The 1981 NFC Championship Game is well known in NFL circles because of the play that decided the game. Its AFC counterpart is memorable as well. The San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals played in the coldest game in NFL history in terms of wind chill factor at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. It was so cold, in fact, the game has since been known (very appropriately) as the Freezer Bowl.
The air temperature was -9°F (-22.8°C) with sustained winds of 27 miles per hour. With the wind chill is factored in, it felt like -59°F (-50°C). According to meteorologists, the extreme cold was caused by a low-pressure storm over Hudson Bay in Canada with winds comparable to that of a Category 2 hurricane. The storm pulled cold air and wind down from the Arctic. The same system caused -90°F (-67°C) wind chills in Chicago where 11 deaths were blamed on the extreme cold.
When the Chargers arrived in Cincy for the game, conditions were what one would expect for a normal January day.
“It wasn’t that cold when we got to Cincinnati Saturday,” return specialist and special teams captain Hank Bauer said. “We got up, did a walk-through. I can remember having a snowball fight after with a couple of guys, and saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t that bad. This is all right, this is doable, this is good.’”
Bauer had a completely different take after he woke up on game day.
“Eric Sievers was my roommate and we had one of those little wall heaters blowing hot air,” Bauer said. “And I look out the hotel window and this heater is blowing hot air right up it. Inside the window, there was frost. And I went, ‘What?’ I looked out at the Ohio River and it looked like steam was coming off a jacuzzi. Nobody dreamt of anything like that.”
Cincinnati was led by quarterback Ken Anderson, the NFL Most Valuable Player and Comeback Player of the Year. Anderson was protected by future Hall of Fame offensive lineman Anthony Muñoz. He had a trio of offensive weapons at his disposal including running back Pete Johnson, tight end Dan Ross, and a rookie wide receiver named Anthony Collinsworth.
San Diego was coached by the innovative Don Coryell. His Air Coryell offense featured three future Hall of Famers: quarterback Dan Fouts, wide receiver Charlie Joiner, and tight end Kellen Winslow Sr. The Chargers also had running backs Chuck Muncie and rookie James Brooks to keep defenders honest.
Surprisingly, the cold was unusual to Bengals head coach Forrest Gregg. He was a Hall of Fame right tackle on Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers teams. Gregg paved the way for Bart Starr’s fourth down do-or-die quarterback sneak in the 1967 NFL Championship Game (also known as the Ice Bowl, the coldest game in terms of air temperature in NFL history).
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that cold,” Gregg said after the game.
He had his team practice outdoors in advance of the ’81 AFC title game.
“If there’s one thing I learned from Lombardi,” Gregg said years later. “It was of you’re going to play outdoors, you have to practice outdoors. I think that helped us more than anything because we got more reps, more plays in that week outside.”
Lombardi himself learned that lesson after his sole postseason loss: the 1960 NFL Championship Game. The game, against the Philadelphia Eagles, was played on an icy mud patch at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field. Lombardi had his team practice indoors leading up to that game, a 17-13 Eagles win.
For San Diego, the Freezer Bowl was an exercise in contrast. Just eight days earlier, they played a Divisional Playoff game for the ages against the Miami Dolphins.
Air temperature at the Orange Bowl was a tropical 88°F (31°C). The game (known as the Epic in Miami) was a record setting offensive blitz decided by a field goal in overtime. Its most indelible image is that of Winslow being helped off the field by teammates after a 13-reception, 166-yard and a touchdown performance in spite of a pinched nerve in his shoulder, cramps, severe dehydration, and three stitches in his bottom lip.
The difference in air temperature between the Epic in Miami and the Freezer Bowl was almost 100°F (37°C).
“I went out with the first wave of guys because I returned kickoffs,” Bauer said. “Back then, they didn’t have the gloves they have now. They didn’t have all the technology. We were trying everything, women’s nylons, plastic food baggies. I walk out of the tunnel, ran right down the field to the other end and ran right back into the locker room.
“Everybody said, ‘What are you doing, what’s up? And I told everybody, you know what? Take it all off. No. 1, you’re not going to be able to move with all this stuff on and No. 2, it ain’t gonna help.’ I was frozen by the time I got to the other end.”
The conditions were so brutal that NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle briefly considered moving the game to a neutral, warmer site or postponing it altogether. Stadium pipes were frozen, bathrooms couldn’t be used, and heaters were no match for the bitter cold. The late broadcaster Dick Enberg, who was on the play-by-play for NBC, put down a cup of hot coffee only to find it frozen solid a few minutes later.
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Both teams had heated benches on their sidelines and extra kerosene heaters. League doctors encouraged players to wear extra layers of clothes and cover exposed skin. The Bengals offensive linemen chose to ignore the advice of medical professionals and elected to play sleeveless.
“I thought they were crazy for not wearing sleeves,” Gregg said. “But they are professional football players. I was not going to tell then what to wear.”
