By Greg Bates
The Sneak. Mention those two words to any Green Bay Packers fan – and certainly any diehard NFL follower – and they know exactly what that is a reference to.
With the Packers trailing by three points to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL Championship Game on Dec. 31, 1967, quarterback Bart Starr solidified himself as one of the most clutch players in NFL history. He called his own number from the 1-yard line with 16 seconds remaining and no timeouts. Getting stuffed at the goal line would mean the Packers’ run at a second straight Super Bowl would be over. Cross the plain of the goal line and win a third consecutive NFL championship.
Starr opted for the latter, plunging in behind right guard Jerry Kramer and center Ken Bowman, scoring the game-winning touchdown to give the Packers an epic 21-17 victory at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Known as the Ice Bowl, the opening kickoff was recorded at 13-below zero with a wind chill of -36, according to the National Weather Service. The wind chill hit an NFL record -57 during the game.
With the 50-year anniversary here, the sneak still lives on in what some call the greatest game in NFL history. Packers and Cowboys who played in that game recently reminisced with Sports Collectors Digest about the sneak, the game-winning drive and the brutally cold conditions they had to battle.
After grinding it out for 59 minutes and 44 seconds, it was only fitting the game virtually came down to one last play. After Packers running back Donny Anderson was stopped on second down at the 1-yard line, Starr called the team’s final timeout. The Hall of Fame signal-caller ran over to the sideline to consult with legendary head coach Vince Lombardi.
Rewind to three days earlier when the Packers offensive linemen were watching short-yardage game film of the Cowboys defense. Kramer noticed that defensive tackle Jethro Pugh – who was 6-foot-6, 260 pounds – would line up low to the ground but would fire up high off the snap.
In film study, Kramer suggested the team run a 31 Wedge in the NFL Championship Game in a short-yardage situation to blow Pugh off the ball.
“I said to the coach, ‘We can wedge Pugh, if we have to,’” Kramer said. “He (Coach Vince Lombardi) kind of barked at me and said, ‘We can wedge Pugh, if we have to. Run that back.’ So, he ran the play back three or four times. ‘That’s right, put in a wedge on Pugh.’”
When Starr ran to the sideline at chat with Lombardi, Starr suggested running the 31 Wedge.
“Coach Lombardi said supposedly, ‘Well, run it and let’s get the hell out of here,’” Kramer said.
Packers linebacker Dave Robinson was on the sideline when Lombardi called the entire field goal unit to gather around.
“Vince said, ‘You guys got to be ready to go running in in case we don’t make it,” said Robinson, who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “I looked up and saw 16 seconds, I said, ‘Who’s he kidding?’ If we don’t make this it’s toast, because Dallas is not going to jump up off the ball and line up so we can kick a field goal, I know that. They’re going to lay around and burn them 16 seconds, and we didn’t have a timeout. It was all or nothing. He tried to make us think in our minds that we had a chance. There was no chance. Bart doesn’t make that, we’re done.”
Starr ran out into the huddle and called 31 Wedge, a play designed for a fullback. What Starr didn’t tell his teammates, was he was going to keep the ball. According to Kramer, who feels like Starr indicated to him prior to the play he was going to sneak it himself, Starr wanted to keep the ball because he’d have better footing on the ice-cold turf than his fullback Chuck Mercein or running back Donny Anderson.
“Bart said nothing in the huddle,” Anderson recalled. “He just called Brown Right 31 Wedge, that’s what we executed. You’ve seen Chuck Mercein raise his hands up like that, he didn’t want the officials to think that he was aiding.”
Starr made his push behind Kramer and Bowman and fell into the end zone. Anderson said he didn’t know where ball was and thought Mercein had scored. He didn’t know Starr ran in the touchdown until he got to the sideline.
“He didn’t tell anybody that it was going to be a sneak instead of a handoff to Chuck Mercein, and he skated into the end zone. That was about the size of it,” Packers split end Boyd Dowler said. “We thought we’d scored giving the ball to Donny (Anderson) the play before that, but they moved the ball back. I don’t know that he didn’t score. It doesn’t matter now, you’ve seen the books. It was a climatic play to a wonderful season.”
