NFL: The Games Played in the Coldest Weather in History
When sitting in the bleachers at Ralph Wilson Stadium, frozen from head to toe courtesy of the wind chill from Lake Erie whipping the field into frozen submission, remember the words of Henri Ducard to Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins: “Rub your chest, your arms will take care of themselves.” A nice, hot cup of coffee might help too. Pro football was made to be played in lousy weather. More than half of the season occurs in climates considered by all, save polar bears, to be cold and nasty.
Eleven teams — give or take — play in outdoor stadiums in locales where most people fly south for the winter. Winters in Foxborough, Massachusetts; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Minneapolis; and Denver, to name a few, are nothing to sneeze at. On second thought, sneezing is almost a given after sitting for four hours during a frigid December afternoon. Not to play the “can you top this” game, but some NFL games have been played in conditions better suited for arctic wolves. Of the top ones, two send chills up fans’ spines. The others are just plain chilly. Here are some of the top NFL games played in subzero weather.
The Freezer Bowl
If you were at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium on January 10, 1982, you may have just recently gotten the feeling back in your limbs. On that day, the Bengals hosted the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship Game on a wintry day with an adjusted temperature of -37 degrees Fahrenheit including wind chill.
For comparison, scientists consider Oymyakon, Russian to be the coldest place on earth. As a spot with three hours of daylight in the height of winter, the temperature in early December there is a balmy -40 degrees Fahrenheit. With no pro sports team in that part of the world, it’s likely that most recreational activities are held indoors.
A few facts about the Freezer Bowl: The Bengals won 27-7 in front of an estimated crowd of more than 46,000. The Chargers’ previous game was against the Dolphins in Miami, where the temperature was 88 degrees Fahrenheit. The Bengals’ offensive line played in short-sleeve shirts, putting hot water bottles inside their jocks and their hands inside their pants between plays to stay warm. Shortly after kickoff, icicles formed on the beard of Dan Fouts, the San Diego quarterback and a Bay Area native.
The game was notable because the Bengals won the opening coin toss and chose to kick off at the start of both halves in order to have the wind advantage at their backs during the crucial fourth quarter. According to a few reports , then-commissioner Pete Rozelle considered postponing the game, but after consulting with a specialist from the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, gave the teams the green light to battle.
If there was one advantage for the Bengals, it was that coach Forrest Gregg had played for the Green Bay Packers in what was known as “The Ice Bowl” (second on our hit parade), so he knew how to prepare his team. There was also an unsubstantiated rumor that Gregg arranged for stadium personnel to open the doors when the Chargers were playing into the wind.
The Ice Bowl
One of the more chronicled games in NFL history, the 1967 NFL Championship is as much a part of football history as end-zone touchdown dances and game-winning field goals. For those whose memories of the NFL date back several decades, the basso profondo voice of the late John Facenda uttering the words “frozen tundra” still send chills up and down their spines.
To set the scene, the Green Bay Packers were playing the Dallas Cowboys in chilly eastern Wisconsin on the last day of 1967. The Packers, under the tutelage of the great Vince Lombardi, had defeated the Rams (then of Los Angeles). The Cowboys, under the guidance of Tom Landry and quarterback Dandy Don Meredith, had beaten the Cleveland Browns to reach the NFC title game. The winner would go on to play in Super Bowl II.
The temperature on the field was -15 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of -36 degrees. Given the lack of technology at the time, the field froze prior to the game, and the slick turf prevented the marching band from performing at halftime. As the story goes, the brass section found their instruments stuck to their lips during pre-game practice. And the referee’s whistle stuck to his lips too, making the practice of calling penalties difficult.
While most remember the game’s winning touchdown being executed on a Bart Starr quarterback sneak over a key block by guard Jerry Kramer, what few recall is that linebacker Ray Nitschke, Starr, George Andrie, and a few others suffered from frostbite during the game. The Packers, who won 21-17 and went on to beat the Oakland Raiders 33-14 in the second Super Bowl, would have to wait 29 years to win their next NFC/AFC championship.
Other notable games
Oakland Raiders at Cleveland Browns, January 4, 1981: While exact records are not available, the temperature on the shores of Lake Erie at kickoff was 0 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of -37 degrees. A resurgent Jim Plunkett squared off against Brian Sipe with a thriller that ended with Willie Brown’s late-game interception of Sipe on the famous Red Right 88 play. Oakland would go on to beat the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10 in Super Bowl XV.
Ice Bowl II, New York Giants at Green Bay Packers, January 20, 2008: At kickoff, the temperature was 0 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of -23 degrees. Weather had a minimal impact on the game, which would go on to be called “The Chilling Championship” with the Giants winning in overtime, 23-20. The winning score was a 47-yard field goal by Lawrence Tynes, and the Giants went on to win Super Bowl XLII, played in Glendale, Arizona (17-14 over the heavily favored New England Patriots).
Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.