Part of the appeal of football is that it’s played in any weather—rain or shine, sleet or snow, ice or wind. But, as any sports field manager tasked with caring for an outdoor football field knows, some games take that credo to the next level. In some instances, the weather conditions (thus the field conditions) take center stage, even over the play and final score. With that in mind, we took a look back at some of the more memorable NFL and NCAA games played in Novembers, Decembers and Januarys past, where the stars of the games weren’t famous athletes or teams, but rather the nasty weather and field conditions. Enjoy this trip down memory lane, and, as you’re reading each of these passages, ask yourself: “If I were the field manager there, what would I have done in that situation?”
Washington Redskins vs. Cleveland Rams (NFL Championship), -8°
Not as well-known as the other games featured here, the 1945 NFL Championship was played in absolutely horrid field conditions after a major winter storm, thanks to the notorious Cleveland lake effect, destroyed the Cleveland Stadium grass prior to the game. The field was covered with 9,000 bales of hay on top of a tarp to keep the surface from freezing. Cleveland had received 18 inches of snow during the week and the thermometer read minus-8 degrees at kickoff. According to an account from the Los Angeles Times, groundskeeper Emil Bossard was the first to arrive at the stadium on game day. He had hired more than 300 civilians to help, some of them servicemen back from World War II, most of them drifters and vagrants. Prior to kickoff, Bossard addressed the gathering of huddled help. “Men,” he said. “We need your help.” There was enough manpower to remove the hay from the field, but trucks struggled to navigate its dispersal. The contingency plan was to pile up the hay bales on the sideline, up to 10 bales high. As the game went on, the hay actually proved a respite for the players from the cold. The Rams defeated the Redskins, 15-14.
Brett Tanner, CSFM, University of Akron knows a thing or two about managing a field in snowy conditions, as Northeast Ohio winters can be brutal. Here’s what he had to say: “Many times in these situations you need to sacrifice your own immediate comfort for that of the safety of the players and officials. Prepare for the worst and have backups for anything and everything. (Extra shovels, blowers, plows, fuel, hats, gloves, extra people on call.) Develop a strategy and get advice from others who have been through similar situations. Always ask for help, and plan on not sleeping too much until the game is over!”
Dallas Cowboys vs. Green Bay Packers (NFL Championship), -48°
This was the Green Bay, Wisconsin, forecast for Dec. 31, 1967, issued by the National Weather Service: “A cold air mass moving down from Canada will bring with it more fresh, cold air.” That turned out to be quite the understatement. Temperature in the Green Bay area at noon was minus-30 degrees Fahrenheit, factoring in wind chill. During the game, dubbed the “Ice Bowl,” the average temperature was minus-48 degrees.
Nonetheless, the game was sold out, as more than 50,000 packed Lambeau Field.
For some, it was a costly day to take in a game—four fans suffered heart attacks and 14 were treated for exposure at local hospitals. On the field, it was also a crisis situation. One Dallas Cowboy recalled coach Tom Landry had “ice fangs” that measured several inches coming out of his nose.
The scene was equally horrifying on the field. Players—many of whom suffered frostbite after the game—took short, deliberate steps to maintain traction. Passing was compared with “throwing a frozen pumpkin.” Earlier that season, Packers coach Vince Lombardi spent $80,000 on a heating grid under the Lambeau Field turf to prevent the surface from freezing. It never stood a chance on this day, as it failed instantly. Once the tarp was removed from the field before the game, it left moisture on the field, which flash-froze in the extreme cold, leaving an icy surface that worsened as more of the field fell into the shadow of the stadium. Packers fullback Walt Garrison described the texture of the playing surface thusly: “Like walking on asphalt. Harder than Chinese arithmetic.” The outcome, a 21-17 win by the Packers, swung on one of the most famous plays in NFL history—a simple quarterback sneak, as Bart Starr plunged 1 yard to score with 13 seconds left. Among the best quotes during the game came from TV analyst Frank Gifford, who, at one point, said: “I just took a bite out of my coffee.”
Miami Dolphins vs. New England Patriots, 26°
The night before this game, heavy rains soaked the Foxboro Stadium Astroturf and the temperature dropped to 26 degrees.
Shortly after the game started, a heavy snowstorm moved in, wreaking havoc on the field. It got so bad that officials established an emergency ground rule where the referee could call a timeout to allow the grounds crew to use a snowplow to clear the markers on the field.
With 4:45 remaining, Patriots coach Ron Meyer ordered snowplow operator Mark Henderson to clear a spot specifically for kicker John Smith. The assumption was for the plow to go straight across, allowing for a more accurate measurement for the kick (which turned out to be 33 yards). In an unfathomable twist, the plow veered left, directly in front of the goal post, giving Smith a clean spot from which to kick.
Dolphins coach Don Shula went berserk in what he would later call the “most unfair act” ever perpetrated in NFL history.
The left-footed Smith kicked the 33-yarder that would win the game, 3-0.
