Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! On the field at the Ice Bowl, Dec. 31, 1967

Come on along with me

GREEN BAY, Wis. - Minus 12 degrees.

The playing field of Lambeau Field on Dec. 31, 1967, is truly the fabled “frozen tundra.”

The grass is brown. Dead brown. Deader than Marley’s Ghost brown.

The midday sun is not brilliantly bright. At noon on Dec. 31, you don’t look straight up to see the sun. It sneaks along halfway up the horizon.

Not only is Lambeau Field cold, the lighting is dim for a clear day.

Being on the field feels like a shady memory from which you suddenly awake, shivering violently. Only it is real.

Let me take you there.

At Lambeau Field on Dec. 31, 1967, the stands are full, but the excitement is tamed. Fans are bundled in layers. Many wrap scarves over their mouths. Cheers are muffled. Hand claps are glove claps – not crack, crack, crack but thump, thump, thump. Everything feels restrained.

I am on the field for the whole game except for one important, work-related mission. I am assisting a photographer of The Associated Press. We are assigned to the Dallas Cowboys’ side of the field.

My job at first is to write down, in pencil, what takes place in the photographs The Associated Press photographer takes. He snaps, I write.

Eventually, it becomes more important for me to shield his eyes from the low-slung sun so he can see what he is photographing.

If the photographer has told me his name when we meet, I do not recall. He isn’t a chatty sort. All business. As he moves from spot to spot on the sideline, I follow. I’m the best-est of minions.

Twelve below zero.

Forty-two degrees below freezing.

Cold enough to inspire a whole list of off-color jokes about witches and monkeys and who knows what else.

At 12 below, your eyes feel fragile.

At 12 below, you do not want to put a metal-encased camera to your face. But that is what The Associated Press photographer does, again and again and again. His nose has a white patch almost immediately.

“You have frostbite on your nose,” I tell the photographer. He says nothing as he lifts the camera to his face and snaps again. All business.

The photographer and I are RIGHT THERE on the fringes of the Dallas Cowboys team all game.

As the day goes on and the angle of the sun declines, the players take on a murkier and murkier presence.

We are within earshot but hear no conversations among the large, ghostly gray figures from which wisps of frozen white air rise. After a third down attempt falls short for the Cowboys, players drop their heavy cloaks and wordlessly head out for a punt. It seems a robotic act. No coach says, “Punting squad,” or anything. The players automatically move.

The photographer and I then move to station ourselves at a spot where maybe something important will happen.

Things do happen.

The photographer clicks away as Bart Starr is tackled behind the line, coughs up the ball, and Dallas scores an easy touchdown. That stirs a muffled rustle among the Cowboys.

We are in clear sight when the Dallas placekicker lines up for a field goal. I think, “Good luck, fella. The ball has got to be a rock.” Lo and behold – THUNK – Danny Villaneuva kicks the rock through. At 12 below, I didn’t think that likely.

I am next to Dallas Cowboys players on the sideline when Bart Starr dives into the end zone for the go-ahead points with no timeouts left and no more time left for the Packers to run another play. Again, I hear little from the Cowboys bench.

The photographer is … gee, I dunno. Maybe in the end zone.

Earlier, with time running down on the game clock and the Packers a seemingly frozen mile away from the end zone, he has sent me to a room beneath the stands with film of the game to that point. A techie guy with The Associated Press is waiting to quickly process the film and then send images to newspapers around country (and world, really). The idea is, when the game ends – no matter the outcome – there are abundant photographs available immediately for newspapers that will publish on Jan. 1.

Three things:

One. When I go under the stands and meet the beaming man from The Associated Press, I expect to feel warmer. That doesn’t happen. The place is not heated. My body doesn’t feel any different. I’m still joint-stiff/body-ache/lemme-outta-here COLD.

Two. As I leave the field, I think it’s the end of the line for championships for this set of Packers: “It was a great string. Oh, well.”

