Rodgers’ Starr Moment
GREEN BAY, Wisc. — History can be hard to live up to, especially in the land of the Cheeseheads.
Take the weather. All week long the temperature for Sunday’s game was expected to be in the 20s. But the Packers hosting the Cowboys in the playoffs has always meant something very different here. “Keep in mind,” Green Bay’s team historian, Cliff Christl, warned last Friday morning, “the day before the Ice Bowl was 20 degrees, and starting just around midnight, within nine hours, the temperature plummeted 30 degrees in 1967.”
Billed as Ice Bowl 2, this weekend’s kickoff temperature was 24 degrees—below freezing but downright balmy compared to the last Packers-Cowboys playoff game (-15) at Lambeau Field. But the drama on the field did its best imitation of the past.
Back then it was Bart Starr’s surprise quarterback sneak that secured a 21-17 victory with seconds remaining; on Sunday it was Aaron Rodgers’ stunning touchdown pass, the ball somehow slipping through an imperceptible window to put Green Bay up for good in the fourth quarter. Back then players struggled to move because of a “frozen tundra” playing surface that was worse than expected; on Sunday Rodgers struggled to move because of a left calf injury that was worse than expected. Both games even had a controversial call (or no-call) near the goal line—guard Jerry Kramer’s alleged offside on Starr’s winning touchdown plunge, and Dez Bryant’s overturned catch with less than five minutes remaining.
The Cowboys had a chance to serve a helping of revenge ice-cold, but the Packers punched their ticket to the NFC Championship Game with a 26-21 victory, giving a generation of Green Bay fans a new story to tell: I was there the day Aaron Rodgers played on virtually one leg and rallied to take down the Cowboys. He’s won a Super Bowl and been a Super Bowl MVP, as well as a league MVP, but Rodgers added to his lore on Sunday. Hobbling around the field in clear pain, he threw for 316 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. How will fans in Titletown recall his performance decades on? You have to understand just how deep the Packers run in this city, where the past is always intertwining with the present, especially on playoff weekends in January.
Saturday 12:24 p.m. | Outagamie County Regional Airport
Donny Anderson, the Packers’ jack-of-all-trades running back in 1967, landed in Appleton earlier in the week, and Ice Bowl memories hit him in the face, almost literally. It was three degrees, with blasts of wind. “How in the world did we play in this weather?” he asked himself. On the eve of this year’s game, the temperature started climbing back into the teens, but recollections of the Ice Bowl were impossible to miss. Overheard in the rental car line, where, by the way, four-wheel-drive vehicles were sold out: “… Jethro Pugh … How do you think they got any footing on that play?” Forty-seven years later, the legend of Packers guard Kramer blocking Cowboys defensive tackle Pugh while Starr snuck in for the winning touchdown with 16 seconds left is spoken of as if it happened yesterday.
Saturday 4:03 p.m. | Tundra Tailgate Zone
Christopher Handler, a 59-year-old handyman from Bellevue, is known as the Packer Fence Painter, because every year he paints a message on a fence on Lombardi Avenue across from Lambeau Field. (This year: “Canton Open Your Door for No. 64,” a campaign to get Kramer into the Hall of Fame.) Handler is at a tailgate for the Packers’ evening pep rally—yes, they do that here—and he has a confession to make, which also happens to involve a fence.
“I hopped the fence at the Ice Bowl,” he says.
Handler was 11 then, living on South Maple Avenue on the west end of town, and he and his best friend used to run over to the stadium at halftime, wait until the ushers turned their backs, and jumped the old cyclone fence. He says he did it on Dec. 31, 1967, and rushed the field with everyone else afterward. “I remember the feeling of, ‘I’m on Lambeau Field,’ ” he says.
Here’s the thing about Ice Bowl stories: Unless you kept a ticket stub, or have pictures, there’s no way to prove they’re true. But then again, that’s part of the game’s mystique. Lambeau Field sat 50,000 back then, and Green Bay’s population was around 80,000, so, Christl reasons, “When people say they were at the Ice Bowl, they probably were, because somebody was filling those seats.”
Saturday 6:11 p.m. | Lambeau Field, Oneida Nation Gate
It’s 12 degrees at the outdoors pep rally. Packers CEO Mark Murphy takes the stage and assures fans that Rodgers’ calf is just fine. “Aaron Rodgers on one leg,” Murphy says, “is better than most quarterbacks on two.”
