In the long history of sneezes, the most disastrous, surely, was the one loosed on Dec. 31, 1967, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.,. from the crystallized nostrils of a long-forgotten Green Bay Packer lineman named Jerry Kramer.
On that frigid afternoon, in what has ever since been known as the Ice Bowl, the Packers fought their way back up the field against the Dallas Cowboys, through a bone-numbing windchill of 46 below. Trailing 17-14 with only 16 seconds left, the Pack had reached the goal line and, facing third down, needed a foot to win the 1967 NFL title and a berth in the second-ever Super Bowl.
Who can forget the scene? The sportswriters in the press box, trying to scrape the ice off the windows to see the play; the steaming breath of the linemen as they awaited the snap; quarterback Bart Starr of the Packers approaching the line, ready to bark the signal that would begin the play that would end the game one calamitous way or another; the unmistakable look on the granite face of Green Bay head coach Vince Lombardi—scared.
Normally as conservative as a preacher, Lombardi risked it all on this play. A touchdown at this moment would win the game, a field goal would tie, but there wasn't time to try both. Remarkably, Lombardi elected to try for the win, even though on first and second downs from the Dallas one, Green Bay halfback Donny Anderson had slipped for no gain.
October 27, 1992
Starr knew that the Packers' only chance was for him to carry the ball. "Can you get your footing for a wedge play?" he asked Kramer, his right guard. "Hell, yes," said Kramer through numb lips.
Kramer's job was to push the Cowboys' monster left tackle, Jethro Pugh, to the side just long enough for Starr to sneak through. But as Kramer stepped to the line, his socks frozen solid around his toes, he felt the slightest tickle in his nose. He wasn't sure, but he thought he felt a sneeze coming on. As he started to take his three-point stance, he thought it had gone away, but as Starr yelled "Set!" the tickle came back stronger. Kramer tried to remember the old bromide: Look at the sun to make a sneeze go away. Or was that to make you sneeze more quickly?
Just as Starr was about to say "Hut," it hit him. Kramer closed his eyes and unleashed a whopper. In that microbyte of a moment, the ball was snapped; Pugh slid inside Kramer and clobbered Starr at the one. The clock ran out. All glory and honor belonged to Dallas. All Kleenex sent mockingly through the mail would soon belong to Kramer.
More than any other, that one sneeze changed the fates of many men. For one thing, it changed television. The play was shown over and over and over again in slow motion—Kramer's nostrils erupting in a steamy blast as Pugh sneaked past—making slo-mo instant replay a fixture in network broadcasts.
Lombardi's career was forever altered. Though he'd won four NFL titles going into that game, Green Bay fans were spoiled. They rode him mercilessly for not going for the tie in the Ice Bowl and giving his cold-weather Packers a chance to win in overtime. Packer management soon decided to rebuild, and handed the project to a then-unheard-of assistant coach named Phil Bengston. Given a few years' honeymoon after the rancorous departure of Lombardi, Bengston, of course, led the Packers to five Super Bowl titles, making him, in many minds, the greatest coach in NFL history.
It was that sneeze that made Pugh a star too. An 11th-round draft choice from tiny Elizabeth City State, he became a household name in America and was besieged with offers. He wrote his classic sports book, Bless You, Jerry Kramer, with Dick Schaap. For years thereafter, his legions of fans packed the section of Texas Stadium known as Jethro's Pews, each fan wearing a blue-and-white clothespin on his nose in honor of his hero's last name; Pugh's fame eventually landed him his starring role in the long-running NBC hit Me and My Jethro.
Dallas's victory that day proved, of course, to be Pyrrhic. Though a few of those Cowboys were able to turn that great triumph into postfootball careers—notably Senator Lance Rentzel—the team drooped. The Cowboys looked miserable in losing that Super Bowl II to the Oakland Raiders and didn't see the playoffs again for many years. By 1990, when the club moved to Jacksonville, the Cowboys had not even sniffed another Super Bowl.
As for poor Jerry Kramer, he never lived down his infamous sneeze. Signs were planted in front of his house (KRAMER NEEDS TO BLOW), and six months later the Packers traded him to Baltimore. He lasted only two more years in the league and was virtually invisible except for a series of TV ads for Contac cold capsules. "If I had known about Contac," Kramer said in the commercials, "I might be in the Hall of Fame today."
The last anybody saw of Kramer, he was living in a motel on the outskirts of Atlanta. The day he disappeared, he left only one clue, the beginnings of an autobiography. He had gotten only as far as the title: Nobody Nose the Trouble I've Seen.