The Dallas Cowboys awoke to play the National Football League Championship against the Green Bay Packers in an Appleton, Wisc., motel, 35 miles from the game site at Lambeau Field. An epic, seismic undertow appeared to have drifted them overnight to the Arctic Circle.
The ice man had cometh. His arrival mocked the forecast for Dec. 31, 1967, issued by the National Weather Service in Green Bay. "A cold air mass moving down from Canada will bring with it more fresh, cold air," went its benign report that suggested the wind might be up so turn on the electric socks.
The Cowboys were alerted to the elements by wake-up calls from operators who delivered time and temperature in cheery voices. Guard George Andrie recalled the teasing message that got him moving.
"The lady said, 'Good morning, it's seven o'clock and the temperature is 14 degrees,'" said Andrie. "Then she paused for the effect and said 'below zero.'"
Andrie knew the effects of cold as a native of Grand Rapids, Mich. The knowledge allowed him to prank roommate defensive tackle Bob Lilly from hot-weather Texas.
"I hollered at Lilly and said, 'Hey, Bob, watch this.' I took a glass of water and tossed it against the inside of the window. The water turned to ice, frozen solid, before it could drip down the window sill."
The same wake-up call roused linebacker Lee Roy Jordan, who wasn't sure he heard the operator correctly. Teammates confirmed the worst.
"Then the phone rang again and it was one of our players, and he said, 'Did you hear what the damn temperature is?' All I could do was go to the window and look outside. I just stared. I wanted to see what 13 below looked like," Jordan said.
"The motel where we stayed was sort of horseshoe shaped. From my angle, I could see most of the other rooms in the place. In almost every window, I could see someone like me -- a Dallas football player staring outside, wondering what it would feel like when we finally went out there."
It felt comfortable 24 hours earlier during a walk-through at Lambeau Field. Saturday morning was balmy by comparison -- windless, firm footing, mid-teen temperatures and light fog.
Steam rose from beneath the turf where coach Vince Lombardi spent $80,000 installing a heating grid to prevent the surface from freezing. Warm vapor reminded of eerie scenes from "The Hound of the Baskervilles" with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson tramping moors.
I just took a bite out of my coffee.
--TV analyst Frank Gifford on the ice-cold temperatures at Lambeau Field, Dec. 31, 1967
"If we have another day like this, it will be ideal," ventured linebacker Chuck Howley, an oblique reference to the Cowboys' superior speed.
Instead they got a day like no other -- minus-13 degrees at noon and still the coldest Dec. 31 in Green Bay history. Fierce north gusts sent the wind chill sinking to minus-30 degrees.
Lambeau Field was sold out, anyway. A crowd of 50,861 gathered, most outfitted for a polar expedition, others wrapped in sleeping bags, many fortified for warmth with flasks containing high-octane spirits. Every breath coming from the stands sent a plume of steam into the air.
Four fans suffered heart attacks at the stadium. Fourteen made it on their own to the hospital for treatment for exposure. A crisis of near-equal proportions visited the open-air TV booth where whiskey-laced coffee froze. Announcer Frank Gifford opened his commentary by saying, "I just took a bite out of my coffee."
Jordan noted a surreal scene on the Cowboys' sideline with the game only minutes in progress. Coach Tom Landry had grown nose fangs.
"Tom had icicles an inch and a half long sticking down from either nostril. He looked a little weird," Jordan said.
The game was equally weird. Players took mincing steps to maintain traction. Passing was akin to throwing a frozen pumpkin. Every punt sounded like a rifle shot. Lombardi's heating grid became an instant casualty, allowing fullback Walt Garrison to describe the texture of the playing surface thusly: "Like walking on asphalt. Harder than Chinese arithmetic."
I swear I heard her say, 'Jethro, what are you doing out in that weather, you fool?'
--Jethro Pugh, recalling a hallucination during the Ice Bowl that his mother was scolding him for playing in subfreezing weather
Well into the game, a numbed Jethro Pugh began to hallucinate. The defensive tackle remembered how his mother fussed at her children when they went outside and got their feet wet.
"I swear," Pugh said. "I heard her say, 'Jethro, what are you doing out in that weather, you fool?'"
The Ice Bowl outcome swung on one of the most famous plays in NFL history -- a mundane quarterback sneak. Bart Starr plunged one yard to score with 13 seconds left. He did it on third down and the Packers lacking another timeout.
"I thought Starr might roll out and throw or run, depending on what he saw," Landry said after Green Bay's 21-17 win.
Cowboys offensive tackle Ralph Neely was asked if he'd seen Lombardi after the game. What did the winner look like after temperature dipped to 20 below and wind chill to minus-46 degrees?
"He had a smile on his face," Neely reported. "Whether or not it was frozen, I can't say."
Cowboys owner Clint Murchison Jr. was usually the source of a wry quote but found no pun that fit his mood. "The day wasn't too cold if you won," he said without smiling.
Some Cowboys coaches were incredulous that Starr sneaked on third down without the ability to stop the clock if he failed to score. Jerry Tubbs considered the play tactically unsound. So did Ernie Stautner.
"How the hell can they go for a lousy quarterback sneak?" Stautner asked. "They'd never get the field goal in (if Starr had been stopped). We wouldn't have let them."
"It was a dumb call. But now it's a great play," said Landry in rare critique of an opponent.
Meantime, on the plane ride home, Andrie fashioned a mock conspiracy theory to account for the ice-rink surface.
"That (expletive) Lombardi -- he turned off the machine."
Landry found the proper epitaph to describe his anguished post-Ice Bowl team. It had played gallantly and honestly under miserable conditions, but left the field deeply wounded.
"You can tell the real Cowboys," Landry told a banquet audience in San Antonio. "They're the ones with the frozen fingers and broken hearts."
Frank Luksa is a freelance writer based in Plano, Texas. He was a longtime sports columnist for The Dallas Times Herald and Dallas Morning News. Luksa covered the Ice Bowl for the Times Herald.