“GO PACK GO!” the crowd yells back. Next up, five Ice Bowl alums—Anderson, Kramer, Chuck Mercein, Boyd Dowler and Dave Robinson—share vivid memories of the game. Like Robinson’s defying Vince Lombardi’s directive to not wear brown cotton gloves, figuring the coach would never notice them against his dark skin. Or Cowboys receiver Bob Hayes inadvertently tipping off plays by keeping his hands inside his pants when he wasn’t the intended receiver. Given the conditions and the difficulty the Packers had in moving the ball since going up 14-0 in the second quarter (Starr would be sacked eight times for 76 yards that day), Kramer said to his quarterback, “What possessed you to think you could go 68 yards?” That final drive, Kramer says now, "personified our team, and our Green Bay Packers franchise.”
Saturday 7:46 p.m. | Union Hotel
The man behind the bar, wearing a Green Bay Packers tie, is the fourth-generation co-owner of this hotel and supper club in nearby DePere. Since McKim Boyd’s great grandfather opened the place in 1918, one year before the Packers were born, all of the team’s head coaches have eaten here. Tonight, Boyd is entertaining Dan Fouts, who is announcing the game for Westwood One; Pepper Burruss, the Packers’ head athletic trainer, and Tom Bakken, the assistant equipment manager, are eating at a corner table; and head equipment manager Red Batty has a private room for eight reserved upstairs. Former Packers CEO Bob Harlan is rushing from the airport to arrive before the final seating at 9 p.m.
Places like the Union Hotel are part of Green Bay’s charm. Last month, Aaron Rodgers sat upstairs with A.J. Hawk for dinner. When they left the building, heads turned. And it’s just the place where, on the eve of Ice Bowl 2, original Ice Bowl stories are being swapped. Boyd doesn’t have one—he was 10 at the time, and his mother wouldn’t let him go because it was too cold—but he’s listening to two patrons at the bar recall the legendary day.
Jack Melotte, 79, from nearby Bellevue, is finishing his 32nd anniversary dinner (chopped sirloin, the same dish Mike Holmgren used to order). When Jack got out of the Marine Corps in 1956, one of the first things he did was get Packers season tickets. Eleven years later, he was in the northeast curve of Lambeau Field for the Ice Bowl. The woman who sat next to him arrived in high-heeled shoes, a skirt, a short jacket and a cap, so he offered to let her use the sleeping bag he’d brought. “She was just shaking,” he says. “I know she didn’t see the second half.”
Two seats over is Joy Martin, from DePere, who went with her dad while home on break from college. She was 19. Back then nobody wore team apparel—just the warmest coat and boots you had, and two pairs of socks and pants. They even brought cardboard to put underneath their feet. She watched the goalposts come down from seats that she’s since passed down to her two children, but she didn’t have an inkling of how indelible the moment would become.
“We never kept our ticket stubs,” she laments. “Can you imagine what they would be worth today? Nobody thought to do it. Or buy a program? No, what would we need that for?”
Saturday 10:01 p.m. | Nicky’s Lionhead Tavern
“Every team has a watering hole,” former quarterback Lynn Dickey says, and this was the Packers’. The pub in downtown DePere, owned by Tom and John Nick, is up the street from St. Norbert College, where Green Bay used to hold training camp. In the 1980s, it became a favorite post-practice hangout for Dickey and his teammates.
Dickey, who was under center from 1976 to 1985, is back in town partly for business and partly because, well, “it’s been since 1967 since the Packers and Cowboys have played in Lambeau in the playoffs, and I don’t want to miss this.” Dickey was traded to Green Bay nine years after the Ice Bowl, but he’s seen footage of that final drive “maybe 1,000 times.” He knows everything that happened: Starr calling the final timeout to confer with Lombardi, and Starr asking Kramer if he could get leverage against Pugh, and then Starr suggesting that they run the “31 Wedge” play as a QB keeper.
Earlier in the day, Bart Starr’s son, Bart Jr., stopped by Nicky’s and heard Dickey tell the same story. When he got to the last part—about how Starr kept the ball on “31 Wedge” without most of his teammates knowing that was the plan—Bart Jr. looked up and said, “I never heard that part before.” Bart Starr, as humble as they come, has always left the story for others to tell.
Dickey wore No. 12, the same as Rodgers, who earned Dickey’s respect very quickly. “Ever since he took over, it didn’t take long for me to figure out he is the best quarterback in the game,” Dickey says. “He can do everything—he’s accurate, he has a strong arm, he’s really sharp and he can run. All four factors, he’s got ’em all, and no one in the league can do it as well.”