“It doesn’t matter, but I know I scored,” Anderson said. “I just didn’t get credited for it.”
If Anderson were awarded a touchdown, Starr’s famous sneak wouldn’t have happened.
The sneak caught Packers players off guard as well as the Dallas players. Cowboys’ defensive tackle Bob Lilly figured Mercein was going to get the carry.
“We thought they were going to come right up the middle, because we knew they hadn’t been able to go outside because it was so slick,” said Lilly, who is a Hall of Famer. “We figured they were going to come right up the middle and we talked it over and we wanted to call timeout and get (equipment manager) Jack Eskridge out there to get a screw driver out there so we could make a couple of toe holes. I don’t know if that would have been legal or not.
“Jethro and I wanted to dig at least one toe hole so we could hold our ground, because if they double-teamed you you couldn’t do it, it was just a matter of physics. Sure enough, that’s what they did. It was a quarterback sneak and they double-teamed Jethro. We piled in there, but we just couldn’t hold them.”
Said Anderson: “It was genius on Bart’s part to call that play.”
Genius indeed. But that was Starr. It’s a play that cemented his legacy in the NFL. It also made Kramer a bigger than life figure in Wisconsin. He even gets recognized around the country for his career-altering block.
“I was walking down the street in San Francisco a couple years later and a guy driving down the street recognizes me, slows down, rolls his window, and he says, ‘Great block, Jerry,’” Kramer said, laughing. “I don’t know the guy from Adam, right? And I still don’t know who the hell it was. What a nice moment for a lineman.”
Kramer said it was incredible for an offensive lineman to receive the spotlight for a great play in an important game. He figured after the Packers won Super Bowl II two weeks later the play would slowly fade out of people’s minds.
Did he ever think 50 years later it would be one of the most memorable plays in NFL history?
“No lineman dreams that silly,” Kramer said.
Cold day on the frozen tundra
In preparation for the 1967 season, Coach Lombardi wanted a heating system underneath the playing surface at Lambeau Field. The electric coils were designed to keep the field from freezing during a game. The system met its ultimate test on the day of the Ice Bowl. And it failed.
The Cowboys players, who arrived in Green Bay on Friday, had two days to prepare for the cold. When Dallas had a short run-through on Saturday, running back Dan Reeves recalls the sun was shining and it was about 15 degrees. The forecast for game day was the same.
“We thought this was going to be good because you could actually work up a sweat,” Reeves said. “The field was in very good shape. We were at the Holiday Inn and we had to eat a pregame meal four hours before the game. We got up and we got dressed and we had to wear a coat and tie, and we walked out the door and took about two steps and said, ‘Dang, it’s cold. Better go get our overcoat.’ We started walking, then we started jogging and then we started sprinting to get to the restaurant. We got inside and said, ‘Dang, it’s cold out there.’ And the lady said, ‘Well, it ought to be, it’s 17-below zero.’ It had dropped 32 degrees overnight.”
That’s cold for a bunch of Texans.
Lilly remembers playing a couple games in St. Louis and against the New York Giants and the temperature was hovering around zero. That was nothing compared the freezing temperature in Green Bay.
Lilly roomed with defensive end George Andrie, who tried a little experiment.
“He got a glass of water out of the sink in the bathroom and came in and tossed it on the window – we were at a Holiday Inn and back then it was just a single pane – about half of it froze before it hit the window sill,” Lilly said. “He said it was already -7 and it was supposed to get -18 to -20.”
The night before the game, Robinson was at his house in Green Bay and was packing up his car because his family was going to drive to his home state New Jersey following the game. Robinson packed the car, got tired and left it in the driveway in -5-degree temperature.
“My wife called me the next morning and said, ‘Dave, it’s 20 below out there,’” said Robinson, who needed to get to his pregame meal. “I said, ‘Nah, you mean 20 above.
It can’t be that cold.’ I went outside to the car and it wouldn’t start. I called the garage that usually jumps for me, they said I was 110 on the list to get the car started.”
