You’ll have to pardon members of the Cincinnati Bengals if their hearts aren’t warmed by memories of this day 38 years ago, when they earned the franchise’s first of two Super Bowl berths.
Yes, the former Cincinnati players and coaches are rightfully proud of their achievement. However, they still shiver when recalling that historic day of Jan. 10, 1982 when the Bengals defeated the San Diego Chargers 27-7 in an AFC Championship game played in elements better fit for penguins and polar bears.
“That was definitely coldest I’ve ever been in my life, no question about that,” says Dave Lapham, a starting offensive guard for the Bengals in that legendary game. “I ran around for 3 hours and never broke a sweat. It was brutal.”
The “Freezer Bowl,” as it’s remembered today, was contested in Cincinnati’s now defunct Riverfront Stadium. Temperature at kickoff was -9 degrees Fahrenheit. Winds gusted from 20 to 35 miles per hour.
The NFL’s Coldest Game Ever
That Bengals-Chargers survival contest is still officially the coldest NFL game in history when the day’s recorded wind chill of -59 degrees Fahrenheit is factored in.
“It was like Siberia with the wind whipping through there,” Lapham says. “Nine degrees below zero is damn cold, but 59 degrees below is ludicrous.”
Now try this on for crazy: Play in those temperature without wearing sleeves.
That’s what Lapham convinced himself and his fellow Cincinnati offensive linemen – including future Pro Football Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz – to do for the entire game. The bare arms of the Bengals remain the game’s iconic image.
“The Chargers were from the West Coast, so I thought let’s use the cold to our advantage and psych them out a little bit,” Lapham says. “San Diego players were all bundled up with stocking caps under their facemasks and hoods and hand warmers. The officials said you could put Vaseline on any exposed skin, so we loaded our arms up. That was an advantage when defenders tried to swipe at you and grab your arms.”
The players almost didn’t get the chance to take the field at all once morning broke with steam rising off the Ohio River from arctic temperatures produced by a low-pressure system off Canada’s Hudson Bay.
NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle considered postponing the game but allowed it to be played after consulting with the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. Heated benches were brought in from Philadelphia for each team.
Fans Toughed It Out Too
A crowd of 46,302 attended that frozen AFC Championship Game. Some fans who were there remain vivid in Lapham’s mind. “We saw a couple of guys running around with shirts off,” Lapham says. “Man, they must have had a lot of antifreeze in their system.”
A Bengals fan cheers without his shirt in front of a bundled up crowd. Credit: Cincinnati Enquirer
Cincinnati had plenty to cheer about as quarterback Kenny Anderson – named the NFL Most Valuable Player and the league’s Comeback Player of the Year that season – completed 14 of 22 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t turn the ball over and also rushed for 39 yards.
“Kenny was used to handling the ball in the cold because he was from Batavia, Illinois,” Lapham said. “Kenny had big hands for his body type, and he was really able to control the football in the wind. Dan Fouts could not.”
Fouts, the San Diego quarterback later elected to the Hall of Fame, threw two interceptions and was sacked twice as Cincinnati and the wind grounded the “Air Coryell” offense. The Chargers also lost two fumbles.
The 1967 NFL Championship game at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field – the “Ice Bowl” in which the Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys – is known for having the coldest recorded air temperature at -13 degrees.
But Hall of Famer Forrest Gregg, who played in that game for Green Bay, had this to say immediately after coaching the Bengals to victory in the Freezer Bowl:
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that cold.”
An Offensive Struggle
The longest play in the Bengals-Chargers game was a 19-yard completion from Anderson to Dan Ross. The teams combined for five punts that averaged 30.2 yards. Bengals tight end M.L. Harris caught an 8-yard pass for the game’s first touchdown while wearing the winter gloves he wore to the stadium. Some players had pantyhose on under their uniform to try to keep warm.
“The first time we ran the football, I threw a forearm and it felt like a different kind of contact,” Lapham said. “It felt like I was brittle. It literally felt like you were breaking bones when you hit. And that old AstroTurf field was so frozen hard that you had secondary contact when you hit the ground.
“The toughest part of that football game was after you had gone in for halftime and thawed out a little bit, you then realized how bad it was going to be when you had to go back out there for another half.”
Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson stands behind Dave Lapham before receiving the ball. Credit: AP
The Bengals went on to lose the Super Bowl to the San Francisco 49ers, but they’ll always be recalled fondly in Cincinnati for their super-human effort in the brutally cold conditions of the AFC Championship game.
“I’m from the northeast so I was used to cold weather,” Lapham says. “But I’ve never experienced anything like that. I used to handle the cold well, but from that game forward I don’t think I’ve handled the cold as well. I think that game lowered my thermostat.”
Todd Jones was a sportswriter for The Columbus Dispatch for 20 years and for the Cincinnati Post for 10 years.