Dickey is here with a group of guys who help run the Packers’ NFL alumni chapter. One of them is Denny Euers, a 72-year-old fan who as a kid lived on the same street as Paul Hornung. Euers was at the Ice Bowl and swears it was so cold that he and a buddy drank a fifth of brandy but still left the game stone-cold sober. Of the impending Packers-Cowboys rematch, Euers said, “This game tomorrow is going to be a classic. The drama is there: The quarterback is hurt; America’s Team is back again. Win or lose, I think people will remember this game.”
Sunday 10:29 a.m. | Lambeau Field parking lot
John Brosig hasn’t missed a Packers home game in 54 years, which means he was at the Ice Bowl. But just in case you don’t believe him, he’s got the Packers’ bench to prove it. Yes, that’s right: A piece of the bench that players sat on during the game is on display at his tailgate, and it’s no secret. On top sits a big yellow sign: “Ice Bowl Packer Bench.”
“At the time you could storm the field,” says Brosig, 70, a retired teacher who now grows produce as a hobby in Pound, Wisc., population 373. “My brother-in-law and I were looking for a souvenir, so I said, ‘Why don’t we take the Packers bench?’ But, I said, on one condition: if any security officer stops us, I’ll put it back, so I don’t go to jail on New Year’s Eve. We had to jump back into the stands, and we’re going through an exit chute, and there’s an officer there. I told Wayne, ‘Be ready to give up the bench.’ The officer looked at us and said, ‘Happy New Year.’ ”
As Brosig finishes the story, one of his three nephews hands him a beer in a glass mug. He takes a sip, and then tells one more story.
“In those days,” Brosig says, “you could carry in liquor. So I had a goatskin flask, and I used to fill it with brandy and peppermint schnapps. When we rushed the field, someone squeezed my chest, and you know what happened? He said, ‘It’s raining, and it tastes like liquor!’ ”
Sunday 11:03 a.m. | Blue Ridge Road, third house on the left
This is one of those “only in Green Bay” things. For $20, you can buy a parking spot at a house roughly a Hail Mary pass away from Lambeau Field. And the homeowners just invite you inside. They have a tailgate in the garage, and an open bar, and they let all the fans parking there use the downstairs and upstairs bathrooms.
Dennis Behnke’s mom, Gertrude, parked on one of these side streets by the stadium for the original Ice Bowl. She and her husband started attending games in 1948. Twenty-eight years ago, they passed their seats on to Dennis and his wife, Julie. Corey Behnke, one of the co-founders of Packers fan website Cheesehead TV, inherited his tickets from his grandfather, Gertrude’s brother-in-law.
Section 116, row 5, seats 1 and 2 is where Gert and Kenneth Behnke sat during the Ice Bowl, using a stack of Green Bay Press-Gazette papers to keep their feet warm. “I looked like Phyllis Diller—do you know who that is?” Gert Behnke asked earlier in the week. “She was a comedian, like a Joan Rivers type. She’s dead now, poor Phyllis. But I had this crazy cap on, something like she would wear. It was all fuzzy, a gray fur thing. We didn’t go to the games for looks, that’s for sure. You went to stay warm, and cheer.”
Dennis, who is wearing boots guaranteed to insulate even in minus-40 degree weather, learned a thing or two from his mom. Gert turns 90 today. She doesn’t attend games anymore; she watches on TV from her home in Brillion, Wisc., and she religiously calls one grandchild at halftime and another at the two-minute warning.
Gert wasn’t nervous this week, nor was she nervous during the Ice Bowl, even when the Packers trailed late in the fourth quarter. “No, no, no. Uh-uh. No, no,” she said. “I thought, This is going to be another win for the Packers. You kind of get the feeling that the Packers are going to win, and they did. The same will happen Sunday, I think.”
Sunday 12:14 p.m. | Lambeau Field end zone
There’s a first sign that Rodgers’ calf might be a problem. The Packers drive down the field on their first possession and take a 7-0 lead, but something isn’t right on the touchdown play. It’s third-and-goal from the 4-yard line, and Rodgers starts to burst forward. Normally he’d run it in. Today, that isn’t an option. “The pain in my calf,” he says later, “helped make that decision very easy.” Tight end Andrew Quarless flashes into view in the back of the end zone, and Rodgers fires him the ball. Afterward, Rodgers hops awkwardly on his right leg, his left calf apparently too tender.
Over the next three quarters, as the Cowboys take the lead, Rodgers’ pain is visible to the 79,704 in attendance (a Lambeau record). Once, he wobbles on the left leg as he leans forward to take the snap. Robbed of the mobility that allows him to extend plays, he sometimes freezes in the face of pressure, as he did on a second-quarter fumble upon being engulfed by defensive end Jeremy Mincey. Right before halftime, after a 31-yard throw to Randall Cobb gets the Packers into field goal range, he’s not even able to run up the field to the line of scrimmage. He half-skips, half-limps.
