NFL playoff game chilled to the bone in 1982

Brian Murphy
St. Paul Pioneer Press

Cris Collinsworth remembers the wind knifing his bones when he moved from the Bengals locker room to the artificial turf on the glacier otherwise known as Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium.

It was Jan. 10, 1982, the AFC championship game against the San Diego Chargers. Kickoff was 1 p.m. The temperature was 9 degrees below zero, wind-chill factor an aching minus-37.

“I walked out of the locker room where it was 70 degrees, took about three steps and my first thought was, ‘You want me to go out there to warm up?’ Collinsworth recalled Thursday.

“I had not put anything on my face and I felt like I was bleeding. I turned around and went back to get Vaseline to rub all over my face to keep it from cracking.”

It was not the coldest game in NFL history. That remains “The Ice Bowl,” the NFL championship game between Green Bay and Dallas Dec. 31, 1967, at Lambeau Field, where it was 13 below zero.

But winds gusts of 35 mph at Riverfront Stadium that arctic Sunday 34 years ago ensured “The Freezer Bowl” would feel like it to the 46,302 souls who braved the misery to watch the Bengals defeat the Chargers 27-7 and advance to Super Bowl XVI.

“We were practicing in helmets the Saturday before the game and I remember the Chargers came out to see the field and the stadium,” Collinsworth said. “They were in their fur coats. They took one look at the field and went back to the locker room.

“At that moment, I knew we had these guys.”

Collinsworth, a rookie wide receiver that season with Cincinnati, will be in the NBC broadcast booth Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium when the Vikings play host to the Seattle Seahawks in an NFC wild card playoff game.

Forecasts for the noon kickoff call for a temperature of about zero with wind chills minus-10 to minus-20. It might be the coldest game in Vikings history and would join some of the most frigid postseason clashes in league annals.

Barring several upsets that would have Minnesota hosting the NFC championship game, this will be the final Vikings game at TCF Bank Stadium, its temporary home the last two seasons. U.S. Bank Stadium on the site of the old Metrodome is scheduled to open this summer.

Sunday’s game promises to me one for the ice ages. The Vikings will distribute free hand warmers and coffee outside the stadium and open Mariucci Arena as a pre-game warming house. Fans are encouraged to bring Styrofoam, cardboard or newspapers to use as floor mats to help prevent their feet from freezing.

Images of attendees bundled in snowsuits and fur-lined trapper hats, steamed breath puffing like mini smokestacks in row upon frosty row of seats harkens back to late-season games and playoff triumphs at Metropolitan Stadium, the Vikings’ initial home from 1961-81.

The Vikings were 7-3 in playoff games at Met Stadium. Their last outdoor postseason game was a victory over the Los Angeles Rams Dec. 26, 1976, in the NFC championship game.

The coldest game Minnesota ever played at its old outdoor stadium was Dec. 3, 1972, a regular-season game against the Chicago Bears. It was 2 below zero with a wind chill of minus-15. The Vikings won 23-10.

“Cold weather was hardly a deterrent,” said former Vikings coach Bud Grant, who helmed the team from 1967-83 and again in 1985. “We didn’t have an indoor practice field so we practiced outdoors, whatever the conditions were.”

Grant famously forbade his players from wearing gloves or overcoats and banned heaters on the sideline. In those days visiting teams shared the same sideline as the Vikings.

“I’d look over and their players would all be huddled around the heater,” he said. “Well, our players weren’t doing that. They were watching the field and hoping to get into the game to get warmer.”

While there was a practical method to Grant’s madness, it ultimately was psychological gamesmanship that established the Vikings as masters of their polar domain.

No surprise the Rams, from warm, sunny southern California were 0-3 in playoff games at the Met.

“You can put so many clothes on that you’re encumbered,” Grant noted. “The cold was not something we wanted to think about. You shouldn’t be in the locker room wasting time deciding what you’re going to wear. Wear the same stuff. Go out and be cold but show you can play and function in cold weather.

“Some people have a greater tolerance because of discomfort. We proved you can do that.”

Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner said he would try not to let the conditions affect his play calling against Seattle’s vaunted defense. The wind might feel harsh but it is not expected to be gusting. And there is no precipitation in the forecast.

“I’ve been fortunate, through the years, to have games like this where we’ve thrown the ball pretty well and been pretty aggressive,” Turner said. “I think you’ve got to go play, and you’ve got to run your offense.”

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, whose first NFL coaching job was as a Grant assistant with the Vikings in 1985, knows harsh Minnesota weather.

“I was living there where 17 straight days went by and the temperature never got above zero,” Carroll recalled. “You’ve just to get mentally right about it. For us it doesn’t matter where we’re playing, who we’re playing, we’re going to go out and play the game we’re capable of.

“If the conditions are such, we have no control over any of those factors so we don’t try to control them.”

Three decades ago, Collinsworth was unprepared for what the Bengals and Chargers confronted. He grew up in Florida, played college ball at the University of Florida and does not remember playing a game below 32 degrees until “The Freezer Bowl.”

“Anybody who thinks this game (Vikings-Seahawks) is not going to be impacted by the weather, they’re nuts,” Collinsworth said. “I wore gloves I’d never worn before. More layers. The first time I was hit was like taking a sledgehammer to a mirror. It was like pieces of me fell on that field.”

The wind was the deciding factor in that AFC championship day.

Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts led the league in passing in 1981 on the strength of a dynamic downfield passing game. With icicles in his beard, Fouts struggled with his accuracy, throwing for just 185 yards with two interceptions.

Meanwhile, Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson was a consistently accurate passer renowned for throwing tight spirals. He pierced the wind and completed 14 of 22 passes for 161 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

“If you can never feel comfortable, it will be a factor,” Collinsworth said.

Comfort at TCF Bank Stadium will be in the snow bibs of the beholder.