Bengals-Chargers playoff matchup brings to mind historic Freezer Bowl

CINCINNATI -- The Bengals and Chargers have played one another 33 times over the years but one game 32 years ago stands out above them all.

Some recall the 1982 AFC Championship as a 27-7 victory by the Bengals that earned the boys in orange and black the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. It's also the only other time the teams met one another in the playoffs.

For others, though, the sporting contest on Jan. 10, 1982 is remembered (somewhat) fondly as the Freezer Bowl because of Mother Nature's standout performance.

"I can remember going out for pre-game warm-ups and I put my finger on the ground and it stuck," said Doug Wilkerson, an All-Pro offensive lineman on the Chargers that year.

The temperature that day was minus 9 degrees but the 59-below-zero wind chill made the game unlike any that came before or after it. It was played on one of the coldest days of the 20th century.

By comparison, the forecast for Sunday’s game calls for temperatures in the mid-30s -- a chilly day in most situations yet roughly 100 degrees warmer than it was in 1982.

The frigid winds rolling through Riverfront Stadium three decades ago created a dangerous environment that is rumored to have led then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to consider delaying or relocating the game, an unprecedented consideration as no game has ever been delayed or moved due to temperature.

While Rozelle decided the show must go on, some of those who were inside the stadium almost didn’t.

Mike McGregor, who produced the Chargers’ radio broadcasts for many years, fell victim to the extreme conditions in the booth after the game, passed out and was fortunate to survive, according to an article on . He was taken to the hospital and didn’t return with the team.

While the near-death experiences were few and far between, frostbite was a real risk for everyone in the stadium.

“I had frostbite on my big toe because of that game and I still feel it in my right thumb when it's cold," Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow said in the documentary “Missing Rings.”

Although the risks were real, neither the threat of amputation nor possible death were enough to keep Bengals fans from watching their hometown club play for their first AFC crown.

“I think we had over 48,000 show up for the game. It was a strong testament to the fans of Cincinnati that they would brave the elements and come out and watch a Bengals victory,” linebacker Tom Dinkel recounted.

He recalled some fanatics showing up shirtless.

Dinkel speaks highly of the fans now, but his confidence in them wasn’t quite as emphatic leading up to kickoff of the Freezer Bowl.

“I remember making a bet with a few Cincinnati police officers before the game saying, ‘Man, there’s not going to be 30,000 people at this game.’ And the police officers, like six of them, saying, ‘Nah, Dink, we’ll bet you.’ Ten bucks a piece,” he said. 

“Needless to say, I was out 60 bucks. After the game, they were all standing there waiting for me to pay up.”

Even though it’s easy to look at the inclement conditions as a hindrance, some members of the Bengals organization tried to turn them into a home-field advantage.

There were frozen pipes, out-of-order bathrooms and ineffective heating systems, but what some players remember most vividly was seemingly random stadium doors that would open and then close at various times.

Gusts of wind rolled across the Ohio River at speeds in excess 30 mph throughout the day. However, the Chargers don’t believe the phantom door openings were caused by rogue winds.

Wilkerson, who played 14 seasons in the NFL, remembers that when his team would head down to one particular goal line, "they would open the doors on that end and let the wind blow through."

The referees, he said, eventually caught on and the doors remained shut after that.

But it wasn’t all about establishing an on-field advantage. Some of the Bengals focused on getting the psychological upper hand.

The team’s offensive linemen thought playing sleeveless would show off their guts as much as their biceps. They hoped it would intimidate the Chargers.

“Of course, one of the things people always ask about was going out sleeveless, as we did as an offensive line, but I figured, heck, we were crazy enough to play in it, why not go out there sleeveless,” legendary offensive tackle Anthony Munoz said.

Guard Dave Lapham says his decision to expose his bare skin to the bitter cold had little to do with what the other team thought. His choice was more of a reaction to what his opponent planned to do.

“Me personally, the reason I went out there sleeveless, I didn’t want the guy I was going against, who was outstanding, Big Hands Johnson – named for a reason, grabbing and pulling. I didn’t want extra cloth around,” he said.

Several of the old-time Chargers have said the extra layers made them sluggish and slowed them down. They were coming off a 41-38 victory over the Dolphins where their offense fired on all cylinders in the perfect 80-degree weather of

sun-soaked Miami.

It’s impossible to know for certain if the weather in Cincinnati stymied the Chargers offense against the Bengals, but statistics don’t lie.

The SoCal boys, one of the most prolific offenses in the league, had season lows in passing yards (173), total yards (301) and points scored (7).

They also had four turnovers, including two interceptions thrown by bearded quarterback Dan Fouts. The former Oregon Duck was displayed more than once during the Freezer Bowl with icicles dangling from his famed whiskers.

The Bengals reached for their fair share of extra socks and hand warmers, as well.

“You look at the tape … most all of the linebackers – Jim LeClair, Glenn Cameron – underneath our windbreakers we had some thermals on, trying to stay as warm as possible,” Dinkel said.

It's believed several players resorted to wearing pantyhose in an effort to stay warm. However, few have come forward to speak on the record about the urban legend.

One of the brave souls who admitted to wearing the undergarments was placekicker Jim Breech who said he put on two pairs to ensure his legs were ready when the team needed him.

“I wore them and am not embarrassed to say it, they kept me warm,” he said.

Of course, the nylon-spandex hosiery did little to protect his foot.

“The thing that worried me the most is the kickoff when you clip the tee. It hurt so bad to kick the tee,” he said. “When I woke up the next morning after the game, my toe and my foot were black and blue from kicking the ball. It was literally like kicking a rock.”

The pain, wind and pressure of the day didn't seem to bother Breech, though. He converted all five of his kick attempts, including three extra-point tries and a pair of mid-range field goals.

Perhaps he knew what he was doing when he got dressed that day.

In the end, it’s easy to look back at the Freezer Bowl and fixate on what the thermometer read that day. But doing so trivializes what the Bengals managed to accomplish.

They didn’t win because it was windy and cold. They didn’t earn a trip to the Big Game because someone left open a door or made outlandish wardrobe decisions.

They won because they were a great team that came together to accomplish a common goal: success.

“I think the thing about it was, you knew if you could get through that game and won that game, you’re going to the Super Bowl, so I think you could do anything to get through that game,” Breech said.

“At the end of the game it didn’t feel cold at that point.”

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