The morning of the 1981 AFC championship game, Hank Bauer rolled out of bed to have a look outside. The heater in his hotel room was on full blast, pushing warm air up toward the window overlooking the Ohio River, and yet Bauer noticed there was frost attached to the glass. "Everything outside was white, and there was steam coming off the river."
A week before, Bauer and his San Diego Chargers teammates had been drained by the Miami heat in a classic divisional-playoff shootout. The Cincinnati climate on Jan. 10, 1982 presented a sharp contrast — temperatures below zero, with unforgiving winds that would take the thermometer as low as 59-below (with wind chill) midway into the contest.
As the Chargers began to file toward the bus that morning, kicker Rolf Benirschke got his first taste of the winter air. It hit him like a sucker punch the instant he opened the hotel's doors, and kept hitting him for the 30 yards it took to reach his seat on the bus. One after another, the San Diego players were greeted the same way. Conditions inside Riverfront Stadium were far worse.
According to Bauer, Chargers players were trying everything to outsmart the weather. "Long sleeves. Some guys had thermals. Some tried pantyhose." Bauer came up with an idea to wrap sandwich baggies around his feet before coating them with a few pairs of socks. Didn't work. Nothing worked. After sprinting the length of the field one time, Bauer came back in from warm-ups. 'Take off whatever extras you're wearing,' he told his teammates. 'It's only going to slow you down, and nothing is going to help you in this weather.'
During special-teams warm-ups, San Diego's holder, Ed Luther, took one snap, then turned and asked: 'Rolf, you want me now or for the game?' Benirschke chose the latter, so Luther stood up and walked back to the locker room.
In the opposing locker room, Bengals head coach Forest Gregg gave it to his players straight. 'Look, let's face the facts,' he told them. 'It's going to be cold. You're going to be cold, you're not going to be comfortable. In fact, you're going to be uncomfortable. It's kind of like going to the dentist; you know it's going to hurt, you just don't know how much.'
The Hall of Fame offensive tackle had played for Green Bay in the 1967 Ice Bowl. His Bengals linemen opted to go sleeveless in the Freezer Bowl, perhaps hoping to gain a psychological advantage. The real advantage came after the coin toss; Gregg's Bengals won and chose to take the wind. "It was a brilliant move," Benirschke says.
In a game where owning an early lead is important — "paramount," as Bauer put it — the Bengals used the wind to score the first 10 points. The Chargers couldn't move the ball, and when they did the Bengals resorted to tricks. Early on, Benirschke lined up for a 37-yard attempt. He had made the game-winner the week before in overtime to defeat the Dolphins, but this was a far more difficult kick. For one, he was asked to kick into gusting winds. Even so, "it was a very makeable kick," he says. The Bengals called a timeout, then opened up the tunnel behind the goal posts to allow more wind to rush onto the field. Benirschke gave it all he had but the kick came up short.
All day, Cincinnati's 3-4 defense frustrated a Dan Fouts-led offense ranked first in the league in points and yards. Meanwhile, 1981 NFL MVP Ken Anderson threw tight spirals that pierced the wind. In a year in which he had set a career best in passing yards (3,754) and boasted a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 29-10, Anderson's best day might have been his 14-of-22 performance in the title game's terrible conditions.
On the San Diego sideline, Bauer propped his feet next to the heat blowers in an attempt to unthaw them. At one point someone tapped him on the shoulder to alert him that the bottoms of his shoes were melting.
At halftime Cincinnati led 17-7. The Chargers jogged back to a warm locker room, where Bauer began to sweat profusely because of the drastic change in temperatures. Soon, his nose began to run uncontrollably. "When we went back out there, like a minute later, I couldn't breathe through my nose. I had to (dislodge) the snot."
There was no coming back for the Chargers. Cincinnati won 27-7 and earned the right to face San Francisco in Super Bowl XVI.
Bauer and Benirschke make no excuses for the loss. San Diego committed four turnovers and was outgained in total yards. The conditions, they both agree, didn't suit either team. "I don't know if anybody could handle that weather," Bauer says. "Eskimos, maybe? Polar bears? Yeah, maybe polar bears, but that's it.
"Were they better suited to play in cold weather? You could make that argument, but I'd never use it as an excuse. They just flat out beat us."
After the game the Chargers' players boarded the bus and headed for Covington Airport in Kentucky to catch a flight back to sunny San Diego. Because of the weather, they had to wait in the terminal for three hours until the crew could de-ice the plane. "We're all depressed. We're pissed," Bauer recalls. "And to make matters worse, we couldn't get a drink because it's a dry county."
Players from both teams claim lasting effects from the game. Bauer, who enjoyed Nebraska winters as a kid, doesn't take well to the cold now, and avoids cold weather when possible.
There had been some talk prior to the contest about cancelling the game, which claimed five of NBC's seven television cameras before the game ended. Benirschke believes it should have been cancelled; Bauer thinks the league would postpone a contest under similar conditions today.
"I'd never want another football player to have to experience that," he says. "Is any game that important?"
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mbeac