Bengals offensive lineman Dave Lapham, who described the game as “Darwinian” more than three decades later, took all the credit for the decision to go sleeveless.
“That was my idea,” Lapham said. “I had (Chargers defensive tackle) Gary (Big Hands) Johnson I was playing against and he was a grabber. On the pass rush, he’d try to swat and grab cloth and try to pull you out of your shoes. I thought, ‘Man, I don’t want to have extra cloth on my arms’. I thought, ‘I’m just going to try to go out there, just regular.’
“We had California guys, Anthony (Muñoz) and Max (Montoya) and they were looking at me like, ‘Really?’ We all ended up doing it. They let you put Vaseline on exposed skin so that worked even better.”
The Bengals offensive linemen weren’t the only ones who chose to expose skin that day. Several fans at Riverfront Stadium were seen shirtless as the game went on.
Fouts elected not to wear gloves because they were too thick and he couldn’t get a good grip on the ball. After setting a record for passing yards in the regular season, he was powerless to do anything resembling competent passing in the bitter cold. Even when he managed to move the ball early in the game, the drives were stalled because of interceptions.
Anderson also didn’t wear gloves but didn’t have the problems holding the ball that Fouts did.
“Trying to throw that ball with no gloves, that cold, is almost impossible,” Joiner said. “You’d have to have gorilla hands to get anything on it. I played with Ken Anderson for three and a half years. He had huge hands.”
Anderson used those huge hands to make plays when the Bengals needed them most, showing why he was the NFL’s MVP.
“Luckily, I was blessed with the ability to throw a pretty tight spiral, which helped on a day like that,” Anderson said. “We stayed with our short and intermediate passing game. We didn’t throw the ball towards the sidelines too many times. We kept it over the middle.”
Anderson is the Bengals’ all-time leader in passing yards and a two-time Hall of Fame finalist. Muñoz believes his performance in the Freezer Bowl is an indication why Anderson should join him in Canton.
“The one thing I remember is how well Kenny Anderson threw the ball,” Muñoz said. “I mean tight. Spirals. No gloves. Nothing. He would just put his hands in a warmer between plays. It was amazing.”
Anderson went 14-of-22 for 161 yards and two touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 115.9. On the other hand, Fouts was 15-of-28 for 185 yards, a touchdown, two interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 56.4.
The Freezer Bowl was a blowout with a 27-7 Bengals victory. Collinsworth remembered one Bengals fan in particular as the confetti rained down in honor of the team’s berth in Super Bowl XVI: a gentleman who stripped down to a jockstrap.
“I want to do some celebrating tonight but I don’t want to go where that guy’s going,” Collinsworth said at the time.
Many believed the weather conditions contributed to the win…and that simply isn’t true. In Week 7, Cincinnati handed San Diego a 40-17 beatdown at Jack Murphy Stadium on a 65°F (11°C) afternoon.
“We’d already beaten them out in San Diego and we beat them in their weather, pretty handily,” Bengals cornerback Louis Breeden said. “I know they don’t think so, but we played them in two extremes, the warm in San Diego and the cold in Cincinnati. If we could have met somewhere in the middle, the outcome would have been the same. They were a great team with Fouts, Winslow, Joiner, and (wide receiver Wes) Chandler, but there’s no question who the better team was.”
Fouts agreed with Breeden.
“That day they were,” Fouts said when asked who was the better team. “They went to the Super Bowl. You can use any excuse you want. But facts are facts.”
Cincinnati would go on to lose Super Bowl XVI to the upstart San Francisco 49ers. Seven years later, they would make it to Super Bowl XXIII only to lose to the 49ers once again in Bill Walsh’s final game as an NFL head coach. The Chargers and their vaunted Air Coryell offense would never that close to a Super Bowl again after the ’81 season. Coryell and Joiner retired after the 1986 season with Fouts and Winslow following suit a year later.
Some of the players who participated in the Freezer Bowl have lingering effects from being on the field that day.
Fouts, who had icicles hanging from his beard early in the game, contends he still feels the cold.
“Frostbite, yeah, it’s permanent,” Fouts said. “Fingers and toes. It’s more of a cold sensation. You just can’t get warm.”
Lapham echoed Fouts’ sentiments.
“Honestly, that game did change my thermostat,” Lapham said. “Cold weather has a bigger effect on me now than it did before that game. I’d go back to New England (he is a native of Melrose, Mass.) in the winter time and I’d be like, ‘Man!’ I got colder easier, I swear.”
This game was not without controversy beyond whether or not it should have been played or moved to a neutral site. Gregg saw to it that Riverfront Stadium’s doors were open when the Chargers were going into the wind, a fact Coryell mentioned after the game.
Regardless, the outcome of the game was never in doubt.
“We were the better team whether we played them in Antarctica or Hawaii,” Lapham said.