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Archive for Friday, January 14, 2005

Snow, cold can make for memorable football

Three games this weekend to be played in chill, but likely won’t join Ice Bowl, Freezer Bowl, Snow Plow Game among late-season gems

January 14, 2005

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— On the coldest day the NFL ever played, Packers guard Jerry Kramer took one look at Green Bay's fabled frozen tundra, began shivering and never stopped until he was draped across the most famous yard of defended turf in football history.

During the riveting 1967 NFL championship game known as the Ice Bowl, Kramer almost felt sympathy watching the numbed Dallas Cowboys struggle with the minus-13 temperature and minus-48 wind chill of wintry Wisconsin. Almost.

"We were freezing," Kramer said. "They were dying."

More than any other sport, weather -- bad weather, mostly -- has helped create some of football's greatest moments.

Now that the NFL playoffs don't start until January, are you ready for some frozen football? Second-round games will be played this weekend in no-dome Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Foxboro.

Still, it won't be anything like what Dan Fouts and Hank Bauer faced.

On the second-coldest day the NFL ever played, Fouts -- the California-raised quarterback for the Chargers -- knew he was out of his element in Cincinnati when he saw icicles hanging from his beard.

As a steamy fog shimmered surrealistically above the Ohio River during the "Freezer Bowl" AFC championship game in January 1982, San Diego's Air Coryell offense was no match for Cincinnati's cold air -- minus-9 temperature and minus-59 wind chill.

The Chargers' receivers couldn't control passes from Fouts that felt like leather-wrapped parcels of icy barbed wire, and many wanted nothing more than to end the 27-7 loss and go back to sunny SoCal.

Mark Henderson, a convicted burglar on work release from the
Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk, Mass., clears
snow in this file photo from Dec. 12, 1982, at Schaefer Stadium in
Foxboro, Mass. Henderson was involved in a controversial play in
the fourth quarter when he plowed an area where the Patriots' John
Smith kicked the winning field goal in the "Snow Plow Game."

Mark Henderson, a convicted burglar on work release from the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk, Mass., clears snow in this file photo from Dec. 12, 1982, at Schaefer Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. Henderson was involved in a controversial play in the fourth quarter when he plowed an area where the Patriots' John Smith kicked the winning field goal in the "Snow Plow Game."

"The ball is frozen, the laces are razor-sharp -- the passes are cutting the receivers' hands, but they're not bleeding because it's so cold," said Bauer, then a Chargers special-teams standout and now a team broadcaster. "It was just too cold to play football."

With temperatures in the low 20s predicted for Pittsburgh's Heinz Field on Saturday, the Jets must worry not just about cover-2 defenses, but covering up to stay warm. The current-era player's Under Armour gear is warmer and drier than the thin cotton Kramer wore in clearing the path for Bart Starr's decisive one-yard quarterback sneak in the Ice Bowl, but nothing fully can protect against the cold, snow and sleet that can disrupt game plans and alter outcomes.

"I don't like cold weather," Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "It's not like it's going to help us."

The Patriots might dispute that, seeing how Colts passing machine Peyton Manning broke down in the snow and chill of Foxboro, throwing four interceptions in last season's AFC title game. Manning returns Sunday, and he's certain to not like this: Gillette Stadium's resodded turf was left uncovered during showers this week.

Were the Patriots -- nudge, nudge, wink, wink -- possibly creating a slow-field advantage?

Patriots coach Bill Belichick played innocent, saying, "I'm sure the field will be the same condition for both teams. My job is not to pull weeds." But he also warned: "When you are in New England, and you are playing at this time of year in January, you better be ready for just about anything."

Such as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's disputed "tuck rule" no-fumble incompletion in the snow during an overtime playoff win over Oakland in January 2002.

Or the Patriots' 3-0 "Snow Plow Game" victory over Miami on Dec. 12, 1982. With neither team able to score during a raging snowstorm, tractor driver Mark Henderson -- a convicted burglar on a work-release program -- alertly cleared a path with his snow brush for John Smith's 33-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter.

Not surprisingly, the NFL quickly banned grounds crews from doing anything to create a physical advantage, but two heroes were born. The Patriots still use that John Deere tractor, and Henderson received a loud ovation when he drove it onto the field during a 2001 reenactment.

And maybe the Chargers wouldn't have played so poorly 23 years ago in Cincinnati if they had only heeded Bengals coach Forrest Gregg's pregame advice: "Look at this game like you're going to the dentist. It's going to hurt."

The Chargers were depleted after playing the NFL's most-remembered warm-weather game only the week before, a 41-38 overtime win in Miami. San Diego tight end Kellen Winslow was helped off the field several times in the high-80s heat and humidity, yet caught 13 passes and blocked a field-goal try.

"I've never felt so close to death before," Winslow said.

Imagine what he went through in Cincinnati a week later.

"You just struggled through it," Bauer said. "We had just played what people said was the greatest game of the 20th century, traveled across the country, traveled back across it later that week with a nearly 100-degree swing in temperature. It was a wild ride."

Oakland's receivers felt the same way as they tiptoed on an icy field in the January 1976 AFC title game in Pittsburgh. Former Oakland coach John Madden still believes the field was intentionally iced overnight to slow receiver Cliff Branch against Pittsburgh's injury-weakened secondary.

Think Madden was upset when the Steelers' 16-10 victory ended with Branch being dragged down on a 40-yard completion to Pittsburgh's 15? And, no, weather-wise Bill Belichick wasn't on the Steelers' coaching staff back then.

"But Jerry Kramer and I have talked and, you know what? If you always knew what the weather was going to be like, it just wouldn't be as fun," Bauer said. "It's just part of football."

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