This upcoming Sunday, which is New Year’s Eve, is the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous games in NFL history. I’m talking about the 1967 NFL Championship Game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, better known as the “Ice Bowl” game.
It’s very apropos that the 2017 Packers will be playing this Sunday, but the NFL schedule makers got it wrong when they scheduled the Packers to play in the indoor warmth of Ford Field against the Detroit Lions, as opposed to taking on an opponent at Lambeau Field.
The forecast for this Sunday in Green Bay calls for a frigid day, as the temperature may climb to 10°, with an expected low of -13°. That’s pretty cold. But that’s still nothing like the weather conditions experienced on New Year’s Eve in Green Bay in 1967.
One never knows what will happen in the region where the Fox River connects to the bay off Lake Michigan this time of year. And on December 31, 1967, the region was given the coldest and most frigid day since they first started documenting weather conditions in Green Bay.
For the NFL title game between the Cowboys and Packers, it was shocking to find out that the game-time temperature was -13°. If you add in the wind throughout the game, the temperature plummeted to -50°.
Nice weather if you are a polar bear. But not if you are a professional football player.
The players were shocked by the weather conditions, because just the day before the game, the temperature was in the high 20s and low 30s under sunny conditions with little or no wind.
But then Sunday came.
On Friday night, NFL Network will be documenting the “Ice Bowl” in one of their Timeline specials at 9:00 ET.
I thought I would document the game as well, but mostly focus on the epic 68-yard drive that the Packers went on across the frozen tundra with less than five minutes to go in the game.
Thankfully, I have been able to talk with three of most important participants in that drive to recount what happened in those final moments of that chilling championship contest.
Those players are right guard Jerry Kramer, halfback Donny Anderson and fullback Chuck Mercein.
But before I get to that legendary drive, let’s look at what happened to set up that momentous drive which the Packers executed.
The Packers jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, thanks to two Bart Starr touchdown passes to Boyd Dowler.
The Packers also had a fantastic chance to increase their lead, when cornerback Herb Adderley picked off a pass from quarterback Don Meredith of the Cowboys and took it to the 32 yard line of the Cowboys in the second quarter. But the Packers squandered that opportunity and didn’t score.
Things went from bad to worse in a hurry for the Packers late in that second quarter. Starr fumbled as he was hit by defensive end Willie Townes of the Cowboys going back to pass, and the other defensive end, former Marquette star George Andrie, scooped up the ball in rumbled in for a touchdown from seven yards out with a little over four minutes to go before halftime.
Then with less than two minutes to go in the first half, Willie Wood fumbled a punt from Danny Villanueva at the 17 yard line of the Packers. That led to a 21-yard field goal by Villanueva to make the score 14-10 at halftime.
The Packers truly struggled offensively in the second half.
“We had minus-nine yards in 31 plays in the second half at one point,” Kramer said.
Then the Cowboys ended up taking a 17-14 lead when wide receiver Lance Rentzel caught a 50-yard touchdown pass from halfback Dan Reeves on the first play of the fourth quarter.
That remained the score when the Packers got the ball back on their own 32 yard line with just 4:50 left in the game.
Somehow the Packers were going to have to trudge 68 yards across the arctic-like football field to win the game.
It didn’t seem likely, not with the way the offense had performed in the second half.
Kramer described his mindset and that of his teammates at that moment.
“I don’t think we ever considered the possibility of losing,” Kramer said. “We didn’t really acknowledge the fact that we didn’t gain any yardage in 31 plays prior to that. We knew where we where when we got in the final huddle. We knew what we had to do.
“I asked Bart about that years later, about what made him think we could go 68 yards and score a touchdown after we had made minus-nine yards on 31 plays prior to that. Bart said, ‘Jerry, I came into the huddle and started to say something. Then I looked in your eyes, I looked at Forrest’s eyes and everyone else in the huddle, and I knew I didn’t have to say anything. So all I said was, ‘Let’s go.’
Kramer said there was calm in that huddle.
“Even at that point of the game there wasn’t any panic with us,” No. 64 said. “There was a sense of urgency however. We still believed that we could do it.
“The beautiful part of that was the contribution by so many different players in that drive. Players like Chuck Mercein, Boyd Dowler and Donny Anderson.”
Anderson concurred with Kramer about what needed to be on that drive.
“I recall that there was no nonsense at all on that drive,” Anderson said. “It represented the discipline that Lombardi had taught us. We knew that we had to execute and we were determined to get the job done.”
The drive started with Starr completing a swing pass to Anderson which gained six yards. On the next play, Mercein ran the ball for seven more yards off tackle to the 45-yard line and near the sideline of the Packers.
Mercein vividly recalled that moment.
“I remember that play well, as it was the our initial first down of the drive,” Mercein said. “That was a big confidence booster for me and the team. Because at that point, none of us had done anything in the second half. I’ll never forget because I kind of got shoved out of bounds right in front of the Green Bay bench. I could hear Coach Lombardi yell, ‘Atta boy, Chuck!’ That really brought my spirits up. It was wonderful.”
