Epic. Iconic. Mythical. Legendary.
These words often get watered down and overused describing sporting events, but in the case of the 1967 NFL Championship – known as the Ice Bowl – those adjectives land appropriately upon a frozen Lambeau Field on December 31, 1967. The Packers won the game 21-17 on a Bart Starr quarterback sneak for a touchdown with seconds left in the game.
The game was a championship rematch between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, who battled in the 1966 NFL Championship at Dallas. Like the Ice Bowl, it also came down to the final seconds, and also wound up in the Packers’ hands. The 1966 affair might have actually been a more exciting game overall.
The Ice Bowl, however, is likely the single most famous game in NFL history, especially among longtime fans. Besides being decided in the waning moments with Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak to score the winning touchdown (read his story of calling the play below), the weather and field conditions provided an environment that multiplied the drama and made it not only a contest to score the most points – but to survive.
The temperature at the game was recorded by the National Weather Service as -13, with a windchill of -36. The heating system beneath the field broke, and the field froze. Refs couldn’t use whistles because the first time head ref Norm Shacter blew his, the whistle froze to his lips and tore his skin when he removed it. Officials vocally called the end of plays.
I was fortunate to speak with several players who played in the Ice Bowl while writing The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL. Below are some of their stories recalling the Packers’ 21-17 victory, earning them a spot in Super Bowl 2. You can read all of these players’ stories regarding their lives and careers in The Game before the Money.
Bart Starr, Packers: “As we moved forward and worked our way up toward a championship game, you came to fully appreciate and magnify the words that Coach Lombardi stressed over and over. Words like commitment, preparation, seeking to excel.”
Bob Skoronski, Packers: “Coach Lombardi made the difference. We had a chance to understand ourselves, what it took to win, how important it was to win, and how valuable it was.”
Like in 1966, the Packers jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, behind two Boyd Dowler touchdown receptions.
The score remained 14-10 until early in the fourth quarter, when the Cowboys running back Dan Reeves used the skills he learned as a quarterback in high school and college.
Carroll Dale, Packers: “The great play on Dallas’ part was running Dan Reeves to the left on a sweep before he pulled up to throw…Lance Rentzel catches that pass for a touchdown to put them ahead 17-14.”
Green Bay got the ball back with under 5 minutes left, and began the winning drive.
Bart Starr, Packers: “You plan for what you’ll want to do in certain down and distance situations and at certain time elements in the game. We came down to the last few minutes, but the field had become very unstable. That was a big factor in our play calling on that final, game-winning drive….we tried a couple of end runs, and that’s a good example of what we could not do.
Carroll Dale, Packers: “Bart was able to maneuver and throw to the running backs. Boyd Dowler caught an intermediate pass for 14 yards….Everything else was either a run or a pass to one of the backs or the tight end underneath.”
Green Bay drove to near the goal line, at the south end of the field. The turf was extremely slick. You might notice in the game highlights that Bob Lilly is kicking at the turf between plays. He was trying to dig a hole to establish some sort of footing. With less than 20 seconds left, Starr called time out to discuss the situation with Lombardi.
Bart Starr, Packers: “I went to the sidelines and told Coach Lombardi about the ground and that the running back (Donny Anderson) was slipping and sliding. I told him that I was standing upright underneath the center, and I could shuffle my feet and then lunge into the end zone.”
Starr kept the ball, dove over the goal line, and the Packers took a 21-17 lead with a handful of seconds left.
Bob Skoronski, Packers: “I didn’t know Bart was going to keep the ball (and) I didn’t see Bart go over the goal line. We were not the kind of team who was looking at where the ball was going. Everybody was trying to block to their best of their ability.”
Bart Starr, Packers: “We knew that play (the wedge blocking formation) would work. We’d seen it. We ran it a couple of times earlier in the game, and it gained a minimum of two yards.”
Lee Roy Jordan, Cowboys, on how close the two championship games were: “In ’66 we played Green Bay in the NFL Championship and should have beaten them. We played them again in the Ice Bowl in ’67 and we also should have won that ball game. If it’d been on a normal field in normal conditions, we’d have won the ball game. No doubt in my mind.”
Carroll Dale, Packers: “As somebody said in the highlight films, ‘It was close to being the Tom Landry Trophy rather than the Vince Lombardi Trophy.”
Dan Reeves, Cowboys: “If we could have just won one of those games against Green Bay – we lost 34-27 the first year and got beaten on a last-second touchdown in the other one – I think there’s no question Don Meredith would have gotten the credit for being the great player that he was.”