The Freezer Bowl
In the winter of 1982, the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers clashed beside the Ohio River in an AFC Championship matchup that remains one of the coldest NFL games ever.
Jan. 10, 1982, arrived in Cincinnati with high hopes and low temperatures. That day’s AFC Championship Game at Riverfront Stadium was the Bengals’ first shot at a Super Bowl in franchise history. For the San Diego Chargers, it was a chance to break through as one of the best teams in the NFL after two straight years of heartbreaking playoff losses. But a low-pressure storm from Canada — the equivalent of a Category 2 hurricane, bringing cold temperatures and wind — made the day historic for another reason: It would be the coldest game in terms of wind chill in NFL history. The football game wouldn’t be just a contest between the Chargers and the Bengals. It would be an endurance match against nature itself.
Dave Lapham, Bengals Offensive Lineman: We knew it was going to be cold at practice the day before. I went with a sweatsuit on and thought: This is going to be a challenge. But you think your adrenaline kicks in and you can handle it. But nobody thought the weather was going to turn the way it did.
Dick LeBeau, Bengals Defensive Backs Coach: It hit overnight. We were expecting cold weather, but we didn’t realize it was going to be a wind chill of -50. I got up in the morning and drove down. The Ohio River runs right by our stadium, and there was about a 15-foot-high wall of fog and steam coming off of the river. I’ll never forget it. It was welling up off of the river.
Anthony Munoz, Bengals Offensive Lineman: We were staying at a hotel across the river in Kentucky. I woke up and saw blue skies and sunshine, and it looked like a beautiful day. I got outside and thought, Oh, my God, how did it get this cold? My car wouldn’t start. We ended up having to get the hotel shuttle to take us to the stadium.
Ken Anderson, Bengals Quarterback: I was always kind of up early on game day, and I’d go down and get a cup of coffee and a paper. I stepped outside and just said, “Oh, no.” It hit you right then.
Jim Poole, NFL Official, Back Judge at the AFC Championship Game: We were sitting in the locker room two hours before the game, and they were on the phone with the league office. They were actually talking about postponing it and moving it to Detroit, where we’d be indoors. It was bad enough that there was a lot of concern. One of the things that made the decision is that the Silverdome was set up for something else the next day. … They eventually decided to play it. … We didn’t have a whole lot of cold-weather equipment. I knew one guy who wore a wetsuit — anything to keep the heat in.
Jim Breech, Bengals Kicker: We all had long johns, but they were too bulky. The equipment manager brought in two big boxes, and they had pantyhose in them. I wore two pairs of pantyhose in that game. It helped, at least.
Glenn Cameron, Bengals Linebacker: All the guys wearing pantyhose were showing off their beautiful legs. The idea was it would keep you warm, but it was so cold you couldn’t put anything on to keep you warm. … I had diver’s gloves on, and even that didn’t keep my fingers from going numb.
KA: Our coach was Forrest Gregg, and he’d played for the Packers in the Ice Bowl, [the 1967 NFL Championship Game] where temperatures dipped to -13. He told us, “This is going to be like going to the dentist. It’s going to hurt, but you have to do it anyway.”
If the game was a challenge to the Bengals, who had beaten the Buffalo Bills the week before in a game that felt like Indian summer, it was downright shocking to the Chargers, who had played in sweltering temperatures the week before against the Dolphins at the old Orange Bowl in Florida.
Rolf Benirschke, Chargers Kicker: They called that game the “Epic in Miami.” It was 1,000 yards of offense, one highlight play after another. It was 95 degrees and 90 percent humidity. It was something like a 160-degree swing from that game to the one in Cincinnati. … When we went on the field at Riverfront for pregame warm-ups, my holder literally took one snap and said, “Do you want me now or during the game?” I said, “During the game.” And he said, “Then I gotta go in.” The only warm-ups I had was a ballboy holding a couple kicks for me.
The Bengals’ offensive linemen decided to go without sleeves for the game so defenders couldn’t grab them. Players are allowed to put Vaseline on any exposed skin as a way to protect them against the harsh cold, so the offensive linemen took advantage of that.
KA: I thought they were nuts, but they had a big coating of Vaseline on their arms to protect them.
GC: It was quite a statement. I don’t know if it was stupid or genius.
AM: We’re offensive linemen. We’re not that smart. We knew it was crazy to play, so we figured why not be a little crazier?
Game time temperature was -9, with a wind chill of -59 under the formula used at the time the game was played. The National Weather Service adopted a new formula in 2001. By those standards, wind chill that day at Riverfront Stadium was “only” -38.
The Bengals won the opening coin toss and elected to pick which goal to defend. Gregg wanted the team to have the wind, estimated between 25 and 30 mph, at their back to start. It paid off — neutralizing the Chargers’ famed passing attack led by quarterback Dan Fouts, who had passed for an NFL-record 4,802 yards that season.
RB: Dan couldn’t throw the ball. It would flutter. We couldn’t punt it, and there was a massive weight on us that first quarter.
DLB: San Diego had just a wonderful offense ... but they kind of got frozen up in the game, I do remember that … Kenny Anderson was our quarterback and we had a tight end named Dan Ross. They played like it was 75 degrees.
JB: I was kicking with the wind and that certainly made it easier. Rolf Benirschke kicked a field goal into the wind, and it got into the end zone and it looked like someone had shot it out of the air. It just plummeted.
RB: It was a relatively short kick, and I remember kicking it so well. The ball went up, and it was like it hit a wall. It was short from 38 yards. It was unbelievable. We were told later they would open the tunnel [behind the goal post] and let the wind blow through.
