Anyone can have a bad year, but few have had a spin around the sun as sad as the one the Dallas Cowboys had in 1967.
It started with a New Year's Day loss to the Packers in that year's NFL Championship game, a 34-27 defeat that ended with the home team driving to the Green Bay goal line, only to see a shot at victory end with a game-clinching Packers interception in the end zone.
It ended with another crushing loss to the champs, a 21-17 title game loss played on New Year's Eve Day in the -15 degree cold of Green Bay, the outcome undecided until Bart Starr's quarterback sneak TD with 16 seconds left.
The win is in the DNA of every Packers fan, even those who weren't alive that day. It comes up during almost every network broadcast from Green Bay when the grainy film of Starr's plunge airs one more time as if to remind the world why Lambeau is called "The Frozen Tundra." And, as the 50th anniversary of The Ice Bowl looms, fans get a chance to revisit those 60 historic minutes of play through fresh eyes.
Michael Meredith's NFL Network documentary premiered this past Thursday night at a celebration in Ashwaubenon featuring some of the surviving players and others who played key parts that frosty afternoon. It aired the following night on the cable channel, and it's well worth an hour of your life, especially for Packers fans who get a rare chance to see how the game affected some of those on the losing side of history.
Meredith is the son on Don Meredith, the Cowboys quarterback that day. It took him four years to cobble together the story he wanted to tell, to answer questions his late father never addresses about an event that shaped his family's life moving forward.
In Green Bay, the Ice Bowl is something to be celebrated. 51,000+ witnessed it in person but hundreds of thousands claimed to have been there in the decades that followed. It made legends of Starr and his teammates, from starters to the guys on the taxi squad. State newspapers carried features the month of December as the 50th anniversary approached, delving into every angle and sidebar, from the UW LaCross Band whose halftime performance got canceled because of the cold to the television technician who captured Starr's sneak for generations to come.
Dallas and Cowboys fans remember it differently. They don't dispute the outcome or begrudge the victors their spoils. They remember the heartbreak, the lingering sting of a defeat that leaves a mark on surviving participants a half century later. Meredith talks to his mom who tells in sorrowful terms how much the loss hurt his dad who'd seldom if ever talk about it.
Poignantly, a few credit the game with making the Cowboys a better team moving forward. Dallas was a franchise in ascension that December afternoon, a young and talented team whose best years lie ahead. The pair of stinging losses to the Packers in '67's two title games steeled the squad for future challenges. They'd make it to Super Bowl V and finally win their first Lombardi Trophy in VI, shedding the derisive title of "Next Year's Champions" given to a club developing a rep for being good, but not good enough.
And, they'd do it without Meredith. He quit after the 1968 season at the age of 31, choosing the broadcast booth over the gridiron. He'd become "Dandy Don", part of the ABC Monday Night Football triumvirate that made the NFL a prime time appointment. While many of his teammates moved on to collect rings, Meredith segued into the rest of his life without apparent regret.
The Ice Bowl and the Super Bowl that followed two weeks later were the Pack's swan songs on the title stage. They'd be Vince Lombardi's last as Green Bay coach and signal the start of what we now call "The Gory Years" during which ineptitude on the field and incompetence in the front office brought two straight decades of losing football to Titletown. Many of the same players who froze that December afternoon in '67 were back on the practice field the summer of '68 but age and injury proved to be too much. The Packers went 6-7-1 that season, and their future playoff appearances would be counted on the fingers of one hand until Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren arrived in the early 90's.
60 minutes of football one frosty afternoon gave us 50 years of memories, of stories too strange to be true and of life lessons too strong to be ignored. Teamwork. Commitment. Belief in that person next to you, be it on an offensive line in the freezing cold or in the cubicle next to you in a comfy office. All of it holds true today. All of it needs to be remembered, and not just in years ending in "0" or "5".
Father Time is undefeated and, as is the case with all of history, he thins the herd of its living participants at a pace of his choosing. Meredith mentions the fact that over a dozen Ice Bowl participants died over the four years he needed to complete his film. His dad died well before the idea came along, the son concluding that his father died in part because of a broken heart, left with the lingering sadness that came from not being able to deliver a title to his home state.
It's a story never told in such detail, one that it took a half-century to present. Fitting that it's Don Meredith's son who illuminates it, painful though it might've been at times to do so. Sad that it took us to get to an anniversary with a "5" and a "0" in it to add it to the pile of great tales and life lessons played out on a frozen field so long ago. Celebrate the victors of that day, and thanks to Don Meredith's son we can also tip our caps to those who stood on the other sideline, grateful to those on both teams for great memories, awesome stories and more life lessons than one could expect from a mere hour of football.
Happy Ice Bowl, and Happy New Year.