On the next play, Starr completed his only pass to a wide receiver in the drive, as Dowler caught a pass that gained 13 yards and another first down. Dowler ended up having to leave the game for a few plays, as he was shook up a little after his head hit the frozen turf hard after he was tackled.
Even though Dowler only caught one pass in that drive, it was his two early touchdown receptions from Starr which put the Packers in position to win the game on that drive.
After the Dowler catch, this is when Mercein and the Packers had a hiccup in the drive. Townes made another big play, as he broke through and tackled Anderson for a nine-yard loss.
Mercein explained what happened on the play.
“It was the Green Bay sweep and my responsibility was to block the defensive end there,” Mercein said. “I expected Townes to be on my outside shoulder, but he rushed inside instead, and I only was able to brush him with my left shoulder. I didn’t give him a good enough pop and he was able to get through and put us in a big hole.
I felt particularly bad about that because of my bad execution. It was the lowlight of the drive for me.”
That loss put the Packers in a second and 19 hole, but two swing passes to Anderson netted 22 yards and the Packers had a big first down. If you look at those receptions on film, you see some pretty nifty footwork by Anderson. Not easily done on a truly frozen tundra.
“I recall that I had to balance myself,” Anderson said. “Not to run like a sprinter, but to balance yourself. Be a little more flat-footed. I also figured that a quicker guy might be better off under those conditions than a heavier guy.”
It was at that point when Mercein caught a 19-yard swing pass from Starr after first conferring with No. 15.
“Sure enough, I was open just like I expected and Bart flipped the pass to me that got caught up in the wind a bit and I caught it over my outside shoulder, ” Mercein said. “I was able to outrun linebacker Dave Edwards and took the pass to the 11-yard line, plus was able to get out of bounds.”
The next play was a running play, known as a give play to Mercein.
“Bart saved that give play for the right exact time,” Mercein said. “Bart later said it was the best play call he ever made.”
On the give play, left guard Gale Gillingham pulls to the right, which then opens up a hole as defensive tackle Bob Lilly followed Gillingham down the line. Still, left tackle Bob Skoronski had to seal off defensive end George Andrie to make the play work.
“On that play, if Bob didn’t block [George] Andrie on that play, Mercein would get killed,” Kramer said. “It was a very difficult block, too. So Bart looked at “Ski” and asked if he could make that block before the play. And “Ski” simply said, ‘Call it, on two.’
Mercein vividly recalls that run.
“The hole was great and I can still see that hole,” Mercein said. “I can still hear myself clomping down on the ice with the noise of my cleats hitting the ice. It was very loud. Forrest Gregg was coming down from the right tackle spot and if I could have cut, I think I could have scored.”
As it was, the Packers had a second and two from the three-yard line of the Cowboys. Anderson then took a hand off from Starr and to many it appeared that Anderson scored on the play. But the referee instead placed the ball about 18 inches from the goal line and it was first and goal.
“After the run, I’m laying across the goal line with my waist and the ball,” Anderson said. “Cornell Green of the Cowboys yelled that I scored, while Jethro Pugh told him to be quiet. The ref then picks up the ball and puts it 18 inches back from the goal line.
“Later on as we saw film of the game, Coach Lombardi said to me, ‘Young man, I think they took one away from you there.’
After two two unsuccessful running attempts by Anderson to score after that, as he slipped both times, the Packers called their final timeout. There were 16 seconds to go in the game.
After conferring with Lombardi on the sideline, Starr called a 31-Wedge in the huddle, which calls for the fullback to get the ball. However, unknown to anyone in the huddle, Starr decided to keep the ball himself due to the slippery conditions near the goal line.
That wedge play was called earlier in the week when the team was studying the defensive tendencies of the Cowboys. Kramer actually suggested the play to Lombardi.
“Jethro [Pugh] was high, and I actually suggested that play on Thursday when we were studying short-yardage films,” Kramer said. “I said we could wedge Pugh if we had to. And Coach Lombardi said, ‘What?’ And I said that we can wedge Pugh if we have to. So we ran the film back three or four times, and coach says, ‘That’s right. Put in a wedge on Pugh.’
So after Starr called the play with just seconds to go in the game, what was going through Kramer’s mind?
“Responsibility. I mean I had suggested the play on Thursday. It seemed like the play was squarely on my shoulders,” Kramer said. “I knew I had to perform. I knew that to be successful as a blocker that I had to keep my head up and my eyes open.
“And also put my face into the chest of the defensive tackle [Pugh]. That is not the easiest thing to do, but it’s the safest and the surest way to make a block. I felt great personal responsibility to the team on that block. When I came off the ball, I was on fire.”
Starr followed Kramer’s textbook block on Pugh and happily scored the game-winning touchdown.