Henderson, the snow plow operator, was in fact a convicted burglar on a work release at the time. When interviewed years later about the controversy, Henderson jokingly remarked, “What were they gonna do, throw me in jail?”
The following year, the NFL banned the use of snowplows on the field during a game.
San Diego Chargers vs. Cincinnati Bengals (AFC Championship), -59°
Believe it or not, this game, known as the “Freezer Bowl,” was colder than the “Ice Bowl,” as temperatures—with wind chill—reached minues-59 degrees, making it the coldest game played in NFL history. Within one week, the Chargers went from playing in Miami in steamy 88-degree, high-humidity weather to playing in this arctic nightmare. Each team had heated benches on its sidelines and extra kerosene heaters. League doctors encouraged players to wear extra layers of clothes, but the Bengals’ offensive line decided to remain sleeveless, rubbing Vaseline on their arms to protect them from some of the numbness from the cold.
One recollection quoted San Diego kick returner Hank Bauer as saying, “when you got hit, it was like a dead thud because the turf was so hard.” At one point, Bauer rested his rubber-soled shoe on a heater by the team bench, and one of his teammates told him that his shoe was melting—except Bauer couldn’t feel it.
Hall-of-Fame quarterback Dan Fouts had icicles hanging off his beard after the game. He also struggled mightily because of a lack of grip and extreme hardness of the football, which contributed to the Chargers’ 27-7 loss.
The Riverfront Stadium playing surface was a huge factor in the brutality the players faced. Riverfront was the first ballpark with a playing surface made entirely of Astroturf, and, in this game, it was not a friend of the players. Bauer likened the ice block to fuzzy concrete.
“Riverfront was used for both baseball and football, so there were seams in there, and all that kind of junk,” Bengals offensive lineman Dave Lapham told the New York Daily News. “They made the surface hard for baseball so balls hit into the gap would get to the wall so there was no padding. It was hard to play on that turf to begin with.”
Washington Huskies vs. Washington State Cougars, -18°
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had in the snow. We’re a pretty good snow team.” That was Mike Price, then-head coach for Washington State, 42-23 winners of this game that looked like it was played inside a snow globe. This blizzard was a surprise—the Pullmanarea of Washington rarely gets snow, as, statistically, the National Weather Service says the chance of 2 inches or more of snow in Pullman on Nov. 21 is only 6 percent. Winds reached speeds over 22 mph. Temperatures reached minus-18 degrees (with wind chill) on this treacherous turf night in Washington, where the two teams trudged through thick, driving, unrelenting snow and unenviable field conditions to produce a memorable nationally televised game in a deep-seeded rivalry that has spanned more than a century. The ABC broadcast, now available in its entirety on YouTube, shows huge snow banks in the back of each end zone. Washington State quarterback Drew Bledsoe (a Buffalo native, used to the snow) was undeterred by the punishing weather conditions, throwing for 259 yards. He later told the Seattle Times “that’s still my most favorite game I’ve played in. I just knew no matter what, it was going to be a fun game.”
Michigan Wolverines vs. Ohio State Buckeyes, -10°
With the Big Ten conference title at stake, the Wolverines and the Buckeyes, ancient enemies, took the field in Columbus, Ohio, on a very snowy day late in November 1950. As far as the actual game, now referred to as the “Snow Bowl,” Michigan won 9–3, despite never getting a first down and failing on all nine pass attempts.
The teams punted 45 times, sometimes on first down—unheard of in football. This strategy was a simple and logical one, as the teams figured it was better to have the ball in the hands of their opponents near the end zone and hope for a fumble of the slippery, unwieldy ball. How’s that for game planning?
Lines couldn’t be seen on the field, there were wind gusts as high as 40 mph, the temperature hovered at or below 10 degrees and there was 5 inches of snow on the field before kickoff. Snow drifts eclipsing 6 feet in height obscured the sidelines.
After the game, Ohio Stadium groundskeeper Ralph Guarasci was fearful as he and his crew searched rolled up sections of tarp, restrooms and passageways in the huge stadium for fans who may have passed out from excess “frostbite serum” and might now be freezing to death. Fortunately, no one was found.
This account, from the Ohio State University archives, paints a picture of what it was like on the field that day: “After the game was no picnic either: Cars were stuck in the snow for days, and many fans from out of town could not leave Columbus until the following Tuesday.” Guarasci, who was responsible for keeping the field clear of snow prior to kickoff (he and his crew used a tarp, which 100 spectators helped to roll up before play started) was later often heard to say: “I never saw anything like it, and I hope I never have to see anything like it again.”
PHOTOS: ASSOCIATED PRESS, WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY, OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES
SOURCES: CLEVELAND BROWNS, LOS ANGELES TIMES, ESPN, NFL NETWORK, USA TODAY, PROPLAYERINSIDERS.COM, ESPN.COM, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, SEATTLE TIMES, WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY, OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES, THE WEATHER DOCTOR