— Ralph Neely
Offensive lineman, Dallas Cowboys
(“Ice Bowl,” Dec. 31, 1967)
Something about the holidays just shouts, “Football!” Something about snow during those same holidays screams, “Cold football!”
Yet, when one is a teenage boy basking in the glow of a two-week hiatus from high school during Christmas and New Year’s break, cold is a relative term. At this tender age boys are half-men ... which breeds perceived invincibility. Such was the case with our young foursome on a cold, cold day in Collierville over on the state’s western end.
I’m guessing we were 11th-graders so that would put us in the half-man range of 16 to 17. School was out. The still air hung in a frozen fog. And 6 to 8 inches of fresh snow blanketed the ground like a polar ice cap. Life could not be better.
Few creatures stirred other than those sculptors of front-yard snowmen and related shapes whose designs were best left to the imagination of innovative minds and the talented hands they controlled.
These were the waning days of 1971. All Christmas gifts had been unwrapped and gladly accepted, the decorations and trees had been taken down, and eager thoughts of New Year’s Day football pumped the spirits of all ... especially the emotions of unflappable and brazen men-wannabes.
On this day, it was our version of the “Ice Bowl.” Those with perplexed brows from the opening quotation preceding today’s column should think back to Dec. 31, 1967. It was the NFL championship game between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys. Played on the frozen tundra of Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, this was the land of Lombardi and the year-ending temperature was 15 ... below zero. Wind chill? A mere 30 below.
When asked by a reporter after the game if he had talked with legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi to congratulate him on the Green Bay victory, Cowboys offensive lineman Ralph Neely mused, “He had a smile on his face. Whether or not it was frozen, I can’t say.”
Admittedly, our game-time temperature was not 15 below. The wind was blowing, but not at gale force. But the snow was deep. I still shiver from the icy grip of that frozen air. And I still ache from the glancing blows of that frozen football as it grazed through my stiff fingers, smacking me squarely in the face and all features thereupon — nose, chin, forehead, left eye and right eye, to name just a few.
Ours was a feat of adolescent madness. Playing tackle football in deep snow in temperatures hovering in the high teens was not a fabric woven into the heart of the typical fair-weather athlete. Add to this the trials of playing atop a bumpy cornfield whose snow-covered rows stretched in glistening waves to a distant tree line on two sides. Precarious footing grew more perilous when considering the 2-inch stumps of cornstalk resting under the layered snow like agrarian spikes.
Conditions were perfect.
Reflecting upon that subfreezing game, I realize now it was played about a decade after another legendary contest — the Thanksgiving Day extravaganza staged in my back yard in Falkner, Miss., by a group of eight little tykes who also believed themselves to be the future of the NFL Hall of Fame. They too were invincible. They too were tiny marvels of gridiron athleticism. They too were undoubtedly the sparkle in many a coaches’ eyes.
Whether the home field is a muddy back yard in northern Mississippi or a frozen cornfield in western Tennessee, holidays arouse the football in all things male and boisterous. It did on this cold winter day of ’71.
Unlike the prior 8-man battle in Falkner almost 10 years earlier, our Collierville contest involved only four good friends — Mike Van Landingham, Michael and William Gossett, and me. The Gossetts were brothers separated by only a year and they shared little resemblance.
In the Falkner game, score meant everything. In the Collierville contest, it wasn’t so much about who won as it was who survived. As teenagers, our backyard games were normally touch rules. We left behind the tackle style as babes. But not on this day. Not in this snow. Not within the open terrain of this vast cornfield.
Running through deep snow was a thrill. Doing it across those wavy rows while focusing on catching a pass was quite another. And gloves were for sissies. Besides, they interfered with handling the slick football. So our hands froze. But that’s OK. So did our bare faces and reindeer noses as the slap of the pigskin against red, uncovered skin left an unspeakable sting.
Among our injuries: One knee was cut, even through blue jeans, by a sharp cornstalk. One eye was bruised by an errant pass left untouched by icicle-lined hands. One ankle was twisted from a slide off a slippery corn row. One wrist was sprained from a hard landing in the soft blanket of snow.
And we had the time of our lives.
Here’s to all half-men in sharing this outdoor Yuletide joy.
Hail to the holidays! And may the merry shine bright in all our Christmases, both here and afar.