Three. When I arrive back on the field from under the south end zone stands, there the Packers are, poised to do something, like score a touchdown. I’m surprised. And then they score in what seems like a shadowy scrum from my vantage point. The Packers across the field erupt while the Cowboys on my side prepare to try to do something hopeful against hope. The game isn’t over. They still have some seconds of possibilities.

They fail.

When the game ends… a life event happens.

I am suddenly in the midst of a mob. Stampedes are not the place to hang around in. Gobs of driven figures pour from the stands. I am pushed and shoved as crazed men head toward the goal posts. Scared, I make my way to the edge of the grandstand and work my way to a field exit.

Two hunks of mob are at the goal posts, tearing them down. It is the thing to do, apparently, when your team wins a big game. Large groups of people wrestle the heavy metal posts to the ground and manage to carry parts off for dismantling. Shhhhh, don’t tell anybody, but this is some pretty muscularly violent vandalism.

I make my way to my car, a push-button shift Plymouth with an outsized, 450-horsepower motor. After a worrisome long time, the thing turns – RRRRRR – and cranks to life. I think in a wimpy voice, “I’m saved!”

Back home, I burrow under a pile of blankets and quilts on the couch and wait to thaw. In ways, the thawing never happens. My memory knows that I will never be that cold again for so long.

The memory is a funny thing.

Of course, going to the game, I’m not thinking, “Oh, hey, this is going to be a historic game.” Nobody does. Nobody could know.

I’m thinking, “Am I going to survive?”

The morning of the game, my wife and I hear the radio reports: Bad, turning worse and then downright awful. Even the monkeys and witches have left town.

I don’t want to go to Lambeau. I try to think of ways of getting out of going. But I am committed. I have to go even though I am ill prepared.

The setup is this: I am a city boy. I come from Milwaukee. I am not an outdoorsy, up nort’, huntin’ type with thick boots and hefty out-in-the-woods manly man clothing. I have thin rubber boots, layers of socks, a knit cap with a snowflake design, a down jacket with a thin hood, layers of shirts and sweatshirts, thin tan pants with – here comes the best part – my wife’s leggings underneath. Out of desperation, we decide I’ve got to wear them to have some possibility of warmth. The thing is, my wife comes up to my chin. Wearing her leggings, I cannot stand upright. So when I am on the sidelines for the NFL Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, I am the 23-year-old guy toddling around the Dallas sidelines hunched over like I’m looking for cigarette butts.

This is the first game I attend at Lambeau Field. I’ve seen the Packers play at Milwaukee County Stadium.

Flashback: As I walk into that stadium a little late, the phenomenal Big Daddy Lipscomb of the Baltimore Colts is rumbling down the field in my direction with a stolen Packers pass and shrugging off Packers players like a galloping buffalo would flies.

Another flashback: After I land my first career job at the Green Bay Press-Gazette and my wife and I put the finishing touches on renting an apartment, we head back to Milwaukee and drive past this place on Highland Avenue that reminds me of a gigantic green ship that’s been beached. It’s Lambeau Field. In preparing to come to Green Bay for my job, the Packers (who I follow keenly) are not part of the equation. And then, after all is settled, to drive past Lambeau Field, this thought immediately pops: “This is going to be cool.”

I start at the Press-Gazette in June 1967. For Dec. 31, because the Packers are playing in a championship game, The Associated Press wants expanded coverage. Various people on the Press-Gazette staff are approached to help out. Many Press-Gazette staffers are already part of standard game-day coverage in the press box and elsewhere. I’m among the add-ons. For me to help out seems to be a wonderful idea at first. Be around a photographer from The (highly respected) Associated Press at a Packers game for a championship and get paid? Why not?

Included are a parking pass, a game pass and a game-day roster on cardboard. As it turns out, that roster becomes essential beyond its usual use. It’s a roster that only the media gets. It’s 8½ by 11 inches and lists everything important for media folk to keep track of the players.

The roster becomes important because of the sun. As the game goes on and the sun gets lower, seeing becomes difficult for the photographer. From the Dallas sideline on the east side of Lambeau Field, the sun glares straight into his eyes. I’ve been carrying around the roster. I place it above his forehead and angle it so the cardboard shields his eyes and he can see out from underneath. The photographer snaps away. I kneel next to him, and we’re both communing with the frozen tundra.

