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The Ice Bowl's what-ifs

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Ken from West Valley City, UT

Having watched two television shows on the Ice Bowl makes me wonder about the field. Given 20/20 hindsight, was there something that could have been done differently to not have the field ice up? Were changes made in field preparation after that game to try and prevent what happened? I know it is customary to cover the field the night before a game if there is snow in the forecast, but snow wasn’t predicted. Would it have helped just to keep the electric blanket turned on with the field uncovered? Or would they have been better off covering the field, but turning off the blanket until the tarps were removed?

All good questions. I’ve wondered the same thing and I’m not sure if the subject was ever addressed in great detail, either following the game or while some of the maintenance people or others were still alive.

Keep in mind, the electric blanket was the first of its kind, so nobody had any experience operating one, as far as I know. The coldest previous game in the stadium’s history was the 1961 NFL championship when it was 20 degrees. In fact, it was with that game in mind that Vince Lombardi called Henry Beemster, owner of Beemster Electric in Green Bay, and asked if he could develop a system to keep Lambeau Field playable during the cold and snow, according to a story written by Kathleen Gallagher for the Green Bay Press-Gazette in 1980.

Before the 1961 title game, the first ever played in Green Bay, the field was covered with eight inches of hay until late in the week before the game. Then workers shoveled off the snow that had fallen in the meantime and carted everything away in wheelbarrows and tubs.

Lombardi’s electric blanket was installed in the summer of 1967 after Beemster and apparently staff at a local architectural firm devised the plans for it and General Electric, in turn, developed the heating cable. There were 14 miles of cable and it was buried 6½ inches beneath the surface.

The blanket was used twice before the Ice Bowl – on Nov. 19 for a game against San Francisco when it was 31 degrees and for a game against Pittsburgh on Dec. 17 when it was 34 degrees – and passed the test both times.

John Harrington, the engineer in charge of operating the blanket, was asked in the days immediately following the Ice Bowl what went wrong and basically said it wasn’t equipped for those extreme temperatures.

“It will do a good job down to zero if we keep it covered at night, but it was 16 below zero and then that wind. It just couldn’t hold it,” Harrington said at the time. “We had it up as high as we dare go. We can’t do any more.”

A 40-man grounds crew had started taking the tarp off the field at 8 a.m. the day of the Ice Bowl and finished about 10. Then the crew swept the field with push brooms.

The only time I’m aware of Lombardi addressing the subject was the Monday before Super Bowl II at a luncheon in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where the Packers prepared for the game.

He blamed the problem on the tarp, but it was unclear if he was talking about the decisions made that day or something else.

The electric blanket “was a very successful operation – we just have to use a different tarp,” Lombardi said. “Moisture forms between the tarp and the turf and freezes – that is what caused the field problems we had for the championship game. It was soft a little beneath the turf, but there was a hard crust on the surface.”

It’s also worth noting that three days after the Ice Bowl, jeeps with brushes swept four inches of snow off Lambeau Field and the Packers practiced there in 4-degree weather apparently without problems. As soon as the snow was removed before the workout, the blanket started heating and steam rose from the field.

However, two days later, it was 10 degrees and an overnight storm with high winds had left drifts eight to 10 inches deep in spots around the field and, thus, Lombardi moved practice to the Green Bay Premontre High School gymnasium.

I asked two people for their thoughts about the hypotheticals you raised.

Chuck Lane, the Packers’ PR man at the time who was on the scene early the morning of the Ice Bowl, said:

“In hindsight it probably should have been monitored throughout the night, but the temperature was about 20 degrees the day prior, and no one had the experience nor knowledge how to regulate it. The extreme cold took everyone by surprise (meteorologists included) and no one anticipated the condensation factor caused by the electric heat rising to the surface, and then having no outlet to the open air.

“(It) just condensed and the moisture built up on the surface of the field. It did not freeze up completely until about game time and then it got worse. The wind was from the north and the last portion to freeze was the south end zone. To my knowledge that was the only day in the (30-year) history of the ‘electric blanket’ that this happened.”