With the wind at their back, the Bengals took a 10-0 lead after the first quarter. Anderson was almost knocked out of the game — and it didn’t occur on the field.
KA: I was sitting on the bench, and I’m sitting on my hands and my feet are in foot warmers under the bench. There’s a big roar of the crowd and I get up to see if there’s a turnover, and I have to go in. My feet didn’t come out of the warmers, and I fell forward. Luckily, I had my helmet on, so I hit my face mask. But I saw stars and I had to get the trainer. … I thought to myself, I can’t get knocked out of the AFC Championship Game falling off the bench. They were giving me smelling salts. In today’s world, someone would have had that, and they’d be showing it around the clock.
GC: You kind of were numb all over. After the first quarter, you couldn’t feel a thing anyway.
Extraordinary steps were taken to keep warm throughout the game, a combination of experience and what was then cutting-edge technology.
JB: That might have been the first game they used heated benches.
GC: They had these big heaters on the sidelines. It was like standing next to a jet engine, and as soon as you were off the field, you ran over to them.
Instead of Gatorade, they had hot bouillon on the sidelines in coffee percolators. Between the time they poured it and they gave it to you, it had already formed a sheet of ice and you had to tap it.
AM: You didn’t take off your helmet. You kept it on and buckled, which you rarely did in a game. And you had tape over your ear holes.
JP: The biggest trouble we had was with the whistles. They were so bad that your saliva would freeze the whistle after about three or four minutes. I had three or four whistles on lanyards, and I would just switch them out. When we had a time out, I would go over and hold them by the heater.
I was over near the sideline. I managed to keep reasonably warm. A player said, “What’s burning?” I looked down and the sleeve of my shirt — it had a rubberized material — was melting because I was standing so close to the heater. I had to make sure it didn’t catch fire.
During the second quarter, Fouts managed to connect with Kellen Winslow to pull the Chargers within three points, but the Bengals scored on the ensuing possession to go back up 10 and took a 17-7 lead into the locker room at halftime.
DL: I felt like we controlled the game from start to finish. I never felt like we were in jeopardy. When we got up two scores, I think that was a big deal. When you looked at a game like that with weather like that, it was huge.
The Chargers got the ball to start the second half but turned the ball over for the fourth time that day on a Chuck Muncie fumble. Breech’s 38-yard field goal put the Bengals ahead 20-7.
JB: It was like kicking a brick. I woke up the next morning and the top of my foot was black and blue.
JP: The second half, it got cold enough that players were yelling at us to keep the clock running. They wanted to get out of there. It wasn’t that important that we were calling [penalties]. We just wanted to live through it.
Anderson connected with Don Bass with 6:52 left to play in the game to make it 27-7. A Chargers drive stalled, and the Bengals just had to run out the clock.
KA: We’re standing there in the huddle, and there’s newspapers blowing all over the field. Cris Collinsworth looks at me and says, “We’re going to the Super Bowl.” That’s when it really hit me.
RB: They started the game with seven cameras. I think by the end, only two were operating.
JB: I couldn’t believe 45,000 people actually showed up. And they didn’t have the heaters like we did. I saw people in hunting gear, sleeping bags, anything you could imagine. My dad actually sat through the whole game. I couldn’t believe it.
The Bengals won 27-7 to advance to their first Super Bowl, which would be played at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. The Chargers went home from the AFC Championship dejected. The Bengals went home and thawed.
AM: That was probably one of the longest showers I’d ever taken. It was probably a good half hour. Even after dinner, you were shivering a little bit.
KA: Our neighbors were having a party after the game. I remember getting there about 7 o’clock, and I was wearing a ski parka. They said, “Let me take your coat,” and I told them I’d leave it on. It wasn’t until about 11 o’clock that I felt like I could take it off.
The Bengals lost the Super Bowl to the 49ers at Michigan’s Silverdome in climate-controlled comfort after a blizzard blanketed the East Coast and Midwest. It was the first of the five San Francisco Super Bowl wins over the next 15 years. Another came against the Bengals in 1989, and one came against the Chargers in 1995. (Those great San Diego teams of the 1970s and ’80s never made a Super Bowl appearance.) But the 1982 AFC Championship Game took its toll on those who endured it on the field — even to this day.
GC: It wasn’t just that game. It was brutal all week, and we were staying in Cincinnati to practice. When we got to the Silverdome to practice, I think that was the first time we’d been warm in two weeks.
DL: That game honestly lowered my thermostat. I get colder now — easier than I did before the game.
KA: I moved to Hilton Head so I’d never see snow again. If it’s 50 degrees and I’m playing golf, the sides of the cart are down and I’ve got the propane heater on.
RB: We thought we had the best team in the league that year. We felt like we could have won in almost any other condition. I shiver watching the film even now.
DLB: We won. It was never too cold.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Ken Anderson is retired and living in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
Dave Lapham is part of the Bengals radio broadcasting team.
Glenn Cameron is a lawyer in Florida.
Anthony Munoz was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and remains in the Cincinnati area, where he is active in his namesake charity.
Dick LeBeau served as an assistant with the Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers and was head coach of the Bengals. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is currently the defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans.
Rolf Benirschke founded Legacy Health Strategies. He remains in Southern California.
Jim Breech is still in the Cincinnati area. He sells insurance and is president of the local NFL alumni chapter.
Jim Poole worked two Super Bowls. He’s retired and living in Arizona.