Frosty temperatures are typical for National Football League playoff games but never have football fans and players shivered as much as they did on January 10, 1982, when the Cincinnati Bengals hosted the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship Game. With a kickoff temperature of nine degrees below zero and a minus 59-degree wind chill, what would be dubbed the “Freezer Bowl” was the coldest game in NFL history.
Despite dazzling sunshine, Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium felt colder than the inside of a meat locker. For Bengals coach Forrest Gregg, the frigid conditions sparked memories of the 1967 NFL Championship Game, the legendary Ice Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys, in which he played right tackle for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. At minus 13 degrees, the mercury had been lower for that game, but the minus 48 wind chill was not as severe as that facing his Bengals. “I was as cold today as I’ve ever been,” the Ice Bowl veteran later told the media.
The same held true for the Chargers. Not only did they hail from temperate San Diego, but a week earlier in Miami they had won an epic overtime game in 84-degree heat that left players dehydrated. To them, Riverfront Stadium’s concrete bowl felt 140 degrees colder.
Inside the locker rooms, players pulled on pantyhose and layered Saran Wrap between pairs of socks for better insulation. Unlike their opponents, Cincinnati’s offensive and defensive linemen chose not to don long sleeves.
“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,” guard Dave Lapham remembered. “San Diego players were all bundled up with stocking caps under their face masks 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.”
Before taking the field, Gregg told his team to forget about the cold. “It’s like going to the dentist, you’re going to have to endure some pain, but you’ve got to go out there.” In the stands, fans grew numb as if they had been injected with Novocain. With gloves on their hands and scarves over their mouths, the crowd emitted a muffled roar as the home team went on the field.
Thirteen thousand fans, some of them undoubtedly waylaid by dead car batteries, stayed home and watched on television instead of attending the game at the 60,000-seat Riverfront Stadium. To the Bengals fans who shivered in their seats, suffering through Cincinnati’s coldest day on record was nowhere near as painful as the 4-12 seasons they had been forced to endure in 1978 and 1979. With their team no longer derided as the “Bungles,” those fans were not going to miss seeing their team play for a berth in its first Super Bowl.
Turnover-Plagued Chargers Struggle in Freezer Bowl
Despite the freezing temperatures, the Bengals started hot. Recalling how both teams had been able to throw the football in the Ice Bowl, Gregg allowed his quarterback, Ken Anderson, an 11-year veteran with a pair of gimpy knees, to pass. The Bengals capped a 51-yard drive with a field goal to go up 3-0. After the Chargers fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Anderson threw a touchdown pass to tight end M.L. Harris, who caught the ball wearing the same brown, leather winter gloves he wore to the stadium.
On the sidelines, coffee dispensers joined Gatorade buckets. Players sat on 150,000 BTU propane-fueled benches that had been shipped from Philadelphia and huddled around more than a dozen kerosene-fueled heaters on the sidelines.
During timeouts, some referees grew a little too toasty at the heaters. “You smell something burning?” someone asked back judge Jim Poole. The referee looked at his smoldering shirt and realized it was him.
The frozen pigskin was as slippery as a greased pig and hard as a rock. After a paltry 27-yard boot, San Diego punter George Roberts returned to the sideline and muttered, “It’s like kicking a cinder block."
A 36-yard field goal attempt by Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke didn't even reach the uprights. The stadium’s unforgiving artificial turf, which even on warm days provided the slim comfort of a throw rug on a concrete floor, was frozen solid so that players felt as if they were being tackled in a parking lot.
Like steam from a locomotive, the white plumes of breath that emanated from under players’ helmets as they ran down the field clouded their vision. “When you went to catch the ball,” Cincinnati wide receiver Cris Collinsworth told the media after the game, “your breath would come up and form a smokescreen in front of your face."
The Chargers responded to Cincinnati’s early lead with tight end Kellen Winslow’s 33-yard touchdown catch and scamper, but a 40-yard kickoff return set up a Bengals touchdown that gave Cincinnati a 17-7 lead. Two successive drives deep into Cincinnati territory ended with San Diego’s Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts tossing interceptions, one of which occurred in the end zone.
Cincinnati Bengals Clinch First Super Bowl Berth
After a brief halftime thaw, the Chargers remained cold in the second half. After running back Chuck Muncie fumbled on the team’s opening drive, the Bengals took advantage of the turnover with a field goal.
The bitter cold and Cincinnati’s stout defense grounded San Diego’s high-flying offense. As ice crystals formed on the Chargers quarterback’s beard, Fouts watched as the 35-mile-per-hour wind gusts made his passes flutter like butterflies.
A fourth-quarter touchdown throw from Anderson to tight end Don Bass sealed Cincinnati’s 27-7 win and its first trip to the Super Bowl.
Anderson, who would receive NFL Most Valuable Player and Comeback Player of the Year honors for the 1981 season, completed 14 of 22 passes for 161 yards and was the team’s second-leading rusher. “You would have thought it was a spring afternoon,” Collinsworth recalled of Anderson’s play. “It was one of the single greatest performances by a quarterback in the history of the NFL."
As Cincinnati celebrated the victory, another of the NFL’s greatest games unfolded in the warmer climes of northern California as the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Dallas Cowboys when tight end Dwight Clark made “The Catch” in the waning seconds of the NFC Championship Game.
Weather played no factor two weeks later when the Bengals lost to the 49ers inside the climate-controlled Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan. Although the Super Bowl XVI loss stung Bengals fans, their hearts would be forever warmed by thoughts of their team’s Freezer Bowl triumph.