Playing football in frigid Foxborough, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh this week won't be quite as miserable as playing in the Ice Bowl 37 years ago in Green Bay, where a desperate Frank Gifford asked fellow broadcaster Jack Buck, "Can I have a bite of your coffee?"
The low that day was -13°. And if the thermometer had been an inch longer, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the Packers and the Cowboys would have frozen to death. For the NFL it was a meteorological and technological Ice Age.
Players will never again be that cold. Today the Packers' bench can be heated to 185°. (And you thought Mike Holmgren was on the hot seat.) Says Green Bay equipment manager Red Batty, "You could fry an egg on there," though not even the most die-hard Cheesehead would want to eat it. What's more, there are turbo heaters--those fans you see on the sidelines--which work much the way Bill Parcells does, blowing hot air directly onto players.
As various Vikings fans were taking their heads out of ovens on Sunday, Packers quarterback Brett Favre was--after every series--able to put his helmet in one. It's a two-foot-by-two-foot heated box, much like my first apartment in Manhattan.
Even so, the best defense against bitter cold remains denial. "You have to trick your mind into thinking it's not as cold as it is," says Steelers running back Jerome Bettis. Which is why you see so many Patriots, Steelers and Packers wearing short sleeves in January. Green Bay guard Marco Rivera recalls one particularly Arctic day during his first season with the Packers, 1996. "Before practice," he says, "I was asking one of the managers for a long-sleeved shirt, and [offensive lineman] Frankie Winters looked at me and said, 'We don't wear sleeves around here.'"
As a rookie with the Jets playing in Chicago, linebacker James Farrior--now a Pro Bowl--bound star for the Steelers--also inquired about long sleeves before a game played in -5° windchill. His fellow linebackers told him the Jets don't do sleeves. "At halftime," says Farrior, "they said, 'We were just kidding. You can wear sleeves.'" But Farrior still refuses to do so.
Exercising one's constitutional right to bare arms serves a purpose. It can psych out opponents from sunny or domed climates. "It takes me back to my days when I worked in Houston," says Batty, once the Oilers' equipment manager. "Every single time we played in Cleveland, Cincinnati or Buffalo [in the cold], that's all that was on our players' minds."
LeRoy Butler grew up in Jacksonville and began playing safety for the Packers in 1990, at Milwaukee County Stadium. "I was freezing," he remembers. "But later in my career I knew I had the mental edge. We'd see their receivers shaking in the huddle, and we'd say, 'Bring it on.'"
Indeed, often in the NFL, the length of one's postseason is in inverse proportion to the length of one's shirtsleeves. The Vikings won four NFC titles playing outdoors for a coach, Bud Grant, who refused to allow heaters on the sideline. Since moving into the Metrodome 23 years ago, the team had won only one postseason game in the cold before Sunday. Indeed, in their last 23 games played outdoors, the agoraphobic Vikes are 3--20.
Favre is the NFL's cold standard, a man who might literally have ice water in his veins as a result of a 1993 game at Lambeau. "The windchill was 22 below," recalls Favre. "I couldn't feel my hands. [Standing on] the field was like standing on ice cubes. My face was frozen, and I couldn't speak in the huddle." Naturally, the Packers beat the Raiders 28--0. On that historic day Butler returned a fumble for a touchdown and then jumped into the stands, looking for body heat. And thus was born the Lambeau Leap.
Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri is another player who provides cold comfort. "I think Vinatieri has missed one [field goal] all year," marvels Steelers kicker Jeff Reed. (Actually it was two.) "And he's kicking in New England, in a division that has Buffalo and New York." In two of the game's finest winter moments Vinatieri kicked a 45yarder in a blizzard to tie the Raiders in regulation and a 23yarder to beat them in overtime in the 2002 AFC divisional playoffs--inspiring long snapper Lonie Paxton to fall in the end zone and make a snow angel.
The coldest game in NFL history was probably the 1981 AFC championship, in which Cincinnati defeated San Diego in a --59° windchill. "My body has changed since that game," says Ken Anderson, the Bengals' quarterback that day. "It doesn't handle weather like it used to. I get out in cold weather without gloves, and my fingertips turn white. A couple of years ago I saw Dan Fouts [the Chargers' quarterback in that game], and he said the same thing."
You can't always prevent frostbite, but you can try. Former Bills wideout Steve Tasker recalls the desperate lengths to which players would go to stay warm in Buffalo. "Jim Jensen of the Dolphins put cayenne pepper on his feet before he put his socks on," says Tasker. Result? Jensen's feet were more chili than chilly. Reports Tasker, "He always played pretty good when he was in Buffalo."
For a collection of Steve Rushin's columns, go to SI.com/writers.