We are nearing the 50th anniversary of the 1967 NFL Championship Game, better known as the “Ice Bowl”, when the Dallas Cowboys met the Green Bay Packers at frigid Lambeau Field on December 31, 1967.
It’s apropos that the Packers and Cowboys would meet during the 2017 NFL season, although the meeting will take place at AT&T Stadium in Arlington this upcoming Sunday.
It’s very possible that both teams will meet again in the postseason later on, just like they have done twice in the past three seasons. And you never know, that game could take place at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
I had an opportunity to talk with two of the stars for the Packers on that extremely cold day on New Year’s Eve in 1967, guard Jerry Kramer and fullback Chuck Mercein.
I talked with Kramer first and we talked about the 50th anniversary of the “Ice Bowl”, especially about that epic 12-play, 68-yard drive to win the game in the final seconds, 21-17.
What made that drive even more remarkable, was that up until that point, the Packers had run 31 plays for -9 yards in the second half before that incredible march of the frozen tundra started.
While we discussed the drive, Kramer talked about the many players who came up big in that drive. Obviously there was quarterback Bart Starr, halfback Donny Anderson, wide receiver Boyd Dowler, left tackle Bob Skoronski and Kramer himself.
Plus, there was also Mercein. In fact, Mercein picked up 34 of the 68 yards in that extraordinary drive just by himself.
Kramer certainly remembered how important No. 30 was for the Packers in that drive.
“Chuck was huge in that drive for us,” Kramer said. “He went to Yale and he had the intellect to prove it. Plus, Chuck was a tough kid and he was strong. In fact, he threw the shot put 61 feet one time. That was stunning. I set a state record in high school in Idaho in the shot put with a toss of 51 feet, 10 inches. And Chuck beat that by 10 feet.
“Chuck made a number of big plays for us in that drive. Hell, Chuck came up big for us the week before in the playoff game against the Rams as well. I remember Chuck talking to Bart shortly after he missed Willie Townes on a block and Donny was tackled for a big loss. That was the first time I recall Chuck ever talking to Bart in the huddle.
“Chuck told Bart that the linebacker was going back really deep and that he would be open on a swing pass because of all the room he was given. Sure enough, Bart throws a swing pass to Chuck that gains 19 yards. That was a really key play for us in that drive.”
Later in the evening, I had an opportunity to talk with Mercein. Not only to talk about the “Ice Bowl”, but also his strange set of circumstances joining the NFL and also the Packers.
Mercein came into pro football in 1965, which was a point in time when the NFL and AFL were bidding against each other for the top players in college football.
Mercein was certainly that coming out of Yale, which is why he was named to the College All-Star squad to play against the defending NFL champion Cleveland Browns at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1965. Mercein score 10 points in that game, as he also kicked as well as playing fullback.
Mercein talked to me about the ongoing process of bidding for his services between the two leagues.
“I knew the Buffalo Bills were going to draft me in the AFL to replace Cookie Gilchrist, who was going to retire,” Mercein said. “I was already in discussions with the Bills before the NFL draft even took place.
“So when the NFL draft did take place, my phone rang right away in the first round around the eight or ninth spot in the draft, when I talked to William Ford, who owned the Detroit Lions. He told me that he wanted me to play fullback for the Lions, because Nick Pietrosante was retiring. I thought that was very fortuitous, because it looked like I would be able to play right away there.
“The first question Ford asked me was whether I had been talking to the AFL at all. Of course, I said yes. I didn’t have an agent then. None of us had agents then. I was very open and honest with him. He also asked if I had signed anything. I said no. He then asked where I was in my negotiations with the Bills.
“I was frank with him. I said that the Bills had offered me a three-year, no-cut contract, with $25,000 per year in salary and $25,000 a year in bonuses. So basically it was for three years and $150,000.
“And Ford says, ‘No, we could never pay that!’ I said that I didn’t understand his position. Ford then told me he wasn’t going to get into a bidding war with the AFL. So then I asked him what he would offer me. Ford said he could give me one year with $25,000 in salary and $25,000 in bonuses.
