Cincinnati beat San Diego in the AFC title game 22 years ago, and the details of that championship are frozen in the memory of former Bengal lineman Dave Lapham. Then again, that stands to reason.
Just about everything about Lapham was frozen that day.
The game, which would become known as the “Freezer Bowl,” was played in temperatures that dipped to minus-9 degrees with a wind-chill factor of minus-58, the lowest ever wind-chill for an NFL game.
So Lapham can commiserate with this season’s AFC championship participants, the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, who are bracing for bitter-cold conditions Sunday. The Patriots are coming off the coldest game in team history, a victory last Saturday over Tennessee, when the temperature at kickoff was 4 degrees.
“I remember playing the whole [Freezer Bowl] game and not breaking a sweat,” said Lapham, now a radio analyst who covers his former team. “My T-shirt was bone dry. We came out without any sleeves to try to psych the Chargers out. They had played in the heat and humidity of Miami the week before, so for them it was about a 150-degree swing.”
Green Bay was the site of the coldest game in league history, the “Ice Bowl” in 1967, when the temperature fell to minus-13 with a minus-48 windchill.
The Boston-area forecast for Sunday calls for a slight warming trend with snow and a high of 30 degrees. The temperature has hovered around 0 this week, and the Patriots have been working out in their indoor practice facility adjacent to Gillette Stadium. On Wednesday, the team turned off the heat in the “bubble” and practiced as the inside temperature fell to 20. The Patriots went outside Thursday and worked out on a 6-degree afternoon.
“Zero degrees? That’s really not too cold for football,” said Norm Fong, equipment manager for the Saskatchewan Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League. “When we played in Edmonton, it was minus-20 or minus-21. It was so cold the water jugs froze.”
NFL and CFL teams have similar procedures for dealing with the cold, among them putting large propane-powered heating fans along the sidelines and providing players with Lycra-type performance shirts and tights to wear under their pads.
Fong remembers when one Rough Rider receiver put his hands too close to a fan and his gloves caught fire. Then, there are the players from balmy locales who need some time to adjust to sub-freezing temperatures.
“Half our team is American kids, and some of them are from Florida,” he said. “A lot of them haven’t ever seen snow before. Those are kids who are wearing one and two of everything. Instead of one sweater on, they’ve got two. It’s something you’ve got to get used to. To be able to play and get comfortable in it, it’s not easy.”
In the NFL, the home team is responsible for providing warming fans and heated benches that have attachments so players can warm their helmets. Most teams pack a cold-weather trunk for road trips late in the season that includes hand-warming pouches, gloves for players and coaches and Lycra hoods that cover every part of a player’s head but his face.
Not every player takes the advice of trainers and equipment managers when it comes to dealing with the cold.
“A lot of guys are superstitious,” said Joseph Skiba, assistant equipment manager for the New York Giants. “What they wear on the first game of the season, they want to wear at the end of the season. When you’re on that field, especially when you’re on the sideline from the 30 to the 30, it’s warmer. But when the wind kicks up, it really kicks up.”
The Colts play in the climate-controlled comfort of the RCA Dome, and beat the Chiefs last Sunday on an unseasonably warm day in Kansas City. But Coach Tony Dungy said he has no plans to practice in cold conditions this week, except to have kicker Mike Vanderjagt do some practicing outside.
“I don’t think the cold will affect us too much,” Dungy said. “We play in a dome stadium, but we live here in Indiana and we’re experiencing the same winter that New England is, we start our cars and scrape the ice off the same way, so we’re used to functioning in it. Cold is really a mental thing and we’ve got mentally tough guys.”
Dungy said he isn’t concerned about simulating the conditions in Foxboro.
“When I was in college, [former Minnesota Viking coach] Bud Grant was famous for winning a lot of cold weather games in Minnesota,” he said. “I can remember when I was a senior in college, and they were playing the Redskins. The Redskins came up with George Allen, they came up to Minnesota to practice and they practiced there all week and Bud Grant said, ‘I don’t know why anyone would do that, practice in all this cold.’ He took the Vikings to Tulsa and practiced in good weather and came back and won the game. I don’t think you have to sit in cold weather and work on frozen fields to know that you can do it.”
Patriot quarterback Tom Brady said dealing with the swirling winds at Gillette Stadium is more difficult than coping with the cold.
“With the cold, everything gets cold -- your hands, your feet, your body is tight and stiff,” he said. “What you are trying to do is keep the ball in an easier position for the receivers to catch the ball. That goes along with the accuracy. It is tough. I wish we had 70 degrees and sunny like they do in Miami all day, but we kind of deal with it and both teams are out in it.”
Cincinnati’s Lapham knows enough about playing in the cold to be sure he doesn’t want to do it again.
“We were allowed to put Vaseline on exposed skin,” he said. “But it was so cold the Vaseline coagulated, so it was like Crisco; you couldn’t move it.... I wanted to marry that heated bench. Eventually, I stopped sitting on it. It was like jumping out of a Jacuzzi into a freezer.”
The worst part of all?
“That,” he said, “was going in at halftime and warming up, and then knowing what you’re facing going back out there.”
Sunday’s Weather Forecasts
* Kickoff 3 p.m. local time: Cloudy and cold with a chance of snow flurries. High of 30 and low of 21 after dark. Predicted windchill temperatures of 20 and 9, respectively.
* Kickoff 6:45 p.m. local time: Mostly cloudy with a chance of snow flurries. High of 26. Nighttime low of 9 degrees with windchill of minus-4 degrees.
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