Robinson had a taxi come pick up his kids and bring them to a babysitter’s. He asked a kid and his girlfriend next door if they could drive him and his wife to the stadium, he would give them a pair of tickets to the game.
Anderson was going to get breakfast prior to the game and his car was in a heated garage.
“I get there and the guys are trying to jump their cars and whatnot,” said Anderson, who grew up in the panhandle of Texas. “I said, ‘What’s going on?’ They said, ‘Didn’t you hear? A cold front came in, it’s 20-below zero.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
Anderson thought he better get over to the field in plenty of time because he didn’t know what was going to happen with the game.
“I get over there, I figured Lombardi’s going to come out and he’s going to say, ‘OK, guys, we’re going to find out whether we’re going to have the game or not,’” Anderson said. “Nobody came out, we smoked a few cigarettes. Got our game face on, and nothing ever happened.”
Both teams had to prepare for the elements. Both teams went about things in a different way. The Packers players were used to the cold. The Cowboys players didn’t know what had hit them.
Lilly’s roommate Andrie, who was from Grand Rapids, Michigan and went to school at Marquette University in Milwaukee, didn’t mind the cold.
“George said, ‘Bob, we need to set an example, some of these guys have never played in cold weather, but I grew up up here and we ought to just go out without our warm-ups on and show them that it’s not that bad,’” Lilly said. “We went out without our warm-ups on and in a minute I was freezing, and I think he was, too, but he wouldn’t admit it. We all started getting these icicles in our noses, so one of the trainers or somebody from the Packer organization came over and told us we ought to go in and warm up and let the icicles melt, because if you pull them out it would pull the membrane out of our nose. They said too to make sure to put a lot of Vaseline in your nose throughout the game.”
Kramer got ready for the game just as he knew how: bundling up while still staying comfortable. Growing up in northern Idaho, cold wasn’t foreign to him.
“I’ve been ice fishing and snowmobiling in Alaska in all kinds of cold, so I was familiar with the cold and had down clothing and knew how to protect yourself and not have any negative consequences from spending a day in the cold,” Kramer said. “If you prepared for it properly, you would be OK.”
Kramer put on thermal underwear and cut them off at the knees and elbows so it wouldn’t restrict his movement, put a wool dicky on his head and a pair of cotton gloves on his hands.
“I prepared for the cold, and then I forgot the cold,” Kramer said.
Lombardi didn’t want his players wearing gloves – especially the players who could end up touching the ball – but that didn’t stop Robinson.
“He didn’t want running backs, receivers, defensive backs or linebackers,” Robinson said. “When he said ‘linebackers,’ my ears went up. I went to Domenic Gentile, our trainer, I said, ‘Dominic, give me a pair of brown gloves, he’ll never know the difference.’ So, I wore brown gloves the whole game. When the play was a passing situation like third-and-8, I took them off and stuck them in my belt. When they throw a pass or something on first down to fool me, I’d throw them off my hands and throw them right on the ground and go cover the (play), because I was not going to drop a pass with those gloves. When the play was over, go back and pick my gloves up.”
Legendary Cowboys coach Tom Landry also forbid his skill players from wearing gloves.
On the first play of the game, one of the officials blew the whistle – which back then was chrome-plated brass – and he had a problem.
“It stuck to his lip and he pulled it out and pulled part of his lip off,” Lilly said. “He had a blood icicle running down his chin.”
Epic game on The Frozen Tundra
The Packers (11-4-1) and the Cowboys (10-6) had quite a storied history up to that point. The Packers had edged the Cowboys in the 1966 NFC Championship Game en route to winning Super Bowl I.
“I was very pleased that we were playing the Cowboys,” Dowler said. “We always beat the Cowboys and we felt comfortable playing the Cowboys, especially at our stadium on a day like that. I think we beat them every time we played them. You get a feeling of confidence and I thought we had a good game plan.”
The Packers’ game plan included using Dowler quite a bit in the passing game. He scored on an 8-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and a 46-yarder from Starr in the second quarter to put the Packers up 14-0.