Allen Johnson, our current fields manager at Lambeau, said it would still be a struggle today to keep the field playable in Ice Bowl-type weather.

He said if you kept the field uncovered, it might help as long as the heating system could overcome the cold and keep the surface thawed. But, even then, he said there might be a buildup of moisture just from the temperature contrast, and when hot and cold met it would form a thick frost.

“I had that experience when I first started here and the frost was so thick it looked like snow to the point you couldn't see the markings on the field,” said Johnson. “We had to use a mechanical brush to remove it, which made a bigger mess.”

With a decent wind, he said it might prevent the frost from becoming too thick, but that the humidity would be a factor, as well.

Covering the field today might ensure that the surface stayed thawed until the tarp was removed, but still moisture would be trapped in between, he said.

“Today, when we tarp in that type of situation, we elevate the tarp by blowing air underneath so that it is domed up,” said Johnson “That way the extreme cold temperatures on the outside of the tarp are kept at a further distance from the warmer field surface. We also allow the tarp large areas to vent so there is some air movement. Some moisture does escape and some still becomes trapped, but it usually isn't directly on the field surface, rather it clings to the underside of the tarp.”

Today’s field is made of sand rather than native soil so he said that would help, too, because it doesn’t hold as much moisture.

“I think if they had elevated the tarp by blowing air on the underside it may have helped a little,” Johnson added. “Anything that could have kept the soil dryer would have helped.”

Technology is a wonderful thing, but with a revised user’s manual would the Ice Bowl have been the Ice Bowl? Would we still be writing and talking about it 50 years later?

Maybe so because of the extreme temperatures, but wasn’t the underlying theme of Michael Meredith’s “The Timeline: The Ice Bowl,” essentially a Dallas Cowboys’ lament that if only history could be changed?

I’m kind of fond of the history just the way it is, especially because I was there on Dec. 31, 1967. Presumably, you are too.

Matthew from Stockholm, Sweden

Clay Matthews has passed Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila as the Packers’ all-time sack leader and now has a total of 80. I’m wondering what Packers players who played prior to sacks being officially recorded in 1982 – say Dave Robinson – would likely have more. Is there any way of speculating about players like Robinson and Willie Davis?

I was in your beautiful city in 2008 when my wife and I were backpacking through Europe. We stayed at the Crystal Plaza Hotel. I remember biking around Djurgarden, walking the streets of Gamla Stan and drinking some good beer at several sidewalk cafes.

It also intrigues me when fans like you from across the globe pose substantive questions about Packers history. Certainly, you’ve raised an interesting point.

John Turney, a pro football researcher and writer, has compiled unofficial statistics on sacks pre-1982. He said in an email that he credits Davis with 99 as a Packer, from 1960-69. That includes a high of 14½ in 1964.

But keep in mind two things. One, Turney said there were 48 sacks from those 10 seasons that he was unable to attribute to an individual. Also, Eric Goska, who has done more research on Packers statistics than probably anyone, points out that the old play-by-plays didn’t differentiate between a sack and a run for a loss and so he raises some legitimate questions about unofficial totals.

For example, Goska pointed out: “Bart Starr was tackled 11 times for loss in the 1962 Thanksgiving Day game. Only 9 were counted as sacks. Two of the losses were charged against his rushing total. The team's rushing/passing totals don't add up properly if all 11 are counted as sacks.  To this day, I cannot determine which two were counted as runs.”

I thought Henry Jordan might be another possibility, but Turney credits him with only 58½ sacks. As for Robinson, the Packers rarely blitzed during the Lombardi years so I don’t believe he’d even be close to the top.

Ezra Johnson probably would be second to Davis. Goska credits Johnson with 83½ and he didn’t have a total for his rookie year, although the Packers’ 1978 media guide credited him with 3½. In 1979, when teams were keeping their own unofficial stats on sacks, Johnson had 20½. Officially, Johnson was credited with 41½ sacks during his six post-1981 seasons.

