Ken Anderson, the only NFL quarterback ever to win a game on two different planets, can still feel The Freezer Bowl in his bones.
"I'm OK at 60 (degrees) but after that …," Anderson says. "I always make sure I over-dress for the weather."
During 16 regular seasons on Earth, Anderson won 91 games and four NFL passing titles. But it was on Hoth, the frozen planet in Star Wars, where Anderson, the '81 Bengals, and their hearty, passionate fans proved their greatness on Jan. 10, 1982.
He split the minus-59 degree wind chill with two touchdown passes and nerves colder than the ice in the coffee cups littering the field to lead the Bengals to their first Super Bowl in the ice sculpture that was Riverfront Stadium. No NFL game has ever been played in a wind chill so cold when the shell-shocked Chargers fell, 27-7, nearly 32 years to the day their descendants return from San Diego for a playoff game for the first time since Sunday's 1:05 p.m. Wild Card game at Paul Brown Stadium.
"I always thought that game said something about our fans and how much it means to them," says Bengals president Mike Brown, who sat like he always did back then in the open air of the coaches' box.
And at the postgame party Anderson didn't take his coat off until 11 p.m.
"You can tell the players now we played in minus-59 degrees weather, but they can't conceptualize it," says Hank Bauer, the Chargers radio analyst who played special teams that day and tries to conceptualize it. "After playing in that game, I hate going to cold-weather places. I don't ski anymore. I don't snowboard. I don't skate. I stay in San Diego because of that stinking game."
According to the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio, history thaws Sunday into the Freeze Dried Bowl. Somewhere around 40 degrees and maybe some rain. Maybe about 100 degrees difference and a geological time ago. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has worn a glove to help him go 4-1 in the last two seasons when the temperature is below 40. Anderson kept his exposed hands in his shirt between snaps in a galaxy far, far away.
"Ask the guys playing now and they don't know about that game," Bauer says. "They weren't even born."
"Every time there's a cold weather game, we talk about it," Nugent says. "My parents always say it was nothing like that."
Carolyn Nugent, already the mother of two daughters, and one of those wild and crazy season ticket-holders that were so identified with the Bengals in that magical first season of Bengaldom, checked with her doctor. She was about seven months along and wondered if her baby was in danger if she went to the game.
Assured "if you're warm, the baby is warm," she and her husband were part of the 46,302 that gaped in amazement at the Bengals offensive line going sleeveless.
"We wondering how they could move," Carolyn Nugent says. "But that is what they do. It's their job and they're so tough. And once the game got going, it was so exciting and we were standing up and jumping around, you really couldn't feel it."
Mike was born nearly two months later on March 2 and Carolyn Nugent and her husband are still going to games, now mixing a fan's passion and knowledge along with a parent's fears. When the Nugents were in Pittsburgh three weeks ago, their son ended up punting in the wake of
"Because he hadn't punted, my husband said they were going to come after him and I was just hoping he would get it off," Carolyn Nugent says. "I knew he could do it. He played a lot of soccer and he's got a good feel for his leg."
It is 32 years later and Carolyn Nugent is still making decisions about the weather before a playoff game. On Sunday she may have two grandchildren in tow, seven and nine. But only if it's warm enough and it's not pouring. Can't let the kids do anything crazy.
"We love this year's team; we're so excited," Carolyn Nugent says. "There is so much camaraderie on the team and it just seems like they can overcome anything. We love going. I still can't get enough of hearing the announcer say, 'Kicking off for the Bengals, Mike Nugent.' It's still a thrill every time."
Two of those linemen Carolyn Nugent admired are going to have much better seats this time. Dave Lapham, the left guard, is going to stand in an open booth to call his 10th postseason game in his 28th season as the Bengals radio analyst. Anthony Muñoz, the greatest left tackle who ever lived, is going to be in the Anthony Muñoz Suite.
"Once I realized we were playing the Chargers this Sunday, I was praying for it to hit 50 below," Muñoz says.
Muñoz, the native Californian, was all for going without the sleeves. Only one of them, the Massachusetts born-and-bred Lapham, had grown up in cold weather. Right guard Max Montoya was from near Muñoz in California. Right tackle Mike Wilson was born in Virginia and played at Georgia. Center Blair Bush was born in Texas and played at Washington.
"I just remember having a quick conversation with those guys once we got to the stadium," Muñoz says. "You had those tailored jerseys where you were a 52 wearing a 44 and you needed two or three guys to help you on with it. You didn't want anybody grabbing extra material. You didn't have the cold-weather gear you have now, so we basically ended up wearing underneath what we wore in the first game in September. We wanted the backup guys to go without sleeves, too. We're all a unit. They weren't too happy about that."
Lapham, who played his college ball at Syracuse in the pre-Carrier Dome days, grew up frolicking in the Bay State winters in just a long T-shirt. But this? His decision to go sleeveless had nothing to do with mind games. It was the games performed by the estimable Chargers defensive front.
"I don't care where you grew up or where you were from, it was cold. No one anywhere had seen this," Lapham says, "I had made up my mind I was going to play without sleeves at some point that week, I think. I guess we went outside the day before in sweats and I was thinking, 'Wow, it's cold,' but after we played them out in San Diego in November I knew that's what I wanted to do because their big tackle, Gary "Big Hands" Johnson, that's how he played. He'd try to grab you and throw you around. He had the right nickname. He had some big old muckers. I didn't want him grabbing any material."
