For the last 40 years, from one winter to the next, the Rams have played in--and lost--more cold-weather playoff games than any other warm-weather team.
In one stretch they lost 10 in a row--starting with the 1950 NFL championship game at Cleveland, the mid-century equivalent of the Super Bowl.
Hoping to end an embarrassing streak, the Rams tried every scheme that a variety of coaches could think of. And finally, in 1969, they got it--they thought.
Before a late December playoff game in Minnesota--at a time when the Minnesota Vikings were still playing outdoors at Metropolitan Stadium--the Rams decided to practice all week in Minneapolis.
There, surely, their sun-baked players could grow accustomed to the cold.
Snow was falling the night the Rams got off the airplane at the Minneapolis airport. And fighting a stiff, cold wind as well as the snow, the players groped their way inside--where they ran into the Vikings.
As the Minnesota players made their way cheerfully down the ramp, Ram all-pro Merlin Olsen caught up with an old friend, Viking all-pro Carl Eller.
“Where you going?” Olsen asked.
“To Tulsa,” said Eller. “We’re gonna practice on a warm field.”
Eller, who told that story Tuesday, has concluded, along with other Eastern football people, that the weather is nothing more than a state of mind--whether hot or cold.
“On a cold day, everybody feels it, physically,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you practice--Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Tulsa or Nome, Alaska. On game day, a (Buffalo) native gets just as cold as a California native.
“If you live in Buffalo, you might not like a freezing cold day, but you’re used to it, you ignore it.
“The difference is mental. (An Eastern) player is so used to the windchill that he thinks about football. A Californian thinks about the weather. And that’s why it’s hard for California guys to play football back here.”
The subject came up this week when the Raiders realized one of their ambitions. In the last round before the Super Bowl, they’ll be playing an AFC title game Sunday. Trouble is, they’ll be playing it in Buffalo. And in late January, anything is possible in Buffalo--anything but a heat wave.
How tough is it to play in cold weather? Are there two problems, physical and psychological? Will a bad day help the home team?
“The thing to keep in mind is that bad weather is an equalizer,” said Seattle Seahawk Coach Chuck Knox, who has coached in both Los Angeles and Buffalo, five years with the Rams, five with the Bills. “A cold, windy day doesn’t really favor either team.
“Winter weather makes the situation unpredictable. The ball comes out. People slip and fall. The element of luck comes in.
“People forget that the Bills are practicing indoors, and that they’ll have to come outside to play. Their only real advantage is the home-field advantage. They don’t have to travel, their own fans are in the ballpark and all that. Realistically, their weather is no help at all. Cold weather tends to even it up.”
If that’s so, why have the Rams and 49ers lost so often on bad Eastern days?
Speaking as a frequent cold-weather winner over the Rams, Bud Grant, the Minnesota coach who took the Vikings to four Super Bowls, said: "(Minnesota) weather was never as important as we wanted (the Rams) to believe. We created the mystique.
“A player from California coming back into this weather is always concerned about how to stay warm. The psychological advantage was ours, so we made the most of it.”
One freezing day, for example, as the Rams worked out gingerly before a December kickoff, Grant surprised Los Angeles’ players and writers by sending the Vikings out without warmup suits.
His message: It’s not cold.
During a pregame drill that day, Minnesota fullback Bill Brown rolled up his sleeves before rolling around on the frozen field, simulating blocks. And the Rams stood open-mouthed as Brown came up with his arms bleeding extensively.
“That was no accident,” Grant said. “Just before going out there, Brown peeled all the scabs off both his arms.”
THE COLD MACHINE
The old Vikings were the ultimate cold-weather machine, according to Eller, one of 15 finalists in this month’s voting for the Hall of Fame.
And according to Eller, Grant showed the Vikings how to win outdoors in their forbidding climate.
“He told us about the Eskimos,” Eller said.
It is a part of military history that in World War II, the U.S. armed forces had trouble building radio stations in Alaska because the soldiers who were driving the bulldozers could spend only 15 or 20 minutes at a time in the unheated cabs.
“It was like 150 (degrees) below,” Grant said.
So one day, an ambitious lieutenant colonel suggested that the Army find a crew of native Alaskans and teach them to drive bulldozers. And that ended the problem.
“The Eskimos could sit there in biting cold weather for two or three hours at a time,” Grant said.
That prompted a medical examination, and for a month or so the medics tested native workers as well as military workers from the lower 48 states. After centuries of exposure to different kinds of winters, was there a difference in their skin texture, the thickness of their hair or their blood supply?
“There turned out to be only one difference,” Grant said. “Everybody knew it was cold. The Eskimos just sat there and drove the bulldozers.”
The lesson is simple, said Eller: “Just go out and play.”
Or as Grant maintains, form follows function.
“If you can function on a nice day, you can function in bitterly cold weather,” he said. “It’s all in the head.
“Of course, there’s a limit. You couldn’t play if it’s 200 under freezing. But we found that the only thing to worry about is a wind-chill factor of about 35 below. We’ve played very nicely when it was 33 below.”
Former Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi, making a similar determination in the 1967 Ice Bowl game, unhesitatingly sent Bart Starr in on the quarterback sneak that beat Dallas for the NFL championship, 21-17.