After the game, the roster is the only souvenir I keep, aside from the Jan. 2 edition of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. (The newspaper does not publish on holidays at the time).

The episode at Lambeau Field ends.

I eventually defrost, and life goes on.

Thirty years later, I’m doing my thing for the Press-Gazette. One of my beats is the media. That includes reviewing and writing feature stories about any television productions that are pertinent to Green Bay and, especially, the Green Bay Packers. NFL Films comes up with a documentary on the championship game that has become known as the Ice Bowl.

I request and receive a preview videotape (the technology of the time). While watching at home – taking notes for a piece I’ll write – a sideline shot passes. What? I stop the tape and rewind. The shot is from an angle I have not seen before, from the west side of Lambeau Field viewing the Dallas Cowboys sideline.

There two figures are on the sideline.

A fellow is holding up a camera. Kneeling next to him is a guy in tan pants and black jacket with a hood, holding something white over the eyes of the guy with the camera.

It’s us.

I see us for the first time 30 years after the fact.

So I write about the NFL Films documentary, and I write a column about that surprise image.

Then, through stop action, the image is frozen and a photo print is made.

It’s a neat shot. Not only am I in the picture, but a big play is happening: Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith is fumbling, and the ball is in the air… before being recovered by the Packers.

So I put away the photo with the roster and the Jan. 2 edition of the Press-Gazette in a basement storage bin.

Life goes on.

One Sunday morning 10 years ago, the Press-Gazette runs a story on the front page about the Packers Hall of Fame and how people continually offer items they think (or hope) are worthy memorabilia for the collection. I think about my stuff in the basement. I put two and two together and create what has become what I call my shrine.

It is a two-sided, glass-enclosed display.

At the top of one side is the photo. Below that are four elements: One: “Packers offense” next to “Cowboys defense.” Two: “Cowboys offense” next to “Packers defense.” Three: Specialists on each team. Four: Game officials.

At the top of the other side of the display is the flip side of the roster with the players on each team listed by numerical order and this way: 15 Starr, Bart… QB 6:1 190 33 (age) Alabama. Below that is a photocopy of a section of a page from the Jan. 2 Press-Gazette with the headline, “Here’s Official ‘Third Straight’ Play by Play.” In the lower right are a photograph of Packers defensive back Herb Adderley and a highlighted section in enlarged type from the play-by-play describing what happened in the photo on the opposite side. It says, “3-14-22 Meredith after rush ran for 9, fumbled, Adderley recovered after hit by Caffey.” Translation: On third down and 14 for Dallas at the Packers’ 22, Don Meredith ran for nine yards, was tackled by linebacker Lee Roy Caffey and Herb Adderley recovered the ball.

My shrine is placed on a stairway hall in my home. Every new visitor hears about my shrine.

And then something changes – a “rest of the story” moment happens – after I start writing this piece.

I think (Duh, after 50 years), “Did The Associated Press photographer get a shot of that fumble?”

It suddenly occurs to me to do this Internet search: “Meredith ice bowl fumble.”

The answer to the question is, Duh, yeah. Of course, “my” businesslike photographer got the shot.

The two-sided story is now complete. One half is of the two guys on the sideline with one aiming a camera toward the fumble. The other half is the photo “my” photographer took with the ball on the ground and Herb Adderley closing in.

I am right there, again. Don Meredith is tumbling in Lee Roy Caffey’s arms, with the Packers’ Bob Jeter close at hand. Behind the airborne legs of Don Meredith, Herb Adderley is in the air, diving toward the ball, also in mid-air. Nearby and closing in is the Packers’ Ray Nitschke. The image is a bit dim, with long shadows and large puffs of frozen white air near the players’ mouths.

It takes me almost 50 years to see again what I saw in real life next to “my” photographer.

At the time, it is a big game. It is for the right to go on to play in Super Bowl II. It turns out to be a hard-fought game in extreme conditions with a heart-pounding climax.

But famous?

