I had coffee recently with former Green Bay Packers running back Chuck Mercein, who played a key role in the Packers’ legendary Ice Bowl victory over the Cowboys in 1967.
I told him I too was at the game. Chuck gave me one of those “Yeah, YOU and 350,000 OTHER fans were squeezed into Lambeau that day.”
I didn’t have to… but I wanted to convince him that I really was there…matter of fact, I was in Green Bay for nearly a week.
I was still in college but already working part-time (some would say that never changed) as an intern at the NFL League office in New York.
Jim Kensil, who was Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s top executive, had assigned me and a couple of other interns that last week of December to either Green Bay or Oakland where the Raiders were hosting the AFL Championship that same Sunday.
Mercein finished his coffee that day but still was not convinced until I told him about a guy I had noticed in the media crowd outside the winning Packers locker-room.
“Famous New York columnists like Jimmy Cannon, Milton Gross, Hy Goldberg were on line waiting to get inside the warm locker room area ,” I said. “ I also noticed someone who was holding up the wall but who may already have had a few shots of liquid warmth like many in the sub-zero stadium had. I asked one of the security guards who he was: ‘That’s the great Johnny Blood, sir.”
Mercein suddenly looked up.
“I’m starting to believe you were really there,” he said. “I remember I was one of the last ones in the showers that day trying to scrape off the frost bite and a guy came marching into the showers, fully clothed and demanded to know in a loud voice “Which one of you is Bart Starr. I want to congratulate that son of gun.’ While I was trying to figure out how this crazed fan got into our shower area, a naked Jerry Kramer said “Johnny Blood. Get out of the showers before you drown.”
Yes, I REALLY was in Green Bay for that Ice Bowl on December 31, 1967.
It is one of my few claims to fame. I was in San Francisco for The Catch…in Miami when Joe Willie upset the Colts…in Chicago for the Fog Bowl.
However, none of those games can top the Ice Bowl in terms of football lore, Packers history or lasting personal memories about the cold which somehow both teams played thru right to the closing minute when Starr behind Kramer’s block pushed over the goal line for the winning score on the frozen tundra.
We arrived in Green Bay the day after Christmas to handle the logistics for the game The weather ranged from zero to a balmy 15 degrees in subsequent days.
I remember my first glimpse of the Packers home stadium and thinking “THAT’s Lambeau Field?”. It was the same reaction I had years later when I visited San Antonio for the first time. “THAT’s the Alamo…or is that a very small replica of it?”.
Lambeau in those days only seated 50,000. It looked like a good high school stadium from the outside, not unlike some of the high school stadiums I saw, for example, in Texas the year before when I worked the Packers-Cowboys NFL Championship Game at the Cotton Bowl.
We stayed at the old Northland Hotel which was press headquarters for the game.
We worked hard during the days but had some harmless fun at night.
We laughed the first night out we went out to dinner.
Don Weiss, who had joined our office as our Director of Information, hung his coat on the hook at the restaurant as we all did.
When we finished our meal, we went for our coats but Don had one problem. One of the locals had “mistakenly” taken his overcoat including the new Christmas gift cashmere earmuffs that were in a pocket. Evidently the ‘thief’ was less impressed with Don’s cashmere scarf which was left on a shelf…yes, another Christmas gift from his daughters just a day earlier.
The next nite we took a few of the out of town writers to dinner. Midway through the meal, Kensil told me to go into the unmanned coat room and quietly move Don’s new replacement coat that he bought earlier that day.
After the meal, the entire group, which was in on the joke, waited outside the cloak room while Don went in.
“Jesus H. Christ,” he exclaimed as we heard nothing else but hangars rattling inside the room. “They… they did it again. They took my coat”
When he came out, he saw us all laughing. He put me against the wall and pushed his face into mine: “ What did u do with my coat, Browne?”
It still cracks me up thinking about it.
We and the writers went to a local bar after dinner that night. It was a “disco” bar with young women in ‘skimpy’, 1960s-Wisconsin outfits dancing on stages.
Peter Hadhazy, who also was an NFL intern, thought he spotted the Packers’ sensational rookie kick-returner Travis Williams at the other end of the room.
He excitedly went up to the guy and asked if he were Travis Williams.
“No I’m not,” Travis lied, “but I wonder what that super star is doing tonight.”
I gave a ride during the week to Jerry Izenberg, the famed columnist for the Newark Star Ledger.
He wasn’t in the car five minutes before he complained (which I later learned was not that unusual) that I was driving too fast on the icy roads.
“How long have you had your license, young man,” he asked.
“I got it last December 7th,” I replied.
“That’s appropriate ….Pearl Harbor Day. If you drive any faster, we’re going to die too.”
There was a league party thrown at a country club two nights before the game. I don’t recall the name of the club but I do remember very well being there because it was the first time I got to shake Vince Lombardi’s hand.
