Cold reality: '81 AFC title game a struggle from start to finish

Chargers offensive linemen got a cold dose of reality at the '81 AFC title game in Cincinnati. The temperature during the game reached minus-9, with winds gusting to 35 mph, creating a wind chill of minus-59. Jose Azel/Aurora/Getty Images

Gregg had a simple message for his team before the 1981 Chargers-Bengals AFC Championship Game -- a game played in bitterly cold weather in Cincinnati.

Playing that day was going to be like going to the dentist, the Bengals' coach told his players, but it wouldn't hurt for long.

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Gregg was speaking from experience, of course. He played on the offensive line for Green Bay in the most famous cold-weather game in history: the 1967 Cowboys-Packers NFL Championship Game known as the Ice Bowl. The game-time temperature in Green Bay was minus-13.

Gregg insists that the Freezer Bowl -- a 27-7 Cincinnati win -- was even colder. The temperature during the game reached minus-9, with winds gusting to 35 mph, creating a wind chill of minus-59.

Each team had heated benches on their sidelines and extra kerosene heaters. League doctors encouraged players to wear extra layers of clothes, but the Bengals' offensive line decided to remain sleeveless, rubbing Vaseline on their arms to limit the numbness from the cold.

"I thought they were crazy for not wearing sleeves, but they are professional football players," Gregg said. "I was not going to tell them what to wear."

The Chargers had one of the more potent offenses in NFL history. San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts, wide receiver Charlie Joiner and tight end Kellen Winslow were future Hall of Famers. The Chargers had defeated Miami in overtime the week before, when Winslow was famously carried off the field because he was so exhausted.

"It was probably a swing of 150 degrees from playing in the humidity of Miami to the cold of Cincinnati in the next week," said Cincinnati offensive lineman Dave Lapham, now an analyst on Bengals radio broadcasts.

Fouts threw for only 185 yards and had two interceptions. He had trouble gripping the ball, and Winslow blamed the loss on his quarterback's poor grip. Fouts chose not to wear gloves because they were too thick and did not give him much feel for the football.

Fouts had icicles hanging from his beard after the game, and Bengals QB Ken Anderson had frostbite on his right ear. The Bengals handled the cold well because their offense relied on precision routes instead of long passes. Anderson also had bigger hands than Fouts, so he had an easier time gripping the football.

Lapham wore two pairs of socks to keep his feet warm. He placed a plastic bag between his two socks to create more insulation. Other players wore earmuffs and extra leather gloves.

What most impressed Lapham was the play of kicker Jim Breech, who kicked two field goals and had a huge bruise on his foot two days later.

"It was like kicking a brick," Lapham said.

Kick returner Hank Bauer was the first one out of the Chargers' locker room for warm-ups. When he ran to the end of the field and returned to the locker room, he told his teammates it was impossible to get warm.

"When you got hit, it was like a dead thud because the turf was so hard," Bauer said.

Bauer's other lasting memory is when he put his rubber-soled shoe on the heater by the team bench. One of his teammates told him that his shoe was melting, but Bauer couldn't feel it.
He still has the shoe today -- a nice keepsake to show his grandchildren.

And proof that he survived the Freezer Bowl.

William Bendetson is a freelance writer based in Boston.