Center Ken Bowman also helped to move Pugh out of the way so Starr could score.
“I’ve analyzed that play a lot. “Bow” was there, there is no question about that,” Kramer said. “But when Jethro got up like I expected and then I got into him, the rest was a forgone conclusion. Jethro was then out of position and also out of the play. The play was over for him then.”
What did Kramer feel when he saw Starr laying in the end zone after his game-winning quarterback sneak?
“I turned around after the play and looked for Bart,” Kramer said. “And I saw him laying fairly close to me across the goal line, and I had an incredible sigh of relief. It was just a wonderful moment to see Bart in the end zone.”
Mercein talked about what was going through his mind when Starr called the wedge play in the huddle.
“Bart came into the huddle and called a 31 wedge play,” Mercein said. “We had put that play in earlier in the week when Jerry [Kramer] suggested it to Coach Lombardi because Jethro Pugh played high on short-yardage plays.
“We didn’t have many goal line plays. We definitely didn’t have a quarterback sneak. Anyway, when Bart made the call, I was excited. It was brown right, 31 wedge. The 3-back, me, gets the ball and goes to the 1-hole, which is in between the center and the guard.
“I take off thinking I’m going to get the ball and after one and a half steps or less, I see Bart was keeping the ball. Now I’m thinking that I can’t run into him because that would be assisting him and be a penalty. But I can’t really stop, so I go flying over the top of Bart with my hands in the air, not because I’m signalling touchdown, but to let the refs know that I wasn’t assisting Bart.”
The Starr touchdown occurred with just 13 seconds left in the game, which gave the Packers a 21-17 victory. After the game, Kramer’s block was shown over and over again on instant replay. Because of that, Kramer made that the title of the book he and Dick Schaap had been working on during the 1967 season.
I wrote about how Instant Replay was put together in one of my many discussions with Kramer.
After that thrilling win, which was the signature moment in the legacy of the Packers under Lombardi, the players were ecstatic.
“After that game, I was interviewed by Tom Brookshier,” Kramer said. “There had been a negative article about Coach Lombardi that had come out recently from Esquire magazine. The article compared him to Mussolini and a pigeon walking around with his chest thrown out. It was just a hatchet job.
“Tommy asked me about Coach Lombardi. I had made up my mind previously to talk about him, as I heard that Coach’s mother was really upset with the article. She even cried over it.
“So when Tommy asked me about the coach and mentioned the criticism, I said, ‘People don’t understand Coach Lombardi. They don’t know him. But we know him. We understand him. And we love him. And this is one beautiful man.’
“And that still fits today. I still feel that same way.”
A few minutes later Brookshier was interviewing Lombardi himself. They were both looking at the block Kramer made on Starr’s game-winning sneak. Kramer recalls watching that interview.
“Tom says, ‘Here we see Jerry Kramer make a block on Jethro Pugh for Bart Starr’s touchdown.’ So Coach is watching the replay and he yells, ‘Way to go, Jerry! Way to go!’
“He said that with that incredible smile on his face, and he just enjoyed the hell out of it. And so did I.”
Both Anderson and Mercein also got well deserved praise after the game as well.
In the locker room after the game, Lombardi told Anderson, “Donny, you became a man today!”
Mercein also heard some kind words from Jim Grabowski, who was the starter at fullback for the Packers before he hurt his knee midway through the 1967 season. Grabowski told Mercein after the game that he couldn’t have played any better at fullback.
In that 12-play drive, Mercein accounted for 34 of the 68 yards that the Packers traveled in that epic final journey to victory.
Anderson caught three passes for 28 yards in that drive and picked up 22 of those yards after he was tackled for a nine-yard loss by Townes. Plus, No. 44 looked to have scored the winning touchdown at one point on his second down run from the three-yard line.
Kramer, along with Skoronski, Gillingham, Bowman and Gregg, did a yeoman’s job on the final drive with their blocking, both in the running game and the passing game.
When it was all said and done, it was No. 64’s classic block on Pugh which opened a lane for Starr to squeeze through and score the winning touchdown. That moment became the signature play of the Lombardi era. Not to mention the most famous block in NFL history.
It’s appropriate that Starr’s sneak was the signature play of the Packers under Lombardi, because it occurred on the signature drive of Green Bay with Lombardi as their head coach.
So many players were responsible for that drive. Starr, Dowler, Skoronski, Gillingham, Bowman and Gregg all certainly played a big part in the success of that victorious excursion. As did flanker Carroll Dale and tight end Marv Fleming.
But the drive probably doesn’t succeed without the work done by Kramer, Anderson and Mercein.
The victory by the Packers gave the team their third straight NFL title in the modern era, a feat that has never been duplicated by the way. Two weeks later, the Packers won their second straight Super Bowl.
But that 33-14 victory over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II wouldn’t have happened without the intestinal fortitude shown by the Packers on that final heroic drive against the Cowboys on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.