“I mean, I was married with a kid coming in August, so I told him him if that was his best offer, not to draft me. So, he didn’t. The Lions took Tom Nowatzke instead. Anyway, the phone didn’t ring at all again in the first round, so I was a little upset. It didn’t ring in the second round either. Finally I get a call in the third round at the the first pick of that round by the New York Giants.
“Wellington Mara (owner of the Giants) told me that Alex Webster was retiring and he wanted me to replace him. I was a bit wary at that time. So I told Mr. Mara that I had heard this before and that if he wasn’t going to compete with the offer I received from the Bills, then we should stop right there. I gave him the terms and Mara said that he would compete with that offer.
“Wow, I was excited. I then asked him one more question. I asked why the Giants took Tucker Frederickson, who also played fullback, in the first round and then wanted to take me. Mara told me that Allie Sherman (head coach of the Giants) told him that Frederickson was going to play halfback (because Frank Gifford had just retired) and that I was going to play fullback. So I said great and I thought I was all set.”
Things didn’t turn out quite the way Mercein had planned playing under Sherman in New York. For one thing, Frederickson did not play halfback for the Giants, but instead played fullback, which made Mercein his backup.
Right away Mercein had been misled by the Giants. But it was not the fault of the owner.
“That did not happen because of Wellington Mara, who was not that person. He was very honest and was a great guy. He was really wonderful to me and helped get me over to Green Bay when he recommended me to Coach Lombardi.
“It was all Sherman. I never trusted him again after that. He also wasn’t that happy with me because I went to Yale instead of a bigger program. I did have over 50 offers from from various schools, including those in the Big 10, but I liked Yale because of their standards academically and the fact that they were undefeated my senior year in high school. Plus a good friend of mine, Mike Pyle, was on that team.”
In his rookie year with the Giants, Mercein rushed for 55 yards and scored two touchdowns, plus kicked a field goal.
In his second season with the G-Men in 1966, Mercein led the team in rushing with 327 yards, plus caught 27 passed for 152 yards. All that happened while Mercein was hurt for half of the year.
Even with the nice year Mercein had in 1966, Sherman didn’t give Mercein a fair shake in 1967 competing for playing time and instead cut the fullback at the end of training camp.
Mercein was later brought back to the Giants, but only to be used as a kicker. Sherman told Mercein that if he missed a kick he would be waived again. Mercein made an extra point on his first kicking attempt, but because the Giants were holding, it didn’t count and the next attempt was 15 yards further out. As luck would have it, Mercein missed the kick and his time with the Giants was over.
Mercein was all set to sign with the Washington Redskins after his release by the Giants, as he had played for head coach Otto Graham in the College All-Star game, but before that could happen, he received a call from Wellington Mara.
The night Mara called was the same day that both halfback Elijah Pitts and fullback Jim Grabowski were lost for the season with injuries when the Packers played the Baltimore Colts at Memorial Stadium in Week 8.
“So the phone rings and it’s Wellington Mara,” Mercein said. “He told me that he had heard that I was talking to the Washington Redskins about playing with them. He was also very apologetic about what happened with me in New York. Anyway, he said if I didn’t sign anything, that he had recommended me to Vince Lombardi and that he was interested in bringing me to Green Bay. Mara told me the next call I would be getting would be from Lombardi himself.
“Sure enough five minutes later, Lombardi calls. It was quite something. It was like the voice of God on the other end of the phone, as I had so much respect for him as a coach and the Packers as a team. Lombardi was very frank about everything and he said that the Packers could really use my help. He also said that I could help the team win another championship.
“I told Coach Lombardi that I would be thrilled to join the team. After I hung up, I told my wife to unpack the car because we were going to play for the Green Bay Packers.”
The Packers were 6-1-1 when Mercein joined the team and were well on the way to winning the NFL Central division championship.
After the season-ending injuries to Pitts and Grabowski, the Packers utilized Anderson and rookie Travis Williams at halfback, while Ben Wilson and Mercein split time at fullback.