That comes with time.

Other things come with time.

One of the people in the photo, Don Meredith, goes on to become “Dandy Don” Meredith. As an entertaining game analyst, he helps propel the fledgling “ABC Monday Night Football” to glory and meaning. He’s a fun and funny guy. Over the years, when the outcome of a game is assured, Meredith sings, “Good night, the party’s over.”

Three of the men on the Dallas Cowboys sideline go on to earn recognition in the National Football League Hall of Fame – defensive tackle Bob Lilly, Head Coach Tom Landry and receiver Bob Hayes.

In the stands are people I come to know over time, one in particular. Kathleen Gille is there with her father, Ed Gille. I marry Kathleen, a townie who is quite familiar with Packers lore.

Standing on the sideline, the sight of Bob Hayes warms me (figuratively, only). Here he is, “Bullet” Bob Hayes, sprinting gold medalist from the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo… Wow, I’ve never been that close to an Olympian, much less the one billed as “the fastest human in the world.” Bob Hayes further warms me, in a dark way, on Dec. 31 when he places his bare hands in the front of his pants and runs his routes. He’s clearly not in the plays, so the Packers don’t have to worry about him. Hayes gets to play in the Super Bowl in another year, thus becoming the only athlete to win an Olympic gold medal and Super Bowl ring.

Also on the field for the Ice Bowl are Green Bay Packers who are inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame in years ahead. They are offensive lineman Forrest Gregg, quarterback Bart Starr, middle linebacker Ray Nitschke, cornerback Herb Adderley, defensive end Willie Davis, safety Willie Wood, defensive tackle Henry Jordan and tight end Dave Robinson.

Because of how my job develops at the Press-Gazette, I will meet some of these players in interesting ways in the future. Bart Starr I will interview in his office when he is head coach of the Packers; the interview is about “The Bart Starr Show” on TV. Ray Nitschke I will interview at his home during his stint in a series of popular beer commercials on TV. On the playing field, Nitschke’s reputation was that of a bone crusher, yet he tells me in a sincere voice, “I always thought I was a nice guy.” Herb Adderley is part of a gathering of Vince Lombardi-era players who bare their souls to a Hollywood screenwriter. I am in the room when Adderley says he loves his father but doesn’t think of him every day but he thinks of Vince Lombardi every day.

Then there is the man who took the NFL Films shot of the fumble, me and The Associated Press photographer. Years later, I do a telephone interview with Steve Sabol, now president of NFL Films, about a coming special, and he spontaneously rhapsodizes about the Packers. I eventually include him in one of my books. In the chapter, “Two Dynasties” (NFL Films and the Lombardi Packers), Steve Sabol says this about the team and town: “It was a tremendous story, and it was a story we took and really mythologized it. We came up with the frozen tundra, the ice bucket chill of a Wisconsin winter, the chilling championship. A lot of these phrases all originated around that Packers team. And Lombardi to me is the patron saint of professional football.”

Of course, at the Ice Bowl is another future National Football League Hall of Fame inductee, Packers Head Coach Vincent Thomas Lombardi. The closest I physically come to Lombardi is that 53 yards across the field, yet I write about him over and over because of what I do at the Press-Gazette and now at WFRV-TV. There is a humor column, feature stories on TV specials about him (CBS, in prime time, while he was alive), feature stories about plays about him and reviews of the plays about him. That’s just for starters. There will be more; a local troupe is presenting the play “Lombardi” in a few weeks.

The Ice Bowl is THE ICE BOWL in Green Bay – and probably fairly interesting beyond – because of Lombardi and winning and paralyzing cold and a dramatic comeback and a bunch of great players and the mystique of an ownerless professional sports franchise in a small city. All are ingredients for a great story.

As I head for Lambeau Field the late morning of Dec. 31, 1967, I’m not thinking of anything historic or great. I’m thinking about surviving.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My books, “Tales of a Newspaperman: Ice Bowl and Lombardi Through Time,” “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers”“Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words)” and the award-winning “Real, Honest Sailing with a Great Lakes Captain,” are available online and in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.

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