But the Cowboys didn’t back down. Andrie scored on a 7-yard fumble recovery and Dallas converted a Green Bay fumbled punt into a field goal to make it 14-10 going into halftime.
The field conditions changed in the second half.
“When that game started, the field was just wet, because condensation would hit the tarp and come back down as moisture and the field was just muddy, very playable,”
Robinson said. “At halftime, you could still step and get through, not that bad – hindsight’s 20/20. When we went in at halftime, they should have put a tarp on the field. The bands weren’t going to perform. Nobody was going to be on the field and so no need to keep it uncovered. Cover the field, let the electric steel work.”
Landry had a little trickery up his sleeve in the second half. The Cowboys had run a pitch play to the running back to go wide around the end several times earlier in the game, and the Packers cornerbacks always came up really fast. Reeves, who was a quarterback while at the University of South Carolina, was called to action to use his arm to spark a big play.
“We ran it to the left because they knew that I could throw the halfback pass, coach Landry didn’t think they could work on it going to the right,” Reeves said. “So, we ran it to the left, and sure enough both the corner and the safety came up and Lance Rentzel was wide open. It’s not like it was a great pass, it just had to get there.”
It was a play Reeves had to prepare for with the windy, cold conditions.
“The good thing about it was Don (Meredith, the Cowboys quarterback) told me he was going to call it and it was the first play of the fourth quarter,” Reeves said. “So, we were in the huddle when he told me he was going to call it, and I put my hands down as far down my pants as I could put them to keep them warm and I kept them there until we shifted out of the I-formation into a split backfield. Then at the last minute, I took my hands out and put them on the ground.”
The 50-yard touchdown gave the Cowboys a 17-14 lead and all the momentum.
A short time later, Green Bay got the ball at its own 32-yard line with 4:50 remaining in the fourth quarter. Kramer remembers linebacker Ray Nitschke getting off the field late from the previous play and he ran by the Packers offensive huddle and said, “Don’t let me down, guys. Don’t let me down.”
But the Packers’ offense had been anemic prior to the final drive of the game. The team’s 10 previous possessions went for -9 yards, according to Kramer.
“So, what the hell makes you think you’re going to take the ball down the field, I asked Bart one day years later,” Kramer said. “He said, ‘The look in your eyes, the look in Forrest’s (Gregg, the team’s right tackle) eyes, the looks in Gilly’s (left guard Gale Gillingham), Ski’s (left tackle Bob Skoronski) eyes.’”
Starr’s composure and leadership rubbed off in a profound way to his teammates.
“He was just like he always was,” Dowler said. “He got in the huddle and looked up and says, ‘We got to take the ball down the field and score. So, we’re going to take the ball down the field and score.’”
But the Cowboy’s Doomsday Defense, which finished with eight sacks in the game, wasn’t going to back down.
“They were going to have a difficult time doing it because we had a really good defense,” said Reeves, who played or coached in an NFL record nine Super Bowls.
“The thing that you have to realize is that the receivers certainly have an advantage over the defensive backs because they know where they’re going whereas the defensive backs make their move after the route is run.”
The Packers methodically marched down the field with Anderson picking up three receptions out of the backfield for 27 yards. Mercein followed with a 19-yard catch and 8-yard run to get the Packers down to the 2. After back-to-back Anderson runs with under 30 seconds remaining, Starr’s 1-yard plunge will forever be etched in Packers’ lore.
That game-winning touchdown doesn’t happen if the Packers don’t execute a well-managed drive.
“Bart is the essence of leadership in a difficult time,” Kramer said. “Your life is on the line, your reputation is on the line, your third consecutive title, so much is on the line and Bart is so cool. He was so matter-of-fact, not excited – he’s not jumping out of his drawers.”
“The drive down there, Bart just made some really good throws and their backs made some really good runs,” Reeves said.
It’s been 50 years since the drive, but it’s permanently trapped inside Kramer’s mind.
“It was probably one of the proudest moments of my career as a football player to be a part of that drive, to be a part of that explosion of emotion,” Kramer said.
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.