As Tony Walter stood on the sides during the Ice Bowl, drama was happening all around him. On the field, certainly, where the Green Bay Packers played the Dallas Cowboys for the 1967 NFL championship, but also in Lambeau Field’s frigid metal bleachers, where 50,000 individual stories were getting new, unforgettable chapters.
Walter’s new book, “The Ice Bowl: The Game That Will Never Die,” recounts many of those experiences, collected from the celebrated, such as Chuck Mercein and Rocky Bleier, to the likes of Ed Vanderloop, Joe Bowers and JoAnn Hanaway, people you’ve never heard of, but whose stories are the core of the book.
Seemingly, Walter might one day run out of things to write about involving the Green Bay Packers, but don’t count on it. His family’s history is as inextricably interwoven with the Packers as any.
Walter’s biography is a book in itself. He is related to several prominent families in Green Bay history, including the Hagemeisters, Minahans and Torinuses. Family members helped run the Green Bay Press-Gazette and the Appleton Post-Crescent. His mother was an editorial writer for the Green Bay paper. His father was sports editor of the Press-Gazette and friend of such Packers luminaries as Don Hutson, Verne Lewellen and Clarke Hinkle. He, too, was a sports editor at one stage of his long journalism career.
And he was one of the people who actually was at the Ice Bowl. A 22-year-old St. Norbert College student, his job was running film from a grumpy on-field AP photographer to a photo room in the stadium. Needless to say, with cameras and cameramen frozen stiff by time the game started, he was quickly out of work. Like others at loose ends because of the cold, including many who had even less business on the field than Walter, he camped on the sideline and watched the game.
As he did in his other books, Walter weaves Green Bay and wider history around the personal stories of his subjects. He invariably finds facts that are equal parts informative, contextual and entertaining. For example, Green Bay in 1967 had 35 parks and 62 churches, which, combined, was less than its 193 establishments with liquor licenses.
Walter spends little time on the game itself. Other books — a lot of other books — do that, and for this volume, former Packers halfback Chuck Mercein’s first-person account in the Forward does an efficient job.
Context is important to the veteran reporter in Walter.
“My starting theme was, that was the day that established Green Bay’s identity. I wasn’t interested in finding people to tell me it was cold. I knew that. Or that the Packers won. I knew that.
“It was about when the game happened. What was going on in the world? So much was changing, whether it was civil rights, it was music, it was a very, very divisive war,” Walter said. “Along came this ridiculously cold game. It became a distraction” from the cultural upheaval.
And indeed, Walter didn’t confine his gameday stories to Lambeau Field. He talked to a US Army veteran who listened to the game while on guard duty at a bridge in Vietnam, to a Peace Corps volunteer in Argentina, and to a De Pere resident who thought it would be a good day to go skiing in northern Michigan (spoiler alert: it wasn’t).
Writing a book about an event 55 years ago had its challenges. Even Walter questioned some of his own memories of the game. He can’t remember how cold he must have been that day.
“I wracked my brain. Can I remember anything more? I remember how grumpy the Associated Press photographer was,” Walter said. “I don’t have a real clear memory of people pulling down the goal posts. I was ready to get out of there. I went right to the car. It’s kind of surreal.”
For perspective, 55 years before 1967 was 1912. The Titanic sank that year, World War I hadn’t happened yet, and the Packers were still seven years away from their first-ever game.
The carting away and conversion of the Lambeau Field goal posts into souvenirs is a significant part of the Ice Bowl story. Ken and Ed Vanderloop, brothers who sold beer at Lambeau, acquired, then lost, a large piece of goal post they had written their names on. In one of those small-world events that Packers fans have come to know well, the prized piece turned up 40 years later in the hands of a fan at another football game that Ed Vanderloop was attending far from Green Bay.
One thing that jumps out at the reader throughout the book is how lax security was at Lambeau Field in 1967. Anyone who’s been to modern Lambeau Field that knows security is anything but lax. At the Ice Bowl, however, stories abound of people sneaking into the game, fans standing on the sidelines or even sitting with the players and not being challenged by anyone, and many, many fans bringing alcohol and Sterno cans (actual and homemade) into the stadium for heat.
Often, one thing led to another. Walter’s college friend Chuck McKee suggested he contact Joe Bowers, who brazenly walked onto the sideline and took some of the most candid Ice Bowl pictures of coach Vince Lombardi and players with his Instamatic. Bowers was a long-time friend of Rocky Bleierthe former Pittsburgh Steelers running back who grew up in Appleton and was one of Walter’s most enjoyable interviewees.
“That was one of the neatest parts about this, how one story or one person would connect me to another,” he said.
Walter talked to about 70 people in putting together his book, and he credits PJ Vidani of De Pere with contributing to the research. Vidani is a dedicated collector of Ice Bowl stories himself.
Between them, they believe they were able to separate poseurs from people actually at the game.
The book is available on Amazon, and soon will be at the Packers Pro Shop at Lambeau Field, and at Bosse’s News & Tobacco and the Lion’s Mouth Bookstoreboth in downtown Green Bay, and other retailers.
Among Walter’s favorite stories from that day was Steve Seidl and his dad, Len, accidentally melting another fan’s coat while trying to warm themselves up with a coffee can of charcoal and lighter fluid. Another involved Bleier, who was at games with two of the most iconic plays in NFL history: Bart Starr’s goal line sneak and the Steeler’s Immaculate Reception. No spoilers here. You’ll have to read the book.