Newsrooms can be fairly casual office environments. It’s common to see colleagues come and go in jeans, sweatshirts, shorts, T-shirts and maybe a baseball cap. Still, I try to maintain a degree of professionalism with dress shirts and khakis, sometimes a sweater and on rare occasions a sports jacket. The idea is you never know who you’ll run into in the office.
But there are days, typically Fridays, when I join the laid-back crowd, strolling into the office with well-worn jeans, a long-sleeve T or henley shirt and comfortable tennis shoes. It’s Friday. Who’s gonna care?
Yet one Friday this autumn, it suddenly mattered. I arrived at my desk to find various elements of a film crew working around the newsroom. I immediately shrank down into my chair to keep myself out of sight lines. With cameras passing left and right, I caught an editor’s attention and quietly got the scoop: It was an NFL Films crew shooting footage for a documentary timed with the 50th anniversary of the “Ice Bowl” NFL championship game in Green Bay.
WATCH: “The Timeline: The Ice Bowl”
As I contemplated an escape route to an empty office, the editor brought the film director by for what I thought would be a cursory introduction. Instead, the director spent several gracious minutes with me and a couple other editors sharing stories in a slight Texas drawl. He was Michael Meredith, son of the NFL and broadcasting legend Don Meredith, who as quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys was at Lambeau Field for that frigid championship game on Dec. 31, 1967. The Packers’ 21-17 victory, generally viewed as one of the greatest games in NFL history, cemented coach Vince Lombardi and quarterback Bart Starr as icons. It’s what put the glory in Green Bay’s glory years.
The game held outsized impact for Dallas, too, and that was the subject of the younger Meredith’s documentary. For him, the project was personal as he sifted through the reverberations of that loss for his father and the Cowboys community. Points of interest:
- The Ice Bowl was the second heart-breaking championship defeat in the calendar year for Dallas. On Jan. 1, 1967, the Packers held off the Cowboys — this time the host team at the Cotton Bowl -— 34-27, with a late Meredith interception sealing the victory. For a team and city desperately struggling to escape the shadows of the JFK assassination, Dallas fans were beginning to feel snake-bitten.
- While the Ice Bowl is cherished with reverence throughout Wisconsin, the game signaled a changing of the guard. Green Bay was an aging team. Lombardi would soon leave for a short stint in Washington, and Starr would retire not long after. The future belonged to the younger, faster Cowboys. The “star” that Meredith helped put on the NFL map would blossom into the wildly successful “America’s team” that produced two decades of winning, a pair of Super Bowl titles and a lucrative world-wide commercial brand that lives on today. The Packers, meanwhile, languished in mediocrity until the 1990s.
- For all the beaming pride bestowed on the Packers’ gutsy performance in the Ice Bowl, the offense struggled mightily for long stretches of the game. After jumping out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead, Green Bay did virtually nothing until the final drive. To its credit, Dallas shook off its miserable start and erased the early deficit, but the Cowboys only produced one offensive touchdown, that being on a halfback option pass that caught the Packers’ secondary off guard. The other points came courtesy of a Starr sack/fumble and a field goal set up by a botched Green Bay punt return. In other words, this game was not an offensive showcase. But keep in mind, it was 12 degrees below zero.
- It’s hard to fault the Packers for envisioning a future coach in Starr. On the opening touchdown, his audible for a slant pass to Boyd Dowler badly fooled the Dallas coverage, leaving Dowler open for the easy score. Starr also called the fabled game-winning sneak. He proposed it during the team’s final timeout, getting Lombardi’s blessing with “run it and let’s get the hell out of here.” It suggests that Starr, not Lombardi, ran the team while it was on the field. Yet, given his chance at the helm, the former would go on to lead the Packers through much of the “gory years” of the 1970s and ’80s. There’s more to coaching than play-calling.
- There’s some question as to whether Packers guard Jerry Kramer made a false start on the Starr sneak. The replay does seem to show early movement by Kramer, whose block paved the way for Starr’s score. Had the penalty been called, the Packers could’ve tried again from 5-1/2 yards out or, with time dwindling and no timeouts, opted for a chip shot field goal, sending the coldest game in the history of the NFL into overtime.
Meredith took both 1967 losses as personal failures, and he retired just a year after the Ice Bowl at the age of 31. He went on to become a long-time broadcaster on “Monday Night Football,” where his folksy charm served him well opposite the wordy Howard Cosell and straight-man Frank Gifford. And while he pursued a successful acting career, he steadfastly avoided roles that cast him as an ex-athlete. He made it clear that when he retired, he was done with football.
The connection between Meredith’s career arc and the game that largely defined it lurks within the subtext of “Timeline.” This is where it gets personal for the director. His father, who died in 2010, remained tight-lipped about the game that arguably broke his spirit. Yet the younger Meredith regrets not asking him about it, and the documentary is largely a product of trying to fill in the gaps.
I couldn’t help but sense that filial mission as we chatted around my desk that Friday in autumn. Michael inherited a healthy dose of his dad’s affable nature, regaling us with some of the tidbits that his father did share with him. How the family had to hire security guards for their home after a Cowboys loss. And conversely, how fans wanted Meredith for governor after a victory. And somewhat scandalously to us in Green Bay, how Lombardi, earlier in the 1960s and hungry for titles, had proposed a trade with the Cowboys — Starr, plus some extras, for Meredith. Who knows how serious Lombardi was, but Starr was essentially unproven at that point, with Meredith likely showing more potential, so it’s possible it was a legitimate offer that Dallas rejected.
Eventually, the younger Meredith — an accomplished film director in his own right — needed to get down to filming, leaving me briefly regretting not telling him the fond memories I have of listening to his dad defuse Cosell on “Monday Night Football.” I worried that my personal association of “Dandy Don” as a TV celebrity — I’m too young to have seen him play — would be dismissive of his distinguished NFL career. I also indulged the journalist’s instinct to refrain from talking and keep listening. That’s always a good call.
As for the day’s filming, I’m happy to report I share screen time with the likes of Jerry Kramer, Dave Robinson, Mel Renfro and Roger Staubach. But to spot me, you’ll need to do a frame-by-frame advance during the half-second of my back appears as Michael Meredith and our editor walk past my desk. Just look for the guy in the rumpled red shirt.