The Northland Hotel’s cheerful wakeup message belied what had settled in during the night.
“Good morning,” the answering service chirped. “It is 16 degrees below zero and the wind is out of the north. Have a nice day.”
Snug in a warm bed in that Green Bay hotel on Sunday, Dec. 31, 1967, Norm Schachter was almost wondering if it was some kind of bad dream. When Schachter arrived at Green Bay’s Austin Straubel airport from his Los Angeles home the previous day for the NFL Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, it was actually tolerable outside. Temperatures approached 20 and Schachter found it comfortable enough to even take a short walk downtown.
“People knew who you were because it was a small town and I had been there before quite a number of times,” Schachter said. “They were yelling, ‘Stay indoors, ref! Get warm so you can signal touchdowns for Green Bay tomorrow!”
It has gone down in NFL lore as “The Ice Bowl,” a game that offered both chilling suspense and potentially frostbitten extremities to all involved.
“It was the most exciting game I ever worked,” said Schachter, who ended his 20-year career in 1976 after working Super Bowl X between the Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The war with the elements began even before Schachter and his crew walked onto the frozen Lambeau Field turf for the first time that morning. During breakfast, then- supervisor of officials Mark Duncan asked the crew what kind of gear they had for the cold.
“All we have are the clothes on our backs,” Schachter answered. There was no discussion by NFL representatives that morning of postponing the game because of the excruciatingly cold conditions, so the show somehow had to go on. Duncan arranged for a Green Bay sporting goods store to open for the officials that Sunday morning and the NFL ran up quite a tab.
“We got extra socks, thermal underwear and things like that,” Schachter said. “I had regular underwear on and three pairs of stockings and then I put plastic bags over my feet. I had a sweatshirt from one of the teams, a turtleneck sweater and then we had on those plastic bags you get from the cleaners.
“I looked like I weighed 400 pounds. I figured if I fell down, they would be able to spin me around and I would never get up!”
Despite the layers of clothing along with shoes that offered little in the way of traction to negotiate the frozen turf, Schachter recalls few problems with mobility that afternoon. The cold, however, did eliminate one of an official’s most essential tools — the whistle.
In those days, officials’ whistles were designed with tiny wooden balls to produce sound. Schachter realized he would be in for problems when, signaling the opening kickoff, he could only muster a couple of feeble “tweets” from his whistle.
The last whistle of the game came seconds later, after the kickoff, when Schachter heard some epithets coming from the direction of umpire Joe Connell, who was frozen to his metal whistle.
“Half of his lip came off,” Schachter said. “He didn’t have any nipple on the thing. After that, we just yelled at (the players) to stop and go.”
After a relatively uneventful first half ended with the Packers leading 14- 10, the officials headed for the much- anticipated warmth of their dressing room. Schachter remembers little of those precious few minutes of comfort, other than his frozen crew gulping hot cups of coffee.
“I knew my cheeks were frostbitten,” said Schachter. “If we hadn’t had ear muffs and mittens, I think we would have had a tremendous problem.”
By the fourth quarter, after being exposed to temperatures that reached minus 13 degrees, the extreme discomfort for coaches, players, fans and officials was running almost neck and neck with the suspense of that classic game. But everyone just wanted to get home.
During the game’s climatic moments, Schachter spotted a television relay man frantically waving his arms for a timeout. With the final minutes of the game running down, CBS was still short one commercial and Schachter was forced to prolong everyone’s misery even longer to fit in that $150,000 spot. After some brief anxiety, he finally got his chance after an incomplete pass by Packers quarterback Bart Starr.
Bob Skoronski, the Packers’ left tackle, didn’t appreciate that extra minute in the cold.
“I remember Bob rushing me when I called that timeout,” Schachter said. “He was saying, ‘Who called that timeout, Norm?’ and I said, ‘I did.’ He said, ‘What the hell for?’ and I said, ‘Players’ pension fund.’ And then he said, ‘Good call!’”
Vince Lombardi, the Packers’ legendary coach, didn’t agree. He was angered that the television timeout might hinder the Packers, who were trailing, 17-14, at that point.
“Norm, you killed our momentum!” Lombardi screamed. “You shouldn’t have stopped the game. We were on the move. Damn it!”
Lombardi’s concern was shortlived. When play resumed, Starr methodically moved the Packers downfield until they had reached the Cowboys’ one yardline with 16 seconds left. Starr called the Packers’ final timeout and trotted over to confer with Lombardi.
It has long been reported that Starr, not trusting the field’s precarious footing, called a running play in the huddle and then, without his teammates knowing his true intentions, snuck the ball in for the winning touchdown. But Schachter, who followed Starr to the sideline to remind Lombardi that the Packers had just used their final timeout, remembers a different scenario.
“He turned to Starr and said, ‘Let’s go for it. Try a quarterback sneak,’” Schachter said.
It was a challenging call for the Packers and just as challenging for Schachter.
“They had no more timeouts, that play would take some time and if Starr hadn’t made it, the whole Dallas team would have been on top of him,” Schachter said. “And there’s the problem: Do I call a referee’s timeout and unwind the guys or do I let them (the Cowboys) run the clock out?”
Starr made all of that academic when he followed blocks by Jerry Kramer and Ken Bowman to score on a one-yard sneak. The Packers beat the Cowboys, 21-17, for a historic third consecutive NFL championship and the coldest afternoon of Schachter’s career was finally over.
More than 33 years later, that game still gives Schachter shivers, even in the comfort of his Los Angeles home. “When I see a game back East on television and I’m sitting in my house, I kind of rub my cheeks and I think, ‘Those people are sure having a hard time today!’” Schachter said.
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