The icicles that formed on his beard early in the game were a novelty. The loss of pliability in a helmet that became more difficult to put on and take off throughout the frigid afternoon was a nuisance.
But as cold as it was for the 1981 AFC championship game known as the “Freezer Bowl,” it wasn’t the Arctic-like temperature of minus-9 that most hindered former San Diego Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts against the Cincinnati Bengals.
It was the stiff 27-mph breeze that produced a wind-chill factor of minus-58 — the lowest wind chill for an NFL game — in Riverfront Stadium and knocked down two Fouts passes that were intercepted, one at the Bengals five-yard line and one in the end zone. Cincinnati won, 27-7, to advance to the Super Bowl.
“It’s an interesting thing because if it’s windy, you can’t throw anything soft,” said Fouts, now an NFL analyst for CBS. “So now you’re throwing fastballs, and hopefully tight spirals, but it’s cold, and that makes it more difficult for the receivers to catch the ball. I learned that the hard way.”
Conditions in Arrowhead Stadium for Sunday’s AFC title game between the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots won’t be as harsh as the 1981 game or as foreboding as they appeared earlier this week, when the forecast called for temperatures to dip into the single digits.
Temperatures for the late-afternoon kickoff are expected to be in the low-20s with 7-mph winds, which won’t draw any Ice Bowl comparisons but still could cause some problems for quarterbacks Tom Brady of the Patriots and Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs.
“What happens in cold weather is the balls tend to get real hard, and when they’re hard, they’re just hard to hold,” former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and current Fox NFL analyst Troy Aikman said.
“For a guy like myself, who struggled throwing when the balls were slick, the cold weather just added to the difficulty for me in being able to grip it and throw it.”
The coldest weather Aikman endured in the NFL was at the end of his rookie year (1989) in New York and a home game against Green Bay, where the wind-chill made conditions feel like 12 degrees.
Aikman completed 11 of 22 passes for 84 yards and an interception in a 15-0 loss to the Giants and 18 of 28 passes for 125 yards and four interceptions in a 20-10 loss to the Packers.
NFL rules prevent teams from storing game balls in a warm container or near sideline heaters, so the balls essentially remain at outdoor temperature. Ball boys are allowed to wrap towels around the footballs while they’re holding them.
Since the “Deflategate” scandal, when Brady allegedly ordered the deliberate deflating of footballs used in New England’s 2014 AFC title-game win over Indianapolis, game balls have remained under the supervision of officials from the time they leave the locker rooms through the final whistle.
“The challenge for a quarterback is keeping your hands warm and somehow being able to get a grip on the ball,” Aikman said. “But now they have gloves that are much better than when I was playing. I’ve thrown with some of them, and it’s really made a difference.”
The 41-year-old Brady, who has led New England to five Super Bowl titles in 19 years, has far more experience in such conditions than Mahomes, the 23-year-old gunslinger who, in his second NFL season, is a leading NFL most valuable player candidate after throwing for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns.
But Mahomes was hardly deterred last week, when a temperature of 32 degrees and 13-mph winds produced a wind-chill factor of 22 to go with occasional snow flurries in a divisional playoff game against Indianapolis in Kansas City.
Mahomes did not wear a glove on either hand. He zinged an 11-yard pass over the middle to Tyreek Hill on the Chiefs’ first play, the start of an effective if not spectacular day in which he completed 27 of 41 passes for 278 yards in a 31-13 divisional playoff victory over the Colts.
On a 26-degree afternoon in Foxborough, Mass., last Sunday, Brady wore a glove on his non-throwing hand while completing 34 of 44 passes for 343 yards and a touchdown in a 41-28 win over the Chargers.
“I’ve played in a lot of games over the years where weather is a factor,” Brady said this week. “You just dress for it and hopefully our blood has thickened up enough here in the Northeast to deal with some of the cold, which I think it has. It’ll be colder Sunday than it’s been at any point this year, so have a little mental toughness, a little physical toughness and just deal with it the best you can.”
Some quarterbacks wear hand-warming pouches around their waist to keep warm. Most players wear Lycra-type performance shirts and tights under their pads and gloves. Some wear Lycra hoods that cover every part of a player’s head but his face.
Several Chargers put charcoal foot warmers in the insole of their cleats for last week’s game. Some lathered special lotion on their skin that helps retain heat.
Arrowhead’s natural-grass field, which got new sod this week, is warmed from below by pipes carrying heated water, so the field shouldn’t freeze. Both benches are heated and equipped with PVC tubes above the back-rest that blows warm air into helmets and heated slots below for players’ feet.
The benches also will be flanked by propane-powered bullet heaters that blow hot air into the bench area and can be something of a hazard for the uninitiated.