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You don't know the cold until you're in the cold

I found the T-shirt in a drawer. "I SURVIVED THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME," the words on front of it say. "CINCINNATI 27, SAN DIEGO 7. 1-10-82."

I am thinking of putting the shirt in my bag for the trip to Green Bay, where the 49ers and Packers are playing Sunday in temperatures that are supposed to dip well below zero. Don't worry. I am also taking along my thermals.

I know the Packers are used to cold weather. I know several 49ers players are from frigid climates and have played in miserable conditions as high school or college players.

But I am still not sure if the two teams totally grasp what they're going to face Sunday, if the forecast holds for potential wind chill of 55 below.

I can tell the players this: They are in for a life-changing experience.

As the T-shirt states, I survived and covered the coldest game in NFL history, as did two football teams and many amazing fans at Riverfront Stadium. I was working as a sports columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer, a few years before moving west to do the same job for the Mercury News.

On that 1982 day in Ohio, the wind chill was 59 degrees below zero. And if I have not forgotten how awesomely awful it was, I can guarantee that the men who endured those conditions while trying to play their best football have not forgotten, either. I have spoken to a few since then. They say that even today when the weather gets a little cold, their extremities get numb because they never really recovered from the frostbite they sustained that afternoon.

Residents of Northern California who have never experienced sub-zero weather have a vague concept of what it might be like. But until you step out of a warm building or warm bus and come in contact with air that immediately freezes the inside of your nostrils and takes feeling away from your lips and ears, you don't really understand.

"I went out for pregame warmups and the tips of my fingers turned white," Bengals center Blair Bush said afterward.

Forrest Gregg, the Bengals' coach, was previously a Hall of Fame offensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers and played in the famous 1967 "Ice Bowl" game at Lambeau Field against Dallas when the wind chill was 48 below. But Gregg said it was far, far colder in Cincinnati for the 1982 game.

Despite the brutal conditions, the Bengals' offensive linemen decided as a group to go sleeveless when they took the field for the game. They rubbed layers of Vaseline on their arms to try and create some insulation. This had the added benefit of making it more difficult for San Diego defensive linemen to grab the Cincinnati linemen's arms and get to the quarterback.

I still can't comprehend how the two quarterbacks, Ken Anderson of the Bengals and Dan Fouts of the Chargers, functioned as well as they did. I went down to the field briefly before the game and couldn't think about anything other than the cold and how badly I wanted to get out of it and into the (relatively warm) press box (where ice formed on the inside of the glass window, forcing us to watch much of the game on television monitors). I have no idea how Anderson and Fouts were able to concentrate on audibles and play calls.

Yes, the team benches had heated seats for the players between series. ("I wanted to marry that bench by the end of the game," Cincinnati lineman Dave Lapham told me.) But in a way, that only made it worse because the cold seemed so much colder when the players went back onto the field. And standing out there during the television timeouts must have been misery on steroids.

The punters in this Sunday's game at Lambeau, meanwhile, might want to take note of what Cincinnati punter Pat McInally said after the 1982 game when he described how hard it was to kick the ball. My memory is that one San Diego punt traveled just 12 yards.

"What makes a punt go high and far is when you can compress the air inside the ball and launch it," explained McInally, a Harvard grad. "But you're not going to compress a brick."

And what of the fans? In the Bay Area, Jan. 10 of 1982 is remembered as the day of "The Catch." In Cincinnati, it is remembered as the day some idiot fans emboldened by alcohol actually took off their shirts while cheering and immediately were frozen solid, then hauled away in an icy pile of permafrost flesh by a fork lift truck to the emergency room.

Just kidding about that last part, although there indeed were some fans who did go shirtless for a few minutes at the game. I always wondered if they got pneumonia. McInally, a bit of a wiseass, told me afterward that when he ran out and saw how many people had shown up to watch the game (there were only about 8,000 no-shows), it caused him to be seriously concerned about the state of Ohio's educational system.

I had trouble just getting to the game. My car engine wouldn't turn over and I needed a jump. Later, I would learn that an elderly neighbor of ours died of a heart attack when he went outside to try to start his own car and took too many whiffs of the arctic air. The ground temperature was actually just (just?) nine degrees above zero. But the stiff wind turned it the 59-below effect. Walking across the stadium plaza from my car to the press entrance, steam was rising off the adjoining Ohio River, which would freeze over for one of the rare times in history.

The NFL consulted with experts about whether the players would be in danger if they took the field under such severe conditions — receiving a "no" answer — and the league also consulted with Bengals general manager Paul Brown about postponing the game for a day because warmer weather was on the way. Brown lobbied against the postponement, saying football was meant to be played in all sorts of weather.

So the kickoff happened. And the Chargers never had a chance. The week before, they'd played in 84-degree weather at Miami in an overtime victory over the Dolphins. That meant they were facing a more than 100-degree temperature swing from one week to the next. When the San Diego players took the field and saw the Bengals' shirtless linemen, it was over. The Bengals took an early lead and pounded home a 20-point victory, sending them to the Super Bowl in Detroit (and an eventual loss to the 49ers).

Me? I did my postgame interviews but refused to sit and write inside the frigid press box with a concrete floor, which was also icy cold and radiating the frigidity up through the soles of my shoes. So I packed up my gear and retreated to the Cincinnati Enquirer office six blocks away to write my column. I believe my lead paragraph was something like: "No one who was at Riverfront Stadium on Sunday will ever be the same."

I still believe that's true. I did not get in this business to survive the two coldest games in NFL history. But if I complete that double on Sunday, I'll definitely buy another T-shirt.