NFL Takes Championship Game Back To Roots
Lombardi in '62 title game (Kidwiler Collection)
Lombardi in '62 title game (Kidwiler Collection)
with Bill Huber
Posted Jan 30, 2014


The weather is a central focus for Sunday's Super Bowl in the winter chill of New Jersey. For most of the league's history, championship games were played in cold weather and on frozen fields. Games like the Ice Bowl are among the most famous in NFL history.

NEW YORK — For the first time, the Super Bowl is being played outdoors in a cold-weather city.

It used to be the norm for the NFL's championship game.

Just ask 92-year-old Charley Trippi.

Long before there was a Super Bowl, the Hall of Famer played in two title games with the Chicago Cardinals — the first while wearing sneakers to cope with an icy field, the second in a Philadelphia blizzard that made it impossible to even see the yard lines.

"You never really knew if you had a first down," Trippi remembered Wednesday when reached at his home in Athens, Ga. — where, interestingly enough, there was snow on the ground from a freak winter storm that paralyzed much of the South.

It wouldn't be at all surprising to have flurries at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, when the Denver Broncos face the Seattle Seahawks, though the forecast called for only a 20 percent chance of precipitation. The temperature, expected to climb well past the freezing mark in the afternoon, could dip back into the 20s after nightfall.

Trippi doesn't understand why the NFL took a chance on its signature game being marred by inclement weather, when the league has plenty of warm-weather cities and domed stadiums to choose from.

"The championship game should be played in a climate that you know is going to be agreeable to put on a good exhibition of football," he said. "Actually, if I was a fan, I wouldn't go to the game with that kind of temperature."

Before the first Super Bowl in 1967, the NFL title game was a matchup between division winners in late December, hosted by one of the teams. Since most pro franchises in those days were located in the Northeast and Midwest, it wasn't at all surprising for the championship to be decided in some especially brutal weather. In fact, it often became the central theme.

Perhaps the most famous of all was the Ice Bowl, the NFL championship game that was contested on Dec. 31, 1967. The National Weather Service called it a “polar vortex” — the same weather pattern that led to the deep freeze before the Packers-49ers playoff game this year and this week’s cold snap in Green Bay.

“The weather the day before the Ice Bowl was relatively tranquil with a high of 20,” the National Weather Service described on a Web page dedicated to the game. “However, later that evening shortly before midnight, an Arctic front swept across the state ushering bitter cold air into the state.  The temperature fell nearly 30 degrees during the 12-hour period ending at 9 a.m. the morning of the Ice Bowl. (At that time), the temperature plummeted to minus -6 with wind-chill values falling to -38.  During the game, actual temperatures ranged from minus-12 to minus-14 with wind chills (based on the new wind-chill index) ranging from minus-33 to minus-37, making it the coldest game in NFL history.”

Bart Starr said the game boiled down to attitude.

“Attitude, next to God, is the strongest word in our vocabulary,” Starr said recently on CNN.

Starr won the league’s most famous game with perhaps its most famous play: A do-or-die quarterback sneak in the final seconds.

“We knew it would work,” Starr said. “The problem was down there, the ground had become so hard and frozen that it was slippery. You had to make sure that you had your footing and so forth to get started to go into the end zone.”

The 1962 championship game was a frigid affair, as well, with a temperature of 13 and winds gusting to 40 mph at frozen Yankee Stadium. With Jim Taylor carrying 31 times for 85 yards and Ray Nitschke intercepting a pass and recovering two fumbles, the Packers won 16-7.

“Vince (Lombardi) Jr. once told me he thought it was colder or worse than the Ice Bowl,” Packers guard Jerry Kramer said in Bob Berghaus’ “The First America’s Team: The 1962 Green Bay Packers.”

“I remember the wind blowing like (crazy),” Kramer continued. “We came out at halftime and our players’ bench,  it was a small bench without a back on it, just two sides and the setting surface,  and  the wind had blown the bench back onto the playing field. It may have blown maybe 10 yards out onto the field. Our capes and all kinds of (stuff) were being strung all over hell and back. The trainers were trying to pick everything up because of that wind. I don’t know what the wind chill factor was but it was bitter cold.”

One of the first was the famous "Sneakers Games" in 1934, when the New York Giants borrowed some basketball shoes from a nearby college, changed out of their cleats in the third quarter, and turned a 13-3 deficit into a 30-13 victory at the ice-covered Polo Grounds. The Giants would repeat the tactic 22 years later, romping to another title largely by having better footing than their opponent.

Both title games that Trippi played in were affected by the weather.

In 1947, Comiskey Park was coated with a thin sheet of ice when the Cardinals hosted the Philadelphia Eagles on a bitterly cold day (Trippi remembers the wind chill being minus-20). Borrowing a page from the Giants, Trippi traded his cleats for sneakers and scored two touchdowns on a 44-yard run and a 75-yard punt return, leading Chicago to a 28-21 victory and what remains the franchise's only title.

"The only time I played an NFL game in tennis shoes was in Chicago for our championship team," Trippi said. "We got better footing in tennis shoes. You couldn't stand up in cleats."

The following year, the teams met again in the title game, this time at Philadelphia's Shibe Park. A full-fledged blizzard struck the city, dumping so much snow the grounds crew couldn't remove the tarp. The players were summoned from the locker room to help pull it off the field.

By the time the game kicked off, the field was completely covered again, this time by several inches of the white stuff. What followed barely qualified as football, much less a title game.

"It was more of a pushing game," Trippi said, recalling how the players were slipping and sliding all over the place. "It was incredible. The officials improvised the whole game. No one could see the lines. The ballplayers just couldn't react like they wanted. I think the fans got cheated out of seeing a real championship game."

The Cardinals, who had gone 11-1 during the regular season and led the league with an average of more than 391 yards per game, managed just six first downs and 131 yards in the horrible conditions. The Eagles didn't fare much better, but a Chicago turnover early in the fourth quarter set up the game's only score, Steve Van Buren's 5-yard touchdown run.

The final: Philadelphia 7, Chicago 0.

To this day, Trippi figures the Cardinals were wrongly denied their second straight title.

"When two professional teams play and they can only score seven points," he said, "that shows you what a terrible game it was."

He hopes there's not a repeat on Sunday.


Agree or disagree?: Discuss hot Packers topics in our, free forums. Leave Bill a question in the subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum.


Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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