Mike from Johnstown, IA

My grandfather, Tiny Engebretsen, played for the Packers in the 1930s and is in the Packers Hall of Fame. I have seen some football cards of him. Where can I get a hold of these?

Your grandfather played from 1934 to 1941, and the only card set that I’m aware of from that time frame was the 1932 Walker’s Cleaners set. I believe those are rare and extremely valuable cards. Otherwise, if there are reproductions of cards or new sets of Packers Hall of Famers, I’m not aware of them.

I can tell you this: I’ve been writing new bios of those Hall of Famers and they are available under the History link at packers.com. We started with the contributors, did the 1920s players next and now are on the guys from the 1930s. Here’s the link to your grandfather’s bio if you haven’t seen it.

The bios are usually posted weekly and Ryan Hartwig, our social media manager, said fans are encouraged to follow the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame on Facebook and @PackersHOF on Twitter.

FYI: To those of you who have asked over the last few years about different souvenir items and what their value might be, I’ve saved a lot of memorabilia since I was a kid, but I’m really not a collector, per se. I save mostly information, not collectibles, so I have little knowledge about them. Thus, I’m not qualified to answer your questions and normally don’t.

Michael from Boston, MA

As an avid reader of your column, I was delighted to hear my father had the pleasure of meeting you at Lambeau in October. He mentioned you explained our family’s heritage runs deep in Green Bay and I was hoping you might enlighten me a little about my ancestors. I know my great grandfather (4X), John Hoberg, has a vast and rich history within Green Bay’s business community, but can you tell me about his involvement with the Packers?

I remember meeting him and enjoying the conversation.

Pre-eminent Green Bay historian Jack Rudolph wrote in 1956 that there were three major milestones in the history of the city’s commercial development: Opening of the Fox-Wisconsin (rivers) waterway, the arrival of the Chicago & North Western railroad in 1862 and the establishment of John Hoberg’s paper mill in 1895.

When Hoberg moved his struggling mill from Kaukauna to Green Bay, he was responsible for the birth of the paper industry here, Rudolph wrote. Sadly, 15 years before the Packers were founded, John Hoberg died as the result of an industrial accident at his own mill. He got caught in the belting while he was oiling it.

Doubt that would happen to many corporate execs today.

Anyway, contrary to what some might believe, the leaders of what were the big three among the city’s paper mills – Hoberg, Northern Tissue and Fort Howard – were not big supporters of the Packers in the beginning. Based on records in our corporate files, I don’t believe any of the three mills purchased stock in 1923 when the Green Bay Football Corporation was formed and the Packers became community-owned.

But Hoberg Paper & Fibre Co. became the largest shareholder of the Green Bay Packers, Inc., after it was created in 1935 following a second stock sale. As far as I can determine from our corporate records and Green Bay Press-Gazette stories, it wasn’t until 1940 that Hoberg was actually listed as a Packers’ shareholder.

Nevertheless, I’m all but certain Hoberg Paper was the shareholder anonymously identified in the Jan. 30, 1935, Press-Gazette as merely “A Friend.” The “Friend” purchased 40 shares, worth $1,000, or more than any other shareholder. Then in 1940, the name “Friend” disappeared from the Packers’ stock rolls and was replaced by Hoberg Paper’s 40 shares. Presumably, they were the same 40 and Hoberg held the distinction of being the Packers’ leading shareholder until the 1950 stock sale, the third in team history.

For the record, the Hoberg family was no longer running the company in 1935. Frank Hoberg succeeded John Hoberg after his accident, but Frank died in 1929. Two years earlier, J.M. Conway had replaced him as president. Also, H.G. Wintgens, vice president and general sales manager of Hoberg, represented the company on the Packers’ board of directors when the franchise was reorganized in 1935.

As for Hoberg, it became Charmin Paper Products Co. in 1953, and then Proctor & Gamble in 1957.

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