It’s amazing to know that even with the loss of Pitts and Grabowski, plus knowing that this was the first year under Lombardi that both fullback Jim Taylor and halfback Paul Hornung were no longer in Green Bay, that the Packers still finished second in the NFL in rushing in 1967.
Mercein was embraced by Lombardi and his teammates on the Packers when he came aboard the team.
“Right away, Lombardi welcomed me,” Mercein said. “I had to earn his trust, obviously. It wasn’t easy at first, but the players were very welcoming and it was just a wonderful time.”
By the end of the season and into the postseason, Mercein became the starting fullback. In the Western Conference Championship Game at Milwaukee County Stadium versus the Los Angeles Rams, Mercein scored on a six-yard run in the Green Bay’s 28-7 victory over the Rams.
No. 30 also helped open some holes for Williams, who received most of the playing time at halfback, as the “Roadrunner” rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns.
That set up the NFL title game the next Sunday at Lambeau Field versus the Cowboys. Unlike the game against the Rams, Lombardi gave most of the playing time at halfback to Anderson, instead of Williams. Mercein remained the starter at fullback.
The 1967 NFL title game was later nicknamed the “Ice Bowl” because it was extremely cold that day in Green Bay, as the game-time temperature was 13 degrees below zero.
If you added the wind, it was bone-chillingly cold, as there was a minus-48-degree windchill for the game.
The Packers the jumped to an early 14-0 lead as Starr threw two touchdown passes to Dowler. But fumbles by Starr and punt returner Willie Wood led to 10 points by the Cowboys and the score was only 14-10 at the half.
The Packers couldn’t do anything in the second half until their final drive, while the Cowboys were moving up and down the field. Thankfully the defense of the Packers, led by linebacker Lee Roy Caffey, kept Dallas out of the end zone in the third quarter.
But on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Cowboys ended up taking a 17-14 lead when wide receiver Lance Rentzel caught a 50-yard touchdown pass from Dan Reeves on a halfback option pass.
That was the score when the Packers started their 68-yard trek down the frozen tundra of Lambeau Filed with just 4:50 remaining in the game.
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 bit, as he was shook up a little after his head hit the frozen turf hard after he was tackled.
This is when Mercein and the Packers had a hiccup in the drive. Defensive end Willie Townes 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.”
Mercein would make up for that mistake soon enough, however.
First though, Starr completed two swing passes to Anderson which gained 21 yards to the 30-yard line of the Cowboys and another first down by the Packers.
It was at that point when Mercein caught the 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.
“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 than 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.
Then on two straight dive plays, Anderson slipped both times trying to score and didn’t get in. It was now third and goal when the Packers called their final timeout with just 16 seconds to go in the game.
I’ll let Mercein explain what happened next.
“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 Packers won the game 21- 17 on that legendary play as Starr was able to find his way into the end zone behind Kramer’s classic block on Pugh.
After the game, Mercein heard some kind words from Grabowski, who said that he couldn’t have played any better at fullback.
That victory put the Packers in Super Bowl II in Miami, where they would be facing the AFL champion Oakland Raiders.
Now one would think that Mercein would be starting again at fullback for the Packers, especially after playing so well against the Rams and Cowboys.
But shortly before the game, Mercein heard some very disappointing news from his head coach, who said Wilson would be starting at fullback instead.
“I was terribly disappointed,” Mercein said. “I didn’t understand why. I knew I was a little banged up. But Coach was a real hunch player and it was hot down there in Miami and it was the kind of weather that Ben Wilson was used to playing in, as he had played at USC.
“Plus, Ben was fresh and he hadn’t played a lot. So it was just a hunch, but it turned out to be the right hunch as Ben had a big game.”
The Packers beat the Raiders 33-14 and Wilson led the Packers in rushing with 65 yards.
Looking back on that year with the Packers, there are a lot of fond memories for Mercein.
“The 1967 season for the Packers was a team effort,” Mercein said. “Coach Lombardi made that team what it was. He was the difference. He made us all better. He made me better. Bart better. Jerry better. Boyd better. That’s what a great coach does. He takes players and makes them better than they thought they could be.”