In the history of any sports league, only a handful of moments ever become transcendent memories. For the National Football League, the time to celebrate one of these has arrived.
The occasion? The 30th anniversary of the "Ice Bowl," the NFL championship game that was even colder than last season's frigid Green Bay-Carolina clash for the National Conference title.
The Packers won that 1997 playoff game in single-digit temperatures, but for deep-freeze conditions, Green Bay's victory at the same Lambeau Field on Dec. 31, 1967 is unmatched - certainly in temperature and nearly for suspense as well.
Not only was it the coldest NFL game ever (13 degrees below zero with a wind chill of minus 48), it also produced one of the most dramatic finishes in championship history. Packer quarterback Bart Starr plunged across the goal line from one yard away with 13 seconds left to give Green Bay a 21-17 win over the Dallas Cowboys.
Starr recalled this play and other memories during a recent teleconference for reporters.
For the public, he says, the factors that helped to make the game special were the weather and the matchup. Starr says the Packers had tremendous respect for the Cowboys. "We were a more mature team, and if there was any advantage, I think that was probably it. When people said that the weather would be to their disadvantage, I remember [Green Bay receiver] Max McGee saying, 'Listen, this weather would be to anyone's disadvantage.' "
The temperature was so cold that referee Norm Schachter's lip froze to his whistle the first time he blew it. Thereafter, the officials didn't use whistles, they yelled.
Starr had gone through college at the University of Alabama without playing in cold weather and had only one brush with sub-freezing game temperatures (in high school) before arriving in Green Bay in 1956.
Over time, he and other players adjusted to Wisconsin's winters and considered them an ally. "I love for the Packers to have the home-field advantage," Starr says. "I believe it is difficult for anyone to beat them there late in the year."
The day before the '67 championship game was relatively mild (zero degrees and windless), says Starr. "It felt like it was in the 20s," he says. But overnight the mercury plummeted, rendering Lambeau Field's in-ground heating coils useless.
Starr and his father attended an early-morning Sunday church service but avoided discussing the temperature.
There was no way around it for the Cowboys, however. Dallas lineman John Niland remembers his teammates kicking open their frozen motel doors.
During the game, the players kept warm as best they could, huddling near large heaters on the bench. Some wore gloves. Starr, however, went barehanded. There were fumbles, Starr says, but no more than usual, and it was the Cowboys who surged in the second half to put Green Bay on the ropes.
Speaking of how players on both sides rose above the elements, Starr says, "Everyone has the capacity to focus and concentrate when called upon to do so. When you need it, it's there. It's one of those God-given strengths you tap into."
Starr was inspired by the capacity crowd, which included his wife. This was the pre-luxury box era, and for so many to sit through such arctic conditions, he says, spoke volumes about their support for the team.
The victory was especially gratifying to Starr because it marked the first time a team had won three consecutive NFL championships, plus it came when the Packers' dominating grip on the league was slipping. Running back Paul Hornung had retired, Hall of Fame fullback Jim Taylor had moved on to New Orleans, and Green Bay looked beatable in compiling a regular-season record of 9-4-1. In fact, Dallas led 17-14 with five minutes left.
It was do-or-die when Starr led the Packers on the winning 68-yard, 12-play drive that returned them to the Super Bowl, played in Miami. (At the time, the Super Bowl brought the NFL and American Football League champions together.)
That final drive produced what Starr calls the best play call of his career - an up-the-middle handoff to Chuck Mercein, who gained eight yards and put Green Bay on the three-yard line.
The Packers were always known for their near-flawless execution of simple plays, but unbeknownst to many, Starr says, they also were very "flexible," frequently changing plays at the line of scrimmage.
Starr attributes this to the coaching genius of Vince Lombardi, who took over the team in 1959 and immediately impressed his young quarterback. During a break in the team's first meeting with Lombardi, Starr raced to a pay phone to call his wife in Alabama. "I told her, 'Honey, we're going to begin to win,' " he recalls. "It was that obvious. You could see that this man truly sought to excel and everyone on our team wanted to emulate that."
The '67 season was Lombardi's last with the Packers. After a year away from the game, he returned to coach one final season with the Washington Redskins. For a time (1975-83) Starr assumed the team's coaching reins, but he has spent most of his post-football life in business, first as an auto dealer and now as the chairman of a company that develops medical office buildings across the United States.
He says that he continues to apply the principles of Lombardi's coaching success. He tries to establish a tight focus, remain flexible, be well-organized and prepared, and surround himself with outstanding people.
Lombardi brought together wonderful people on the Packers, Starr says. "When I see former teammates today," he observes, "we don't shake hands. We hug because we dearly, truly love each other."
After the Ice Bowl, Starr led the Packers over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II, collecting the game's Most Valuable Player award for the second straight time. This was quite an achievement for a player who had once been a lowly 17th-round draft choice. The victory brought with it the one memento Starr still wears, a Super Bowl ring that Lombardi had studded with three diamonds to signify the three consecutive championships.