Like their 1981 counterparts, the Chargers head to Cincinnati and the cold weather to take on the Bengals. Will history repeat itself?
By Andy Cohen
It’s been a bizarre season for the San Diego Chargers. The 2013 iteration of the franchise has been a near complete enigma, at times appearing completely hapless, at other times playing like Super Bowl contenders. Yet despite their maddening inconsistency, the stars eerily aligned to send the Chargers to the playoffs.
That bizarre season could potentially become even more bizarre, as they travel to Cincinnati to take on a Bengals team they lost to on December 1, 17-10 in Qualcomm Stadium, a game where the Bolts clearly did not bring their ‘A’ game. It was their last loss before heating up for a regular season ending four game win streak that included wins over playoff bound division rivals Denver and Kansas City.
This will be only the second ever playoff meeting between the Chargers and Bengals, both in Cincinnati, and potentially presenting a rare instance of history repeating itself. Any longtime Charger fan should recall the scene in January, 1982 in old Riverfront Stadium, the AFC Championship game forever remembered as the “Freezer Bowl.” It’s the stuff legends are made of, and was the second coldest game in recorded NFL history at nine degrees below zero. Factor in the 25 mile per hour winds that brought the wind chill factor down to -59 degrees, and it was the coldest game ever played.
Those 1981 Chargers, like the current version, began their season in a mediocre fashion, starting the season at 6-5 before finishing 10-6 (the 2013 Chargers were 5-7 entering week 14). Both teams lost to the Bengals during the regular season in San Diego, the ’82 version getting walloped 40-17. Combine that with everything the Bolts needed to go right just to get into these playoffs and the notion of divine or cosmic intervention to set up a repeat scenario becomes a plausible explanation for even the staunchest of atheists.
But in order truly appreciate the extremity of the situation in which Dan Fouts and Co. found themselves, it’s helpful to recollect where they came from, and how they got there. Yes, the team from San Diego was flat unaccustomed to playing in cold weather. San Diegans don’t ever have to endure icy conditions and sub-freezing temperatures, exacerbated by a brutal wind chill here in the southernmost part of California. Those conditions are even less likely in the tropical climes of South Florida, where the Chargers had just the week before emerged the winners of an epic, double-overtime showdown with the Miami Dolphins.
The Chargers were greeted that day in Miami by the Dolphins and 80 degree temperatures with the accompanying high humidity typical of the Miami area after a storm; the kind of humidity that completely sucks the energy right out of a man. It was the scene of the iconic photo of Chargers Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow being carried off the field by two of his teammates, too exhausted to make the trek to the visitors’ locker room at the Orange Bowl on his own. There was little celebration in that locker room. They were all too tired, many players requiring IV’s to stave off dehydration. They had just completed a four hour and five minute marathon that pushed the participants beyond their capacities.
They would travel back to the temperate climes of San Diego to prepare for the next step in the quest for a Super Bowl championship, but they could not possibly be prepared for what they were about to encounter.
There are cold weather games, and there are cold weather games. This was the latter. It was so cold that steam rose from the frigid Ohio River, just steps away from Riverfront Stadium, with the wind continuously howling around the building.
“I remember driving to the stadium on the bus that morning, and the river looked like it was on fire,” said Bob Wick, the team’s equipment manager, who was then an equipment assistant.
“The night before the game, my brother Bronco and I went to 5:30 pm Mass,” recalled John Hinek, then a member of the team’s video crew and now the team’s Director of Business Operations. “The church was only about four blocks from the hotel. Walking there, we were going with the wind, and it was still brutally cold. Afterward, coming back to the hotel into the wind, we had to stop several times and take refuge from the wind in storefronts. Bronco had a knit cap, and halfway through the trek he offered it to me. I was so cold that I took it. To this day I remember thinking, ‘now that’s brotherly love.’”
“I remember (head equipment manager) Sid Brooks telling me to get Fouts some water during a timeout,” said Wick. “I ran to the Gatorade table and all the water was frozen in the cup.”
Quarterback Dan Fouts and special teams ace Hank Bauer both suffered frostbite in their fingers and toes. There were no special gloves or socks back then like today’s athletes have access to.
The home team’s advantage, though, didn’t only come from the fact that they were more accustomed to colder weather. The freight entrance to the stadium—where the teams entered upon arrival on gameday—overlooked the Ohio River. Directly across on the interior was the entrance to the playing field. Large rollup gates on either side served to seal the stadium from the outside.
When the Chargers were on offense, the stadium crew opened the gates, allowing the wind to howl through the stadium, making the conditions even more miserable. When the home team had the ball, the gates were closed, providing an extra ounce of ease in which to operate for QB Ken Anderson and the Bengals.
Even the Bengals’ camera equipment used to shoot the coaches’ video couldn’t handle the cold. The team’s end zone camera froze, becoming inoperable by halftime. “Their guy packed up and went inside to warm up,” said Hinek. But Hinek managed to tough it out and finish the game. “The guys shooting the sideline shots were covered, so that means that I was the only person to shoot game film out in the elements in 59 degrees below zero. We ended up having to share our end zone angle with them because they didn’t have one.”
“While packing my gear after the game, I started to cry a bit over the loss. When my eyelashes froze my eyes shut, I had to open them with my fingers.”
There may have even been a fan or two that died that day due to the elements, Hinek said.
The Chargers didn’t lose 27-7 that day because of the cold, though. Cincinnati was simply the better team, and they proved it in beating San Diego for the second time that season. They went on to face Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, and the 49ers, who secured their place in the Super Bowl on “The Catch” by Clark, beating the Cowboys on the NFC Championship game’s final play.
Having already lost to Cincinnati earlier this year, are the Chargers doomed to repeat history? The teams can expect cold weather conditions again, although certainly not nearly as dangerously cold as that January afternoon in 1982. Did fortune dangle the ultimate football prize in front of the Bolts only to have their season end on a cold Cincinnati day like their ’81 counterparts? Can the Bolts break the pattern, or are the Bengals simply once again the better team?
There’s only one way to find out….
Correction: The game took place in January, 1982, but it was the completion of the 1981 season. Thus, it was the 1981 Chargers and Bengals who played the coldest game in NFL history, not ’82.
Update: History, happily, did not repeat itself, as the Chargers broke the pattern and beat the Bengals 27-10. They will advance to play the Broncos in Denver next Sunday. It will be the third meeting between the teams this season. The division rivals split the season series, with the Broncos winning here in San Diego, and the Chargers winning in Denver.