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Plotting X's, O's and the wind chill for the Super Bowl

You never forget your first.

That is why former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Andy Russell can recall, in vivid detail, much of Super Bowl IX in 1975, the first of his two NFL championship games. And his starkest memories center on the Poly-Turf surface at New Orleans' Tulane Stadium, which overnight rains and cold weather had turned into a skating rink.

"We got out there and we couldn't stand up. It was ridiculous," Russell remembers. "We were slipping and sliding and we thought, 'You can't play like this. This is outrageous.' "

In the locker room a trainer came up with a solution, swapping the players' regular footwear for shoes with longer rubber cleats. That, Russell insists, made the difference in the Steelers' 16-6 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

"That was a huge issue," he says. "Getting those new shoes and going back out and discovering that they worked."

Thirty-nine years later that game remains memorable for another reason -- with a wind chill of 22 degrees, it was the coldest Super Bowl.

That's likely to change soon. The extended Accuweather forecast for East Rutherford, N.J., and Super Bowl XLVIII is calling for a possibility of snow and light winds with temperatures in the mid-30s and wind chill in the low 20s for the Feb. 2 game between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos. And that has sparked renewed debate over whether the NFL should confine its biggest game to warm-weather cities and domed stadiums or let the elements come into play.

"It's part of the game. Wherever the venue is, that's part of the adaptation," Russell says. "If there's a strong wind that's blowing across the field, well, you've got to make those adjustments."

Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller, who was on the other side of the field with the Vikings during that game in New Orleans, agrees.

"The climate, it's part of the game," he says. "You should have a chance to play in the cold weather. It just seems to make the game more fair."

And Eller points to an oft-overlooked reason why -- teams such as New England, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Green Bay and Buffalo, who regularly play and practice in chilly, inclement weather, can be at a huge disadvantage in humid cities such as Tampa, Miami or Jacksonville, where 15 of the 47 previous Super Bowls have been played.

"In late winter, if we go to play in a place like Texas or California or Florida, there can be a 60- or 70-degree temperature change. And that would affect us," he says. "So it really works both ways. All of a sudden you're in hot weather and you haven't been in that weather. It can make a big difference."

Perhaps. But while rain and snow can play havoc with footing, no running back has ever tripped over a sunbeam on his way to the end zone. And in a dome the elements can be programmed.

But the NFL threw those considerations to the wind -- which figures to be chilly and gusty -- when it awarded this year's game to MetLife Stadium, making it the first open-air Super Bowl played north of San Francisco.

"A little snow would be great for us," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said shortly after awarding the game to East Rutherford, where the average low for Feb. 2 is a brisk 24 degrees.

"Some of our most memorable games were played in unusual weather circumstances. Winter and cold are part of football and snow is also."

Local organizers quickly warmed to the likelihood of record cold temperatures, with the host committee's website claiming it is "proud to host the first outdoor, cold-weather Super Bowl." And to push that point home, the group's logo features an icy blue-and-white snowflake centered on the George Washington Bridge. On game day fans will receive welcome packs containing earmuffs, hand warmers and lip balm.

But avoiding the frigid Northeast or Midwest hasn't guaranteed the NFL a weather-free Super Bowl. In addition to the Tulane Stadium chiller between Minnesota and Pittsburgh, the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears played through a steady rain in 2007, combining for eight turnovers. That game was played in Miami, with Peyton Manning winning his first Super Bowl.

And the lowest temperature to greet a Super Bowl kickoff was 39 degrees at the start of Super Bowl VI, where the wind chill dipped to 24. That game also was played at Tulane Stadium.

Bart Starr, who won the most famous cold-weather game in NFL history, the so-called Ice Bowl, says it's time to ice all the talk about the weather. Playing with a simple long-sleeve undershirt and without gloves, Starr quarterbacked the Packers past the Dallas Cowboys in the 1967 league championship game in temperatures that started at minus-13 degrees, with a wind chill making it feel like minus-36 inside Green Bay's Lambeau Field.

It was so cold that an official tore a lip when his whistle froze to his skin, and the halftime show was canceled because the marching band's instruments didn't work.

Then there was Florida-born Cowboys receiver Bob Hayes, fourth in the league in receptions that season, who telegraphed every running play by keeping his hands in his pants at the snap.

"I don't want to make this trite, but I really believe that attitude is the strongest word in our vocabulary, next to God. And I believe your attitude is what enables you to do those types of things," Starr says. "You have to overcome that (cold). That's one of those mental things, one of those attitudinal things. Your job is to play the best you can. Everything else is secondary."

Another former Packer, the aptly named Blaise Winter, says the Super Bowl's high stakes will erase any distractions the weather might cause for the Seahawks and Broncos.

"That is what you worked your whole career for, to have a chance to be in that game," says Winter, a defensive lineman who played several games in wind chills below zero. "What if they moved it to the North Pole? Who cares?

"From the players' point of view this is a Super Bowl. This is not the third week of the season."

There are some practical concerns, though. Strong winds can produce a bone-numbing wind chill that will make passing and kicking difficult. Plus going from the heaters on the sidelines to the cold field can make it difficult for players to find a rhythm.

But the biggest challenge, Winter says, might be leaving the warmth of the locker room after an extended halftime break.

"A huge part of this game, believe it or not, is how you handle that," he warns. "If the weather is 10, 15 degrees, winds are blowing and you go in there ... Things can turn radically because you know what you just came from. You don't want to say it, but you dread it. It's not the same enthusiasm as when you start a game.

"When you feel that cold when you go back outside, that can be the worst nightmare as an athlete."

And here's another tip for the players -- if you see blood, check your extremities. Winter twice sustained serious gouges that needed stitches to close, but because his bare arms were frozen he didn't feel either cut until he thawed out in the postgame shower.

Which is why even the heartiest players say there's a point where the numbers on the thermometer trump the ones on the scoreboard.

Rocky Bleier, who slipped across the ice to rush for 65 yards for Pittsburgh in Super Bowl IX, was in the stands for the Ice Bowl as a 21-year-old Notre Dame senior.

The memory of that game still sends a chill down his spine.

"I got on my feet at 12:45. And at 1 o'clock, kickoff, I wanted to leave," Bleier remembers. "That's how cold it was."

(c)2014 Los Angeles Times

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