When I was introduced to the coach as a league employee from New York, he asked “Where were you born, son”
“Queens,” I proudly said.
“That aint’t Brooklyn, young man, and don’t you forget it,” he said with a slight grin and a Brooklyn native’s accent. I obviously haven’t.
Game Day may have been one of the most memorable in NFL history but it also was one of my worse. It could have very easily ended my NFL career before I worked one day as a fulltime employee.
Game day started off with the same phone call we all say we received from the Northland operator: “Good morning, sir. It’s 6am and the temperature is minus 13 degrees. Have a nice day and… Go Packers!”
We made a run an hour later to a local sporting goods store which opened at the Packers special request due to the cold. I was told by Kensil to buy as many scarves, gloves and ski masks for the media as his $100 bill would buy. It was a lot more merchandise then than it would be today in Green Bay…or certainly in New York.
There was a buffet breakfast at the Northland which our office arranged for the media and our small staff. As soon as I walked in, Mark Duncan, who was the Dean Blandino of his day as Supervisor of Game Officials, gave me his briefcase and told me to watch it as he got on the buffet line.
Two minutes later, Kensil told me to go downstairs to see if the media buses were in place.
I admit (now) that I placed Duncan’s briefcase in a corner as I put on my coat to check on the buses.
Hadhazy and I planned to take our own car to the game because we were expected to get there early and stay late.
When we got to Lambeau, we went to the small press box which was enclosed but not heated. We were told to start scraping ice off the front windows so the writers would be able to see kickoff in a couple of hours. We had mild success and I was feeling pretty good primarily because someone brought in a heater similar to what was being used on the icy field.
THEN Mr. Duncan showed up at the game.
“You have my briefcase?,” he matter of factly asked. I looked at him and turned redder than I normally do in subzero temps.
“Mr. D, I thought YOU picked it up,” I said without a great deal of conviction.
“I asked you to watch my briefcase,” he said in a stern voice. “If you don’t have it, you better get your ass back to the hotel and find it.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied. I got the keys from Hadhazy and went back outside to find our car.
If you look closely at the old NFL Films shots of the pregame activities that day, you will see a tall, red-haired (scared) young man with no ear-muffs leaving the stadium as everyone else was shuffling in. I was delayed getting out of the lot because the cops wouldn’t let me leave until nearly all the incoming cars had cleared the lanes.
When I reached the Northland, I left the car running on the quiet street and ran up to the banquet room where we had the breakfast. My face dropped when I saw the tables already being set up for the New Year’s Eve festivities that night.
I meekly asked the waiters and their supervisor if they had found a briefcase after the breakfast. The case was one of the media mementos of the game so it was a nice souvenir.
“No. No, and No “ were the replies I received from the workers who wanted to finish quickly so they could listen on radio to the TV blacked-out game about to begin.
I drove back to the stadium with tears in my eyes which were a result of the cold and the fact that I thought my football career was over before I even turned 21.
I made it back quickly since the game had kicked off and there was no traffic. Everyone in the small town was either at the game or in their homes.
I got back just as the second quarter began. I told Duncan that I did not find his briefcase. He politely said “You dumbass” which was the next to last time he said anything to me for the rest of our working relationship.
When I later learned what was in the briefcase, I hardly blamed Duncan for being upset. He had spent the previous two days in his hotel room writing the final season-ending reports on all his game officials. Since it was the days before easily available Xerox machines or computers, his one, hand-written, original copy of his final officiating grades was in that case…never to be found.
I am not trying to shirk responsibility but my suspicion over the years has been that it was not the Northland waiters who took the bag. Rather, Cowboys owner Clint Murchison had flown privately to the game. He and the flight crew had attended our breakfast. I to this day believe one of the flight attendants took the bag, emptied its contents and gave it to a boyfriend when she got back to Dallas. However, it’s one of those things you can never prove and at this point doesn’t make much difference. All I know is that the incident almost cost me a long career in the NFL.
I’m not planning to make it to Green Bay this week for what some observers want to call “Ice Bowl II”. I will leave that trip to the Fox TV crew, Jerry Jones and Governor Christie.
However, the meteorologists are predicting above zero temps for the game so I don’t think Ice Bowl II can or should be used. Besides, the 1967 game was for the right to go to the Super Bowl two weeks later. In this case, there is still one big hurdle to overcome for this Sunday’s winner to get to Arizona for Super Bowl XLIX.
One last note: If a guy is seen fully clothed in the Packers post-game shower area, we know it won’t be Johnny (Blood) McNally who died 20 years ago but who will be remembered by most, including myself, as one of the NFL’s great player pioneers and a member of the Charter Class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.
Let’s get ready to play! I hope it’s as memorable and as intense as the 1967 classic which was Coach Lombardi’s last game in Green Bay.