Dan Reeves Remembers the Ice Bowl—Every Single Day of His Life
It seems impossible that the Packers and the Cowboys haven’t met in the playoffs at Lambeau Field since New Year’s Eve 1967. None of the players in this weekend’s rematch of sorts were alive then, and neither of the head coaches was old enough to have any memory of what he was doing at the time.
But those who played in the Ice Bowl, the coldest title game in the history of the NFL, can almost feel the chill all these years later. Cowboys halfback Dan Reeves, whose 50-yard touchdown pass to teammate Lance Rentzel was the longest play that afternoon, has more than just memories—he sees an Ice Bowl souvenir every morning when he shaves (more on that in a bit). The Packers’ subzero 21-17 win over the Cowboys, secured on a last-second quarterback sneak by Bart Starr, is considered one of the greatest NFL games of all time.
The forecast for this week’s game calls for a high of roughly 20 degrees, downright balmy by comparison. With history front and center in advance of the so-called Ice Bowl 2, we asked Reeves to share his memories of that unforgettable NFL Sunday.
VRENTAS: Is there any way to describe how cold it was that day?
REEVES: I don’t know that you can describe it. Probably the best way that people can relate is that the day before, on Saturday, it was 15 degrees, and the next morning it was minus-17. That’s 32 degrees, or like going from 70 degrees to 102. You can tell the difference. I thought when it got to 32 degrees and ice froze, you couldn’t get any colder. But you can feel every degree of it. Walt Garrison and I roomed together, and we were in Appleton, Wisc., at a Holiday Inn. Fifteen degrees the day before, when we worked out, was beautiful. We worked up a sweat, the field was in great condition, and that was the forecast for the next day. Walt and I got up the next morning, put on a coat and tie to go to pre-game meal, walked outside and said, ‘Dang, it’s cold. We better get our overcoat.’ Walked back in and got our overcoat, put it on. We started walking, then we started jogging, then we sprinted into the restaurant and said, ‘Dang, it’s cold out there.’ The lady said, ‘Well it ought to be, it’s 17 below zero.’ It’s hard to express, explain or tell people how cold that is.
VRENTAS: Did you ever wonder if the game wouldn’t be played on account of the weather?
REEVES: I’m sure the higher-ups might have, but from a player’s standpoint, we were just trying to do everything we could to get ready and stay warm. We didn’t have the equipment that they have now to get ready for it, so it was just trying to get ready for the game and try to prepare for it.
VRENTAS: What equipment did you have?
REEVES: We had brown cotton gloves, but Coach Landry said anybody who could possibly touch the ball could not wear the gloves. And that was the only thing you had. Of course, you couldn’t handle the football with cotton gloves on, anyway. You just had long-sleeve shirts you could wear, and insulated underwear. We had some people in the locker room who were from Green Bay, and they told us to put saran wrap on our feet and then put our socks on. We did that, and that would kind of help, until you made a move or cut and all of a sudden, you’d have a hole in the saran wrap and you’d feel the cold air come in. There wasn’t anything to really combat the cold weather. I held for field goals and extra points, and when we went out to warm up before the game, we weren’t out there very long. You just felt like you were catching a brick. The ball was so hard. It was just very difficult to field the ball.
VRENTAS: The frozen playing surface that day is believed to have spawned the “Frozen Tundra” moniker for Lambeau Field. What was it like to run and be tackled on the Frozen Tundra?
REEVES: You could hardly stand up. It was just very difficult to keep your footing. If you look at the last drive, where they drove down, we had several plays where our linebackers were covering running backs out of the backfield and slipped down. I know we changed defensively. We were planning on playing man coverage and we played a lot of zone. The offense had an advantage; they knew what route they were going to run and could kind of gather themselves. Defensively, it was very difficult backpedaling and then trying to cover somebody, so our guys slipped down several times on that last drive.
I ran one play, a sweep around the right end, and went to cut back, and I slipped and fell on the ground. My feet just slipped out from right under me. Nobody had hit me, so I started to get up and went to spin to my right, and when I did, I met [defensive tackle] Ron Kostelnik face to face. When I got up, my face mask was gone. I took my hand to my face to feel if any teeth were missing or anything, and there was no blood. So I took my tongue to try to feel and see if my teeth were alright, and I couldn’t get my tongue between my teeth and my upper lip. I had gotten a tooth knocked through my upper lip and it didn’t bleed. Have you ever had your lip busted where it wouldn’t bleed? That’s cold. I had to get my face mask fixed, and when I went over to the sideline and got in front of the heater, of course it started bleeding. I still have a scar where that tooth went through my upper lip that I can look at every day when I shave, and I don’t have any feeling there. So I’ve got a memory of the Ice Bowl every day. You know, the official, Norm Schachter, blew the whistle to start the game and when he pulled it off, it peeled his skin off.
VRENTAS: Early in the fourth quarter, you gave the Cowboys the lead with a 50-yard touchdown pass to Lance Rentzel. How were you able to make the throw with that brick of a football?
