have the Packers repeat this drill 70 or more times. Curry, who along with fellow center Ken Bowman, kept track as a way to distract themselves from the pain, once counted 78 sets of "Front!" and "Up!" Unsuspecting rookies and out-of-shape veterans were particularly vulnerable to the drill. After awhile, they would begin vomiting; some would sink to their knees, unable to rise; one literally passed out.
Shecter described the grass drill as an exercise that turned grown men, most of them in their 30s with families to support, into "groveling, gasping, sweat-soaked, foamy-mouthed animals without breath enough left to complain."
It was a drill, he wrote, "best conducted in the summer sun at brain-frying temperatures because sane men will not do it. The crazy men run in place, double time, as hard as they can, while Lombardi shouts at them in his irritating, nasal, steel-wool-rubbingover-grate voice. ... As the drill goes on, the noises they make breathing almost drown out the sound of Lombardi's voice. The breathing becomes louder and somewhat wetter, until it sounds like the ocean when the last waves roll up into the sucking sand. Finally, when they are beyond the point of humanity or sanity, Lombardi lets up. 'All right!' he shouts. 'Around the goalpost and back. Now RUN!'"
Shecter, perhaps insulted by being held at bay by the chalk line, found Lombardi abrasive and repulsive, animal-like in appearance, and unsophisticated in his views on football and society. When his article appeared in the December, 1967 issue of Esquire, it shaped to some degree the public image of Lombardi as a callous man with a win-at-all-costs attitude. It's a cardboard image that lingers as part of the Lombardi legend, and for better or worse, remains one of the ornaments of the NFL's modern era.
That a non-sports magazine like Esquire even pursued Lombardi as the subject of a feature was indicative of the media's growing fascination with the sport. By the mid-sixties, pro football was in the process of passing major league baseball as the nation's foremost spectator sport.
The advent of television in the fifties had brought the drama and excitement of an NFL Sunday into living rooms across the country. As Americans turned on their sets, they were captivated by the precision of Otto Graham and the Cleveland Browns, by the riverboat gambling style of Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts, and by the sophisticated play of Frank Gifford and the New York Giants. By the late 1950s, television had replaced radio as the electronic medium of the nation, and football, more than baseball, is a television sport. Television and the NFL was a near-perfect union, developing what the authors of the 1972 book, The National Football League: The First Fifty Years described as "a viewer's medium that was unexcelled for excitement, clarity, and sustained interest."
The marriage of pro football and television was performed, quite suitably, in the cathedral-like surroundings of Yankee Stadium on Sunday, December 28, 1958. In the cold, gray dusk of that winter afternoon, the Baltimore Colts defeated the Giants, 23–17, in sudden-death overtime. This NFL championship game has been called the greatest ever played. Certainly it was the most important played to that point. The image of Unitas, in his white Colts' uniform, dropping, wheeling, and dissecting the famous Giants' defense of Sam Huff, Andy Robustelli, and Rosey Grier on two late-game drives gripped the imagination of the public.
Sportswriter Louis Effrat wrote in The New York Times the next day, "the excitement of pro football's longest game left most of the 64,185 spectators limp." If the world had by then become the global village Marshall McLuhan believed it had — a community where people overcame great distances and shared a common experience via television — then the excitement was felt not just by the crowd in Yankee Stadium but by ten million viewers across the nation.
Pro football's visual images — the simultaneous movements of 22 men on a rectangular field — fit perfectly into the confines of a television screen, and technological innovations such as slow motion replays and isolated camera close-ups gave viewers a fascinating new insight into the violent world of pro football.
NFL Films was organized in the early sixties, and helped popularize the sport with weekly highlight films described by one observer as "beautiful essays on the sport, fast-and slow-motion tributes to the art and courage of the ballplayers."
By the mid-sixties, polls revealed pro football had become the "most followed" sport among American males aged 18 to 49. Modern society was complex and turbulent, and pro football reflected the new culture more than any other sport. The game became a symbolic combat for a nation torn by an unpopular foreign war, and an outlet for a people whose home front was unsettled by demonstrations and rioting. In an urban, middle class society in which control was expected of one's emotional and physical states, pro football offered a cathartic discharge, a purging of pent-up frustrations.
"I've always considered myself a group therapist for 60,000 people," said Sonny Jurgensen, a Hall of Fame quarterback for the Washington Redskins in the sixties and seventies. "Every Sunday I hold group therapy and the people come and take out their frustrations on me. If I fail, it magnifies their failures, and if I succeed, it minimizes them. The fans actually add to the game itself, because if you are playing at home, they are pulling for you, and if you are on the road, you are fighting 60,000 people."
America embraced pro football, and NFL attendance rose steadily throughout the sixties, averaging 54,430 per game by 1969. The television audience was also expanding, reaching an estimated 21 million by 1964. When the New York Jets pulled off their historic upset of the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl, giving the American Football League its first-ever victory over the established NFL, the TV audience was estimated at a then-record 60 million.
Television revenue helped the NFL and AFL sign talented athletes away from other major sports, notably baseball. In 1964, the AFL secured its existence by signing a five-year, $36 million television contract. Within a week, the NFL countered with a two-year $14.1 million deal with CBS. Thus, in the space of seven days in late January, 1964, TV committed more than $64 million to the pro game.
"Sunday, the day of rest, will undergo a transformation in the American home," wrote William N. Wallace in the February 2, 1964 edition of The New York Times. "C.B.S., with a lot of football to sell, proposed to telecast double-headers, meaning an East Coast game followed by a West Coast one, for instance. This can mean five hours of televiewing for the pro football buff on 14 Sunday afternoons of the year. Mrs. Buff and all the little Buffs had best learn up on blitzes, drops, influences, down-and-outs and keys. The blend of the game and television has become too potent to oppose. Pull up a chair."
Excerpted from The Ice Bowl by Ed Gruver. Copyright © 1998 Ed Gruver. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Poorly written book on an exciting subject. Too much insignificant trivia. Keeps interupting description of game with thumbnail bios of the players. The chapters devoted to the history of the nfl and the coaches are good, perhaps making the book worthwhile.
I remember watching the game and could not believe they were playing in those conditions.