That day, when visiting writers got wakeup calls at a Green Bay hotel, the operator said, sweetly, “Good morning, it’s 23 below.”
To Frank Gifford, the ABC announcer, breakfast in his hotel room that morning was an adventure.
“I remember taking another bite of my coffee,” he said.
Dallas’ players played bravely in the freezing weather, but when they got back to Texas several were sent immediately to a doctor.
Two, Jerry Tubbs and Jethro Pugh, were treated for frostbite.
Former Minnesota halfback Dave Osborn used to worry about frostbite, too, he said. Playing against the New England Patriots one time at Harvard Stadium--where a freeze had succeeded a thaw, turning the field into an ice rink--Osborn decided against putting his hand down in his regular stance on the slick surface.
“I just looked down,” Osborn said. “That’s the only time I ever saw my reflection on a football field.”
Tubbs, Pugh and Osborn were luckier than the Cleveland player who, after a playoff game one year at Minnesota, showered, dressed and rode to the airport, where, waiting for the club charter, he suddenly began howling in pain.
He had frozen his hand taking a three-point stance repeatedly on the Minnesota field, but the pain only came long after, when his hand thawed out.
Grant, who swears that that story is true, can’t remember the player’s name, but he has some advice for other linemen.
“I’ll bet the guy was wearing gloves,” Grant said. “I never allowed my players to wear gloves, no matter how cold it got. It’s the worst thing you can do for your hands because your fingers are isolated in gloves.
“You have to make a fist to keep your hands warm. Mittens are OK, but you can’t play football in mittens.”
During Minnesota games, Grant never allowed heaters, either, at the Viking bench. Nor were his players permitted to wear long underwear--or any clothing except football uniforms.
“It’s cold back here, but not that cold,” he said. “It’s all in the head.”
THE SHOE STORE
One reason that Easterners are often better prepared for football games than California players, psychologically, is that they’ve probably had more experience with winter sports.
Easterners tend to make a mental connection between chilly weather and fun and games.
Broomball, one of those games, is something like hockey. It’s played on a skating rink with a soccer-sized ball and sawed-off brooms. And like touch football it requires relatively little skill.
One thing it does require, instead of skates, is a special kind of shoe. Its distinctive feature is a series of holes in the sole. The holes are about the size of a half dollar.
"(The Vikings) played football in broomball shoes one day when the field was like a skating rink,” Minnesota spokesman Merrill Swanson said. “We only had a dozen pair, and when the offense came off the field, the defense put them on.
“We won because the only thing that’s more important than the psychological advantage in cold weather is a footing advantage. On an off track, football players are more worried about their footing than anything else.”
At El Segundo, for that reason, Raider equipment manager Richard Romanski’s equipment room looks like a shoe store.
“We’ll take about four different kinds of shoes (to Buffalo) for each player,” Romanski said. “We also have a full supply of tennis shoes, but we probably won’t use those. On a frozen field, you slide around in tennis shoes.”
The Raiders, when putting on their regular football shoes, can choose among cleats of various lengths. The softer the field, the longer the cleat.
But if it’s snowing, Romanski will recommend shark shoes.
“The configuration on the sole is like a shark’s teeth,” he said. “We’ll practice on the (Buffalo field) the day before the game, when the players will make a final decision on what to wear--unless the weather changes.”
From his Minneapolis office, Eller said that football players should be prepared to change shoes during Eastern games.
“In the winter, your footing always gets worse as it gets later in the day,” he said. “So the thing that usually matters the most on a bad day is getting an early lead. You’ve got to score first. You want to have full command of your game plan before the other guy does.”
The record shows that regardless of whether they’ve scored first, the Raiders have been more successful on late-winter Eastern fields than most warm-weather teams. They’ve won big games in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and elsewhere on cold tracks.
Asked to explain that, Romanski said: “We dress for it. A lot of teams wear a lot of heavy clothes in winter games. We believe in just the opposite--thin stuff that doesn’t restrict their movement.
“Men’s pantyhose were the first (light garments) worn by football players, but pantyhose wear out fast. Our players will be wearing (thermal-type) long underwear that’s that thin, but more durable.
“We’ll also have six kinds of gloves for each player--they’ll be able to find something to their liking. They’ll also wear what we call Mexits (sweat shirts). A Mexit (shirt) is like a sleeve open at both ends, and you can put them on anyway you want to--over the neck, covering the chest and chin, even covering the whole face except the eyes.”
Clearly, Romanski doesn’t subscribe to Bud Grant’s theory that a cold football player is the best football player.
“Why freeze?” the Raider equipment man asked. “There are creams and jellies you can put on your face to keep from freezing it. What we use is petroleum jelly all over their face and, if they want it, their hands. How does it help you to play football with your face frozen?”
Romanski has been with the Raiders for 28 years. From a physical standpoint, he is certainly right. From a psychological standpoint, Eller wonders if anything can help a California team on a cold Eastern day.
Now chief executive of the firm he founded--a firm that works on chemical dependency rehabilitation projects with numerous Midwest corporations--Eller said:
“There’s just a big difference in the way Eastern and Western teams approach (winter football). A Californian can’t help but think about cold weather. In the East, cold weather comes as a relief to football players. It actually does. Shorter practices. A break in the routine. Fun time. In bad weather, a cold-weather team will always have the edge.”