Frigid temperatures are typical of National Football League playoff games, but never have football fans and players shivered so much as on January 10, 1982, when the Cincinnati Bengals hosted the San Diego Chargers in the game. AFC Championship. With a launch temperature of nine degrees below zero and a wind chill of minus 59 degrees, what would be dubbed the “Freezer Bowl” was the coldest game in NFL history.
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Despite blazing sunshine, Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati was cooler than the inside of a meat locker. For Bengals coach Forrest Gregg, the frigid conditions sparked memories of the 1967 NFL Championship game, the legendary Ice Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys, in which he played the right tackle for the Green Bay Packers from Vince Lombardi. At minus 13 degrees, the mercury had been lower for that game, but the minus 48 wind chill was not as severe as that of his Bengals. “I was as cold today as ever,” the Ice Bowl veteran later told media.
The same goes for the Chargers. Not only were they from temperate San Diego, but a week earlier in Miami, they had won an epic overtime game in 84-degree heat that had players dehydrated. For them, the concrete bowl at Riverfront Stadium was 140 degrees cooler.
In the locker room, players donned tights and layered Saran Wrap between pairs of socks for better insulation. Unlike their opponents, Cincinnati’s offensive and defensive linemen have chosen not to put on long sleeves.
“The Chargers were from the West Coast so I thought I would use the cold to our advantage and get them a little bit excited,” guard Dave Lapham recalled. “The San Diego players were all bundled up in socks under their face masks, balaclavas and hand warmers. The officials said you could put petroleum jelly on any exposed skin, so we loaded our arms. It was an advantage when the defenders tried to hit you and grab your arms.
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Before entering the field, Gregg told his team to forget about the cold. “It’s like going to the dentist, you’re going to have to endure pain, but you have to go there.” In the stands, fans went numb as if they had received an injection of Novocain. With gloves on their hands and scarves over their mouths, the crowd let out a muffled roar as the home team entered the pitch.
Thirteen thousand fans, some undoubtedly attacked by dead car batteries, stayed home and watched TV instead of watching the game at the 60,000-seat Riverfront Stadium. For Bengals fans shivering in their seats, suffering the coldest day on record in Cincinnati was nowhere near as painful as the 4 to 12 seasons they were forced to endure in 1978 and 1979. ” Those fans were sure to see their team play for a spot in their first Super Bowl.
Revenue-plagued chargers struggle in the freezer bowl
Despite the freezing temperatures, the Bengals started out hot. Recalling how both teams had managed to kick football into the Ice Bowl, Gregg allowed his 11-year-old veteran quarterback Ken Anderson with a pair of gimpy knees to pass. The Bengals ran for 51 yards with a field goal to take a 3-0 lead. After the Chargers missed the ensuing kickoff, Anderson threw a touchdown pass to tight end ML Harris, who caught the ball in the same brown leather winter gloves he wore in the Stadium.
On the sidelines, coffee distributors joined the Gatorade buckets. The players were seated on benches powered by 150,000 BTU propane that had been shipped from Philadelphia and huddled around more than a dozen kerosene heaters on the sidelines.
During the timeouts, some of the referees got a little too hot in front of the radiators. “Do you smell something burnt?” someone asked Judge Jim Poole. The ref looked at his smoking shirt and realized that it was him.
The frozen pork skin was as slippery as a greased pork and hard as a rock. After a paltry 27-yard kick, San Diego punter George Roberts came back on the sidelines and muttered, “It’s like kicking a cinder block.”
A 36-yard field goal attempt by Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke didn’t even hit the studs. The stadium’s ruthless artificial turf, which even in hot weather offered the thin comfort of a carpet on a concrete floor, was frozen to make players feel like they were tackled in a parking lot.
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Like steam from a locomotive, the white plumes of breath emanating from under the players’ helmets as they raced across the field obscured their vision. “When you were going to catch the ball,” Cincinnati wide receiver Cris Collinsworth told the doctor after the game, “your breath would rise and form a smoke screen in front of your face.”
The Chargers responded to Cincinnati’s initial lead with a 33-yard touchdown from Kellen Winslow, but a 40-yard kickoff return set up a Bengals touchdown that gave Cincinnati a 17- lead. 7. Two successive practices in the Cincinnati territory ended with San Diego Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts throwing interceptions, one of which occurred in the end zone.
Cincinnati Bengals clinch first Super Bowl spot
After a brief thaw at halftime, the Chargers remained cold in the second half. After running back Chuck Muncie missed the team’s first try, the Bengals took advantage of the turnover with a field goal.
The freezing cold and strong Cincinnati defense grounded San Diego’s top-flight offense. As ice crystals formed on the Chargers quarterback’s beard, Fouts watched the 35-mile-per-hour gusts of wind float his passes like butterflies.
A fourth quarter touchdown from Anderson to tight end Don Bass sealed Cincinnati’s 27-7 victory and his maiden Super Bowl trip.
Anderson, who will receive NFL MVP and Returning Player of the Year honors for the 1981 season, completed 14 of 22 passes for 161 yards and was the team’s second-best rusher. “You would have thought it was a spring afternoon,” Collinsworth recalls of Anderson’s play. “It was one of the greatest performances by a quarterback in NFL history.”
As Cincinnati celebrated the victory, another of the NFL’s biggest games took place in the warmer climates of northern California as the San Francisco 49ers beat the Dallas Cowboys when tight end Dwight Clark took off. did “The Catch” in the closing seconds of the NFC Championship game.
The weather played no role two weeks later when the Bengals lost to the 49ers inside the air-conditioned Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan. Although the loss of Super Bowl XVI stung Bengals fans, their hearts would forever be warmed by the thought of their team’s Freezer Bowl triumph.
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