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Spagnola: Rather Amazing 50 Years Ago Sunday Ice Bowl Still Frozen In Time
FRISCO, Texas – Let me out myself from the start.
Grew up in the South Suburbs of Chicago, South Chicago Heights to be exact, nearly the furthest southern suburb of Chicago before the country began, like 35 miles from The City.
Grew up a White Sox fan, not Cubs.
Staunch Blackhawks and Bulls fan.
But not Bears. Uh, Packers.
That’s right, obsessed with the Packers. Probably began in the early 1960s, after the Chicago Cardinals left Comiskey Park for St. Louis. Dad had a general dislike for the Bears since they were aligned with the Cubs, playing at Wrigley Field, where I saw my first NFL game, Bears-Lions, sitting in what were during baseball season box seats, now behind the end zone in what amounted to this rickety wooden-slat folding chair lined up between these steel-bar rectangular “boxes.” Like three rows to a box.
They didn’t have nets in those days behind the goal posts. Extra points and field goals would fly into the stands in tiny Wrigley Field, causing a free-for-all with everyone standing on these flimsy chairs hoping to take home a real NFL football. No throwing them back. Catch it, and it was yours.
And remember this in particular. Thought middle linebacker Dick Butkus, with those hulking shoulders pads, was the biggest human I’d ever seen.
Dad didn’t like George Halas either in those days. Felt he ran the Cardinals out of Chicago. And it was about that time a guy by the name of Vince Lombardi already had taken over the Packers in 1959. Lombardi, right, of Italian descent. So were we, both sets of grandparents immigrating to this country on the boat. Landed at Ellis Island, leaving a struggling Italy for this country of opportunity. Yep, sailing in right past the Statue of Liberty.
Well, the Italian people were pretty clannish back in those days, so my dad was drawn to a guy named Lombardi. Me, too. The timing was good, thank goodness, because I was able to ward off all of my neighborhood Bears fans. The Packers went to the NFL Championship game in 1960. They lost, but won back-to-back titles in 1961-62. Good to be a Packers fan, uh, until the Bears won it in 1963, which I blamed on Paul Hornung being suspended that season for betting on NFL games since the Bears went 11-1-2 to edge the Packers 11-2-1 for the Western Conference title.
But the Packers would win the NFL Championships in 1965 and, of course, over the Cowboys in 1966.
Every printed word about the Packers I read, especially anything Lombardi was quoted as saying. My mom was worried about me then. All I’d read was the sports section of the Chicago Tribune. Said I needed to be more rounded. Who knew.
And this part might sound rather nerdy, but on those Sundays when the Bears were on TV and the Packers weren’t, I’d sit on the living room floor watching the Bears game while picking up the Packers games on a Milwaukee radio station. Multi-tasking, right? Bart Starr was my guy. Loved Jimmy Taylor and Willie Wood and Herb Adderley and Boyd Dowler. Skoronski, Gregg, Grabowski, Nitschske. Ray Scott calling the games. Man, this was football.
That then brings us to 50 years ago this New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 1967. I had just turned 15 (OK, pretty easy math, right). Those darn upstart Cowboys who had taken the Packers down to the final minute of the 1966 NFL Championship Game when safety Tom Brown intercepted Don Meredith’s desperation fourth-down heave from the 2-yard line into the end zone to end the Dallas upset bid at the Cotton Bowl, 34-27.
And here we go, those sharp-dressed Texans with that fancy motion offense, complete with shifts, razzle-dazzle plays and the wise-cracking quarterback with the slow, East Texas drawl from Mount Vernon, Texas, famously “the son of Jeff and Hazel,” along with the fedora-wearing head coach Tom Landry right in the Packers way … again.
Some things you never forget. This NFL title game, watching it with my dad, is one of them. I can remember the cold, minus-13 at kickoff at Lambeau Field, a wind-chill I’ve been reminded was minus-46. The field was frozen, since Lombardi’s underground heating system failed miserably, making the field sweat and then freezing when the tarp was removed and the coils malfunctioned.
You’ve heard the stories from the Cowboys. Bob Lilly, Lee Roy Jordan, Jethro Pugh, Mel Renfro, Don Perkins, Walt Garrison, Pettis Norman, Bob Hayes. You know, waking up that Sunday morning and the motel room windows are iced over – from the inside. Cups of coffee freezing. Referee Norm Schachter’s metal whistle freezing to his lips when blowing for the opening kickoff, then removing only to rip off the skin, causing his lips to bleed. Hayes tipping off plays since he was keeping his hands in a pouch when running plays were called. Guys unable to get any traction on what became known afterward as “The Frozen Tundra.” The frostbite guys suffered.
And this, one of my favorites: My good buddy at the Dallas Times Herald, the late Frank Luksa, walking from the parking lot to the game, and because the snow was so deep unknowingly stepping into a ditch, the snow now up to his waist, then having to cover the game with wet pants.
The Packers jumped to a 14-0 lead, just the way they should have, I thought. Piece of cake. But then weird things began to happen. George Andrie returned a Starr fumble 7 yards for a touchdown. Packers safety Willie Wood fumbles away a punt, leading to a Cowboys field goal, 14-10. And then in the fourth quarter, causing me to yell at the TV, those darn sneaky Cowboys came up with some of their patented trickery, Dan Reeves heaving a 40-yard touchdown pass to Lance Rentzel on a halfback option. Come on, play real-man’s football.
Like, no way, 17-14, Cowboys, eight seconds into the fourth quarter.