REEVES: First of all, I was very fortunate that was the first play of the fourth quarter. We were in the huddle out on the field, and of course it was cold, and [quarterback] Don Meredith told me he was going to call that play. So I took my hands and put them down in my pants as far as I could and kept them there to try to keep them warm. When we got out of the huddle and went to the line of scrimmage, we shifted from an I-formation to a split backfield, and I still had my hands in my pants trying to keep them warm. I kept them there as long as I could. So I had a little bit of feeling in my hands, and I could field the ball. If it had been later in the game, and I had not had the chance to warm my hands by putting them down in my pants like that, I don’t know if I could have thrown it.
VRENTAS: It ended up being one of the big plays of the game.
REEVES: It was so wide open. Both the safety and the corner came up on the play, and that’s the reason we had it in there. We didn’t feel like they would expect us to throw it going to my left, and it was wide open. Lance was wide open. It would have been kind of embarrassing if I hadn’t gotten it to him, so I was glad that it was completed.
VRENTAS: What were you thinking when you saw the Packers send Bart Starr in on the quarterback sneak?
REEVES: It was a gutsy call, because they didn’t have any timeouts left, and they were down by three. At least me personally, I said they are not going to take a chance on a run because they wouldn’t have enough time to get the field-goal unit out there if they didn’t score. We thought it might be a play-action, or Bart rolling out, seeing if it was there. And if it was there, throwing it; if not, throwing it away and kicking the field goal to tie. It was a gutsy call and really smart on Bart’s part. The play was really designed to hand off to the fullback, but they called it and the fullback was expecting to get the ball, and Bart just kept it and ran where the fullback was supposed to run. A very smart play on Bart Starr’s part.
VRENTAS: Once and for all, was Packers guard Jerry Kramer offside on the winning touchdown?
REEVES: I think if you talk to any Cowboy, he was offside. And if you talk to any Green Bay Packer, he wasn’t. [Former Packers player] Donny Anderson, he lives in Dallas, and last year he had a reunion of 10 players from both sides, and that was brought up. The Cowboys players, in particular our defensive players, said, ‘Oh yeah, he was offside,’ and all the guys on Green Bay’s offense, said, ‘No, no, he wasn’t.’ So I think that’s the way it would be: Green Bay says no, and Cowboy fans would say yes. I never have seen a replay where you can slow it down to see. If he did, it was barely. [Defensive tackle] Jethro Pugh was in front of him, and he said he moved early. Jethro, by the way, just passed away [on Wednesday]. Seventy years old. We’ve lost quite a few of our players, so it goes to show you how life is short and it goes by awful fast.
VRENTAS: What was the rivalry between Tom Landry’s Cowboys and Vince Lombardi’s Packers like?
REEVES: We had lost to them the year before, 34-27, when we had first-and-goal on the 2-yard line, and didn’t get it in at the end of the game. It could have tied the game. They went to Super Bowl I, and the next year, we were big rivals again and always played each other, even in preseason. You did your own scheduling back then, and Coach Landry and Coach Lombardi had been on the same staff in New York; they were good friends, so we always played in the preseason. They were a good football team, we were a good football team, and that’s where rivalries come from, when you have two good teams that are very competitive. And Coach Landry and Coach Lombardi were both very competitive.
VRENTAS: After playing in harsh conditions, and after losing in the final seconds, what was the postgame locker room like?
REEVES: It was very disappointing. We had the lead in the fourth quarter, and then to lose it right it at the end of the game, it was very disappointing. We had been disappointed the year before, felt like we should have scored to tie the game the year before. We lost two close ball games for the right to go to the first and second Super Bowls, so it was very disappointing.
VRENTAS: Will you watch Ice Bowl 2—or whatever you’d call it?
REEVES: Definitely. I am still a big fan and got DirecTV during the season, and I watch a lot of games. Definitely I will be watching. Green Bay is a heckuva football team, and [Aaron] Rodgers is having a great year. Their defense has really stepped up and is playing well. Dallas has a chance if [DeMarco] Murray has a good day running the football—that sets up the ability for [Tony] Romo to throw it when he wants to, and if they don’t turn it over. It’s like most games you go into when you have two great teams: The team that’s able to run the football and not turn it over is going to have the best chance to win.
VRENTAS: Where does the Ice Bowl rank among the greatest games in NFL history?
REEVES: I don’t know about the greatest game of all time, but I know this: I’m fortunate enough to have been in nine Super Bowls, either as a player or as a coach. That means I’ve been in an awful lot of championship games, like those two games with Green Bay. “The Drive” from when I was in Denver, and “The Fumble” the next year, and when I was in Atlanta, winning in overtime against Minnesota. But the one that people talk about is the Ice Bowl, and I think it’s because of the elements, the weather and everything. People love the toughness of playing outdoors in tough weather. And then the game was close, decided right at the end. There are a lot of playoff games that I’ve played in and Super Bowls that were one-sided, and no one talks about one-sided games. They like the close games that are decided right at the end. So from that standpoint, the weather and the closeness of the game, that was one of the great games of all time.
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