Chuck Lane was heading out from the locker room to check the field when he met a group of assistants coming the other way. They had a message for the coach, an unwelcome one, the sort of news they would rather have Lane tell him. "Tell Lombardi that his field is frozen," one said. Tell Lombardi that his field was frozen? That, Lane thought, would be like "telling him that his wife had been unfaithful or that his dog couldn't hunt." But that was his job, so he turned around and found Lombardi, who was leaving the locker room to check the field himself when Lane intercepted him. Lombardi seemed crestfallen, then angry and disbelieving. "What the hell are you talking about?" he thundered.
The field could not be frozen. The previous spring, in his role as general manager, Lombardi had paid $80,000 for a gigantic electric blanket devised by General Electric. He had bought it from George S. Halas, Papa Bear's nephew, who was the central district sales representative for GE's wiring services department. The fact that the Bears did not have an electric blanket themselves, even though young Halas was also a Bears scout, did not make Lombardi suspicious; it just showed that he was less tight with his team's money than old George. Lombardi loved modern inventions, and this electric blanket seemed to mean more to him than any play he had ever devised. Only the day before, he had taken a group of writers on a science field trip of sorts, first giving them a lecture on the underground magic, telling them how electric coils were laid in a grid the length of the turf, six inches below the surface and a foot apart, with another six inches of pea gravel below the coils and a drain below that. Then he led them back to a tiny control room off the tunnel below the stands.
Bud Lea of the Milwaukee Sentinel was in the group. "He goes in that little room and all these lights are blinking, and he's like a mad scientist in there, showing these writers from New York and Dallas how it all works," Lea recalled. "All these bulbs are going on and off, and I don't think Lombardi understood one thing about it, but, by God, he thought it was working."
It seemed to be working on Saturday when the grounds crew pulled the tarp off the field to let the Cowboys practice. Puffs of steam came out like a low rolling fog. The ground was cool but not cold, the turf soft but not soggy. Lombardi had been so satisfied then that he yelled over to the project engineer and gave him the okay sign with his thumb and forefinger. Even Tom Landry, the skeptical Dallas coach, who hated to play in Green Bay, had deemed the field "excellent" though a little damp. No dampness now. Parts of the field were frozen "as hard as a rock," reported Jim Tunney, the alternate referee. It seemed that the coil system had malfunctioned. Heat might rise here and there and thaw parts of the field, drawing out moisture, but then the turf would quickly freeze again. George S. Halas insisted afterwards that there was nothing wrong with the system, but the controls had been mishandled. In any case, those who paced the sidelines that day were struck by the juxtaposition of a wide patch of frozen turf next to a sign warning: THIS FIELD IS ELECTRIFIED.
In the locker room, Willie Wood took off his street clothes slowly, reluctantly, still convinced that the game would be canceled. "Man, it's too damn cold," he said to his teammates. "They ain't going to play in this shit." The room was full of smoke, cigarettes burning from the built-in ashtrays on almost every locker. Dad Braisher passed out long underwear to everybody, even Lombardi. Coach said it was okay to wear it today, but he didn't want them stuffing too much underneath the uniforms; he had a thing about players feeling loose and easy. Lee Roy Caffey and Tom Brown wanted to wear gloves, but Lombardi vetoed that request. Linemen could wear them, but no gloves for anyone who handled the ball. Dave Robinson walked over to the equipment man as soon as Lombardi left the room. "Give me a pair of those brown gloves and he'll never know the difference. I'm the only linebacker with brown hands anyway." Braisher agreed to the conspiracy, and Robinson wore gloves the rest of the day.
Copyright © 1999 by David Maraniss. Published with the permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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