I mean, the Packers just don’t lose, turning to my dad with 4:50 left, saying, “Come on, they are running out of time,” first-and-10 at their own 32. Talk about being spoiled.
But then, and I remember this vividly, running back Donny Anderson, from Stinnet, Texas, and Texas Tech, along with backup fullback Chuck Mercein, from suburban Chicago New Trier High School and Yale, began grinding away against the Cowboys defense. Now we’re talkin’. Play after play, marching right down the field.
Mercein 7 yards. Mercein 19-yard pass from Starr, now down to the Cowboys 11-yard line, 0:54 left. Mercein 8 more yards to the Cowboys 3-yard line, 0:34 left.
(Short aside, lending more irony to this tale: Cowboys personnel guru Gil Brandt just told me when the Giants released Mercein on the final cut, he was trying to sign him, but instead he chose the Packers. Go figure.)
Then it was Anderson 2 yards to the 1, 0:30 left, first down.
They say now it was minus-20 at Lambeau during this final drive.
Packers, first-and-goal at the 1. The field was frozen. Anderson up the middle, nothing. Anderson slips, trying to go up the middle again, nothing.
And you guys have seen those shots of the scoreboard: Cowboys 17, Packers 14, just 16 seconds left, third down and Starr calls his last timeout. Get it, last timeout and goes to the sideline to confer with Lombardi.
With my high football IQ, told my dad, “They got to kick it, tie the game and go into overtime.” To me, they had no choice. With no timeouts left, third down, if you tried to run it again and didn’t make it, game over, Cowboys win. No way there would be enough time to line up and run another if you didn’t score or had thrown an incomplete pass.
Field goal, right?
But here comes Starr, trotting back into the huddle. The Packers are going for broke, and it became apparent they were going to run the ball. You kidding me.
“Dad, they can’t do that, if they don’t score they are going to lose,” the unthinkable for the Packers, who had already won four NFL Championships in six years. “No, no, what are they doing?”
Couldn’t sit any longer. Off the couch, basically kneeling on the floor, as if getting closer to the TV was going to help.
The Cowboys are trying to dig in, as if bulls ready to make a charge, trying to get some footing on the frozen goal line. They couldn’t. That part of the field now was basically a skating rink, and maybe one reason why Lombardi didn’t send Don Chandler out to attempt a tying field goal. He, too, was probably ready to go home.
And as it turns out, Starr had called in the huddle, I read today, “Brown R-31 Wedge,” basically a fullback plunge over center Tom Bowman and guard Jerry Kramer. But instead, the crafty Starr improvised without anyone knowing, keeping the ball behind his two offensive linemen double-teaming Pugh to score the winning touchdown with 13 seconds remaining.
Ball game, 21-17, Packers, enabling Green Bay to now play – and eventually win – the first two Super Bowls in NFL history, while saddling the Cowboys with that unfortunate moniker of being “unable to win the big one,” the agony then stretching over three more seasons until finally breaking through and winning Super Bowl VI that 1971 season.
And I remember this, too. To the day he died, Cowboys president and GM Tex Schramm would tell me often after Jerry Jones had bought the team, in his gruff voice (and I can hear it today), “That was the worst coaching decision in the history of football. He should have kicked it.”
That was Tex.
And the only consolation for the Cowboys, and it wasn’t much, to this day those guys who played in the game insist they were the better team, and that on a reasonable field their speed would have overwhelmed the Packers. Maybe, but we’ll never know.
The irony of all this, the Cowboys would go on to play in eight Super Bowls, winning five, before the Packers ever returned and won another one, beating Bill Parcells-coached New England in Super Bowl XXXI, the year after the Cowboys won their last of those five Super Bowls.
Still, what a game, and to think there were 15 future Pro Football Hall of Famers on both teams, nine Packers, six Cowboys. There were 10 future Cowboys Ring of Honor members on that team, nearly half of today’s total of 21.
Now, if this all whets your appetite for more, NFL Network on Friday night at 8 p.m. Central, will debut The Timeline: The Ice Bowl. I’ve seen the 30-minute preview of this hour-long documentary, produced and narrated by none other than Michael Meredith. That’s right, Don’s son, who at the time was 3 months and 9 days old on Dec. 31, 1967. This comes complete with recent interviews with not only his dad’s teammates but the Green Bay players in that game, too.
Great insight, because as Michael told me, the late Don Meredith, better known as “Dandy Don,” who passed away on Dec. 5, 2010, didn’t really talk much about the game, akin to those World War II vets who returned to the States and rarely talked about what took place overseas, my dad being one of them, and to this day I regret asking more questions.
So maybe the greatest insight Michael brought out was through the questions he finally asked his mom, Cheryl King, who said of the Ice Bowl aftermath, “My whole life would have been different. Your dad’s life would have been different. Not only did it break my heart, it wounded my soul. You don’t ever get over something like that.”
Maybe now you understand the angst the rest of these Cowboys have endured, yes, still to this day, including Tex to his very last days.
But, my gosh, here we are, 50 years later on New Year’s Eve this Sunday, the Cowboys playing a far, far less meaningful game in Philadelphia, and still talking about one of the greatest games in NFL history, The Ice Bowl – me having lived through it from a Green Bay fan’s side of it as a kid, and now how fortunate, having learned infinitely so much more about this iconic game from the Cowboys side working out here, oh, these many years, meeting so many of the guys from those days gone by. Consider myself pretty darn lucky to have touched a little piece of this indelible NFL history.
Hey, some of you might be around for the 100-year anniversary of the game in 2067, who knows. If you are, do me a favor, keep all these memories alive.