Friday, December 31, 2010

December 31, 1967: The Ice Bowl

GREEN BAY, Wisc. - There were 16 seconds left when Bart Starr called the Packers' final time out. The Packers, trailing 17-14, faced third and goal from the 1. The previous two rushing attempts had gone nowhere as Donny Anderson had failed to get any traction on the icy field.

The Dallas Cowboys, clinging to the lead in the NFL Championship Game, were expecting a pass after the Packers' two failed rushing attempts. It seemed logical - an incomplete pass would stop the clock, giving the Packers another shot on fourth down to either try to score again or kick the field goal to force overtime.

By that point, the temperature was -20. This was where the phrase "the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field" originated. Players on both teams were suffering from frostbite. The field was a sheet of ice. Nobody wanted overtime. Nobody wanted to be out there for any longer. So Starr suggested a quarterback sneak. Vince Lombardi said, "Well, run it and let's get the hell out of here."


Though the Packers had won the first Super Bowl the previous season, the NFL Championship Game was still considered the more prestigious game, mostly because the AFL was still seen as an inferior league. Therefore, the December 31 matchup between the Packers and Cowboys was considered the true championship game for 1967. With a kickoff temperature of -13 (with a wind chill of -48), the conditions were brutal; the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse band, brought in for halftime entertainment, couldn't even play because the woodwind instruments froze.

But yet, the game went on, and the Packers took advantage of their experience playing in cold weather by scoring on a pair of touchdown passes from Starr to Boyd Dowler. The Cowboys answered with the final 10 points of the second quarter to make it 14-10 at halftime.

After a scoreless third, the Cowboys took the lead on the first play of the fourth quarter when running back Dan Reeves threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to Lance Rentzel. Dallas still had the lead when the Packers got the ball back at their own 32 with 4:50 left to play.

It was slow moving on the icy field, but the Packers moved downfield. Starr had three key completions on the drive before fullback Chuck Mercein ran it for eight yards for a first down at the 3. The two failed runs by Anderson followed, and then Starr called his time out.


In the huddle, Starr called a handoff to Mercein, but he intended to keep the ball all along. There was no use risking a fumble. Still, though, there was risk; if Starr didn't get in, there probably wouldn't have been enough time for the fourth down play. Starr took the snap and lowered his head, running behind center Ken Bowman and guard Jerry Kramer, and falling into the end zone for the touchdown.


One of the most famous pictures in football history shows Starr scoring the winning touchdown in the Ice Bowl, with Mercein right behind him with his arms in the air. Many people seeing the picture thought Mercein was signalling the touchdown, but that wasn't the case. Thinking he was getting the handoff, Mercein started plunging forward, then couldn't stop his momentum when he saw Starr was taking it himself. He was lifting his arms on the play not to signal the touchdown, but to show the officials that he wasn't illegally pushing Starr into the end zone.

After their victory in the Ice Bowl, the Packers advanced to the Super Bowl in the much friendlier climate of Miami. There they crushed the Raiders, their second straight Super Bowl victory. The win over the Raiders ended up being Vince Lombardi's final game as Packers coach, as he retired after the season. His retirement meant that the Ice Bowl, which has become the most famous of his victories, was also his last victory in Lambeau Field.

December 31, 1972: ISLA VERDE, Puerto Rico - The plane was loaded, dangerously so. It seemed like there were too many supplies for the plane. Roberto Clemente didn't worry about that. He had been organizing planes to send supplies to Nicaragua since the devestating earthquake of December 23, but he had learned that the supplies hadn't been getting to their intended targets. Clemente decided to ride along on this plane, hoping his presence would ensure the supplies would get to where they were supposed to go. They never did. The DC-7 crashed into the Caribbean immediately after takeoff. A few days later, the body of the pilot, the plane's fuselage, and an empty flight case belonging to Clemente were recovered. No other pieces of the plane or traces of its passengers have ever been found.

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