Sunday 2:46 p.m. | Lambeau Field, the Cowboys’ 13-yard line
This is Rodgers’ Bart Starr moment. He calls timeout. Head coach Mike McCarthy walks out to confer, going all the way out to the numbers on the field. Rodgers is playing better in the second half, connecting on shorter throws to establish a rhythm (seven straight). He’s also realized, counterintuitively, that he has less pain moving to his left than to his right in the pocket. He uses that now. To his left, tight end Andrew Quarless makes a signal, but his route doesn’t match his signal, so Rodgers looks away. To his right, Cobb is in the flat, but the cornerback is sitting on his route. Too risky. As the pressure closes in, Rodgers takes three gingerly steps to the left, plants, and makes a throw that seems crazy.
On another day, with a healthy left calf, Rodgers tucks the ball and runs into the several yards of open field in front of him. But today, the one-legged quarterback’s best bet is a tiny window in the back of the end zone. “It looked kind of big when I threw it,” Rodgers said, but it closes fast. Rookie tight end Richard Rodgers is bracketed by two converging defenders, cornerback Sterling Moore and safety J.J. Wilcox. When Rodgers threads the proverbial needle—throwing high and splitting the defenders—you’re convinced that CEO Mark Murphy was right. Rodgers on one leg is better than most quarterbacks on two. The Packers take a five-point lead with 9:10 to play.
Sunday 2:57 p.m. | Lambeau Field, near the Packers’ goal line
Referee Gene Steratore begins his announcement, “After review, it has been determined that the receiver did not maintain…” The roar of the crowd drowns him out, but they don’t need to hear anything more. Dez Bryant’s acrobatic catch that threatened to end the Packers’ season is ruled an incomplete pass.
It was a gutsy throw by Tony Romo on fourth-and-2. But when Bryant (6-2, 220) goes one-on-one against Sam Shields (5-11, 184 pounds) down the left sideline, you take that matchup. Bryant leaped over Shields, grabbed the ball with both hands and took two if not three steps as his momentum carried him forward. What happened in the next split second, as Bryant tumbled to the ground and attempted to keep control of the ball, will be debated for ages just like Kramer’s block on Jethro Pugh in the Ice Bowl. Did Kramer move too early? Did Bryant catch the ball? The answers depend on whom you root for.
With 4:06 to play, the ball goes back to Green Bay. With a few Eddie Lacy runs, and a lucky bounce on a third-and-11 pass that is deflected by a defender right to Cobb, the Packers bleed out the clock before lining up in victory formation.
Sunday 3:29 p.m. | Visitors’ locker room
“F---!” That’s the scream coming from inside the shower stalls, minutes after the Cowboys walk off the field. Former Dallas halfback Dan Reeves remembers the Ice Bowl locker room being saturated with disappointment. Today, it’s agony and confusion.
“I want to know,” Bryant asks repeatedly, “why it wasn’t a catch?”
The Packers and Cowboys aren’t natural rivals. But this was as intense as the Lombardi-Landry days. Same outcome, too. “This is really, seriously,” owner Jerry Jones says, “one of the more disappointing times I’ve had.”
Sunday 3:51 p.m. | Packers’ locker room
There’s a wood-carved “RELAX” sign in the training room, a nod to Rodgers’ telling Packers fans to “R-E-L-A-X” after the team’s 1-2 start this season. What’s followed has been an MVP-worthy campaign. “I think I’ve got 120 minutes left in me,” Rodgers says, a resolve to lead his team through the Super Bowl.
That darn left calf could be both Rodgers’ greatest weakness, and the richest part of his legacy. The same one-legged quarterback won his team the NFC North title in Week 17, with a 30-20 win over the Lions, and he took the Packers to the NFC Championship Game by winning a hyped showdown that had all the drama of the original Ice Bowl.
“I wouldn’t want to disrespect the guys who played back then—they’re the ones who kind of built this place—but this was something special,” says linebacker A.J. Hawk, one of Rodgers’ closest friends on the team. “Especially how Aaron is playing through pain like that. It makes it a pretty big story, a pretty big deal.
“You know, watching what he did in Week 17, when he looked like he got shot basically, and not only does he come back and play, but he played really well—that should be an inspiration to everybody on this team. I think what he’s doing should trickle down to everyone. I think it will last for years and years here in this locker room.”
At the Union Hotel, it’s already a part of everyone’s dinner conversation.
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