When I was 16 years old, a team won the NFL championship in New York, and pro football was never the same.
That team was the Baltimore Colts, who were led by Johnny Unitas, and defeated the Giants at Yankee Stadium, 23-17. The 1958 NFL Championship Game was the first NFL contest ever decided in sudden-death overtime -- and for that reason, many know it as the "Greatest Game Ever Played." I'm not terribly fond of that designation, since it's so difficult to select just one game as the best ever.
Besides, we see greatness in every NFL champion. What we haven't seen since 1965, as we did that day in the Bronx, is that champion determined outdoors in the cold of winter.
Why is that? Pro football, as a game, is virtually built to weed out the chaff so that true greatness may emerge. Our oblong ball seems designed for the express purpose of making fools of men that cannot master its indiscriminate bounces. The weather conditions of the game can level the proverbial playing field in more ways than one.
Former Vikings head coach and Hall of Famer Bud Grant would say that being cold is just a state of mind -- much like the determination to win. So why, since the AFL-NFL merger, has the NFL insisted that its neutral Super Bowl field always be protected either by a dome or by a warm climate? "The Super Bowl should be a reward," critics say, for teams making it thus far -- a beautiful locale and (at the least) a flawless field for the sport's grandest spectacle. I see things differently.
All season long, teams must show their mettle in sunny San Diego and soaked Seattle, on muddy Midwestern lawns and on fields so frozen they become legend. Many a conference championship has been won in cold weather. Who is to say that the champion of such a sport cannot be determined in a similar climate two weeks later?
Many argue that the conditions of a cold-weather title game will lead to performances that don't suit the Super Bowl stage. "The games would be too sloppy," they say. A team that might perform well in warm weather will be robbed of the chance to play to their potential. Slippery footballs will be dropped, receivers will skid on the ice and the game just won't be the same.
I just have trouble believing how that could be true, based simply on precedent. The Eagles and Packers combined for nearly 700 yards of offense on a championship game played the day after Christmas in 1960. As Lake Erie's December winds bit at him and with Jim Brown in his own backfield, the Browns' Frank Ryan still beat the Colts through the air in the 1964 title game. The famed Ice Bowl in 1967 was won on Bart Starr's quarterback sneak, but that was only necessary because Dan Reeves had thrown a 50-yard touchdown pass in minus-16 degree weather. And did a snowy Gillette Stadium field keep Adam Vinatieri from kicking two historic field goals against Oakland? I don't think so.
Champions don't need palm trees, clear skies and balmy temperatures to prove that they are champions. A game that many call the greatest ever played was played on a cold night in the Bronx. Yet, somehow the Super Bowl is to be exempt from that standard?
Re-introducing cold weather to the NFL championship won't change that. What the wind and cold will force teams to do is to rise to the challenge their forebears so often met, and prove their greatness in the same environs.
When I was 16, a team won the NFL championship in New York. In 2014, another one will be crowned just across the bridge in New Jersey on another wintry night -- and the NFL, once again, will never be the same.
I see today's champions rising to the challenge, not complaining about creature comforts. This is football, is it not?