The Bengalls allowed no sacks. "I don't remember having to pick Kenny up off the cold," Lapham says.
No, Bauer says. The Bengals didn't win the war right then with that psychological ploy.
"We were just trying to get to the Super Bowl," Bauer says. "That stuff didn't matter. I was a running back. I wasn't looking at the line."
Both teams ran the ball that day. The Bengals rushed for 143 yards on 36 carries and the Chargers went for 128 on 31.
"We wanted to run it and we knew it was key," Lapham says. "Even then it was tough. I remember hitting (Johnson) with a forearm and I thought I shattered my elbow."
It came down to the pass. Anderson, the NFL MVP, vs. San Diego's Dan Fouts, the future Hall of Famer. Anderson is still waiting for the Hall even though he beat Fouts in the biggest game of their lives. Fouts fluttered two interceptions on 15-of-28 passing for 185 yards and the Chargers fumbled twice for four turnovers. Anderson, 14-of-22 for 161 yards, threw no picks and the Bengals fumbled just once.
Fouts actually completed three balls longer than 20 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown to fellow Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow. Anderson's longest throw, a 19-yarder, went to tight end Dan Ross making a remarkable catch down the seam.
"I've talked to Dan about it," Bauer says. "There's no question that with the way Anderson threw with that type of tight spiral, that was a difference."
"Fouts tried to throw like he was still on the West Cost," says Lapham, Anderson's roommate. "By the time he tried to adjust, it was too late. Kenny grew up in Illinois and he threw that tight spiral."
"So poised. So calm," Muñoz says of the huddle. "You know how when you stand out in the cold for a long time you have trouble talking? We heard everything Kenny was calling."
"All I can remember are the plays around me," Anderson says. "Danny Ross made a great diving catch down the middle and that had to hurt."
It may have been a Hall of Fame performance, but it had a shaky start. Anderson remembers the Bengals having heated benches for the first time, trucked in from Philadelphia.
"They had holes where you could put your feet and I heard this roar and I stood up to see if we got a turnover and I fell. Facemask first on the bench," Anderson says. "I said to myself, 'There's no way I'm going to get knocked out in the AFC championship game.' "
But the biggest medical emergencies had nothing to do with a blow to the head. Bill Connelly, the Bengals business manager, was then a trainer and they spent a good part of the day thawing out frozen nose hair.
"Guys had trouble breathing," Connelly says.
It was a surreal scene. Bauer says the steam coming off the river made it look like giant Jacuzzi. Muñoz was struck about how the iced-up hair and moustaches made everyone look prematurely gray. Lapham had a hard time coming out of the locker room at halftime. He was so numb by the end of the game that when he showered he could feel the aches and pains popping out one by one.
"Oh yeah," Lapham recalls saying to himself. "I remember that pain."
"It had to be about 70 degrees in the visitors locker room. There had to be 100 degrees difference," Bauer says. "If you hit somebody, usually you'd hear a little ringing in the helmet. But on that day all you could hear was a dull thud."
ALL'S FAIR IN THE PLAYOFFS
Muñoz remembers catching a ride home with wife DeDe and her parents because his Chevy didn't start that morning at the team hotel on Chester Road north of town. It stayed there for two or three more days.
"It's a good thing the hotel shuttle was working that day," Lapham says. "About half the cars didn't start."
At least they got home. San Diego's torture continued at the airport.
"Covington, Kentucky," Bauer says. "You figure about two to three hours after the game you're on the plane. But we had to wait three more hours for the plane to be de-iced. Here we are standing around this empty airport, it's Sunday and it's a dry county and you can't even get a beer."
If Bauer sounds like a good sport, he is. Just this past summer he played in a golf outing with two of his former teammates, Charlie Joiner and Bob Horn. And Muñoz. The Freezer Bowl was a constant topic. Every time the Bengals play the Chargers, Bauer compares notes with his opposite number in the booth, Lapham. And before each game, they talk about that game. The Bengals always hold the trump card. They beat the Chargers, earlier in the year, 41-17, on Nov. 8, 1981 in San Diego to earn that game in Cincy.
That was the thinking when that morning Chargers owner Gene Klein approached Mike Brown, then the Bengals assistant general manager. Let's both call the NFL and ask them to postpone the game, he told Brown.
"I don't think so," Brown says now. "I may be stupid, but everyone knew it was an advantage for us.''
"To a man I've never heard one of our guys say publicly the reason we lost that game was because of the weather," Bauer says. "We didn't win enough games to get the game in San Diego. They didn't win because of the weather. They won in spite of the weather. Yeah, maybe it would have turned out differently. I know we took it personally. When they came out here the next year we put 50 on them. But they won and we lost."
It is 32 years later and Riverfront Stadium is now truly like Hoth, encased somewhere between fantasy and reality. Mike Brown is standing in warm and cozy Paul Brown Stadium and thinking about the 46,302. He's thinking about his two kids who help him run the team now. But back then they were in high school and junior high and Katie and Paul Brown were out there two hours before the game stringing banners.
"Everyone you talk to now says they were there," Brown says. "It's amazing. The fans were there longer than anybody else. Players. Coaches. To me that has always said something very special."
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