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Stories of the cold
How the Panthers tried to stay warm during their historic first trip to Green Bay for the NFC Championship Game (with neither working out quite as planned).
By Darin Gantt Dec 17, 2020

As the person responsible for making sure the Panthers have the correct gear to play in any conditions, equipment manager Don Toner always keeps an eye on the weather. So when he realized it might only dip into the mid-20s Saturday night in Green Bay, he was almost sad. Or maybe disappointed. For others, if not himself.

"I mean, if you're really going to experience Lambeau Field, you almost want it to be cold," Toner, an obvious masochist, said.

As ridiculous as looking at the mid-20s and thinking, "Hmm, not bad," may be, the reality is it can always get worse.

And at least this way, he doesn't have to worry about packing extra cayenne pepper or how to get rid of all those broomball shoes that no one ever wore, or returning well-intentioned gear to the hospital that proved to be not worth the freight.

The Panthers have gotten the full Green Bay experience before, when the franchise had little of its own. This week, it's just a game against the Packers near the end of a rebuilding season. The first time Toner went there with the Panthers, the conditions were as different as the stakes.

After the franchise's second season, the Panthers surprised everyone by advancing to the NFC Championship Game. They exceeded everyone's expectations, until the cold, hard reality of facing Brett Favre and the heavily-favored Packers smacked them in the face in a 30-13 game that wasn't nearly that close.

But even before Favre and the Packers could, Green Bay did.

That game was the coldest in Panthers’ history, such as it is (anything at freezing or below gets you in the top 10).

"It really was like another planet, but it didn't bother the Packers guys at all," Panthers security guard Ricky Robbins said, recalling his spot on the sidelines near coach Dom Capers. "It got to a certain point where all movement basically stopped, and moving was the only thing that was going to keep you warm."

Table inside Article
Temperature Date Location Result
3 1/12/97 Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisc. Packers 30 Panthers 13
12 11/30/14 TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn. Vikings 31 Panthers 13
25 12/1/02 Cleveland Browns Stadium, Cleveland, Ohio Panthers 13 Browns 6
27 12/23/10 Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pa. Steelers 27 Panthers 3
28 12/9/18 FirstEnergy Stadium, Denver, Colo. Browns 26 Panthers 20
28 11/9/97 Mile High Stadium, Denver, Colo. Broncos 34 Panthers 0
30 1/3/10 Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C. Panthers 23 Saints 10
30 12/10/00 Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Mo. Chiefs 15 Panthers 14
32 12/19/16 FedEx Field, Landover, Md. Panthers 26 Redskins 15
32 12/4/06 Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, Pa. Eagles 27 Panthers 24
32 12/26/99 Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh, Pa. Steelers 30 Panthers 20


A DIFFERENT KIND OF COLD

Toner's a Buffalo guy, so any discussion of cold weather will always be conditional for him. But the NFC Championship Game after the 1996 season was a different kind of cold, and it became another advantage for the Packers that night. Not as much of an advantage as being better at football than the second-year Panthers, who were in over their heads in many ways, but it was definitely a factor.

"It was the coldest day in the history of the world," Panthers executive director of football staff Mark Carrier said.

He laughed afterward, but it was clear in the way he said it nearly 24 years later that it didn't qualify as hyperbole in the moment.

When they kicked off the afternoon of Jan. 12, 1997, it was a crisp 3 degrees Fahrenheit. Don't even get me started about Celsius, that just makes it feel colder, and no one needed any help with that on that day.

Carrier, then one of the team's starting wide receivers, knew a little bit about being uncomfortable.

Not growing up, no; he was from a normal place (Louisiana), and then was fortunate enough to get drafted by Tampa Bay. That meant annual trips to Green Bay and Chicago as part of the old NFC Central, but at least he was a visitor, and the games in Detroit and Minnesota were inside. Signing with Cleveland as a free agent in 1993 made it his way of life, so coming to the expansion Panthers in 1995 got him back to his preferred climate.

As a guy who catches flying things and then tries to run away from people for a living, it turns out that having control of your extremities helped.

"The biggest thing was just trying to feel your fingers and your toes," Carrier said, adding that it wasn't nearly as simple as it sounded.

Carrier was like many players, who tried a number of methods to keep his precious hands and feet warm. Glove technology wasn't what it is today, so many guys didn't wear them. But everyone wore socks. Lots of socks. And then more socks. Insulated socks with heating inserts. Plastic bags over the first pair of socks, then more socks, in hopes of keeping the first pair dry (even if that did create a bit of a foot terrarium when you began to sweat).

The veteran wideout even went to the extreme of sprinkling cayenne pepper on his feet, hoping for a chemical reaction.

"That didn't really kick in until after the game," Carrier said with a laugh. "All I know is for three hours or however long the plane ride home was, my toes were on fire."

Still, when he went out for warmups, he tried to minimize the conditions.

"I mean, it was a big game, and we were all so pumped, so hyped to be there in our second year," Carrier recalled. "I said, 'You know what, I'll show them.' So I get ready for pre-game warmups, and I'm going to go out there with no sleeves on, show off the guns, show them it wasn't going to bother me.

"When I ran out of the tunnel and onto the field, I made it to about the 20-yard line and said, 'Nope.'"



ALL ABOUT MINDSET

Carrier was like a lot of players, who tried to convince themselves it wasn't actually that cold.

Hall of Fame outside linebacker Kevin Greene had a different plan. He simply refused to acknowledge it.

"I tried to never let playing in the cold bother me," Greene said. "Playing in the brutal cold weather is a mindset. If you let your mind think you're freezing, then you'll freeze. You just have to turn the channel and move on to the next thing."

Even among traditional football guys, Greene's old school.

Before coming to the Panthers before the 1996 season, he worked for the Steelers, and playing cold-weather games — especially in the playoffs — was part of the ethos in Pittsburgh, so he embraced it.

Line play

That does not, however, confer immunity.

Greene laughed and said in the late stages of the NFC Championship Game, it began to dawn on him that he had been shivering for the last three hours.

"When Brett Favre starts kneeling to run out the clock, and the crowd's going nuts, that's when you realize it," Greene said. "That's when you say to yourself, 'Man, it's freaking unbelievably brutal cold, and I'm ready to get the heck out of here.'"

While Greene might not have let it bother him, it did a number on enough of his teammates that it was a clear edge for the Packers. Greene went on to coach in Green Bay for five years, and said they could spot when the weather conditions were in the heads of opponents.

"You could see the guys who weren't ready for it, guys who were trying to play all bundled up, they were fighting it," Greene said. "I mean, you can't put enough clothes on to actually be warm when it gets like that.

"And the more gear you put on, the more it becomes a detriment to your play, it slows you down, and restricts your movement. That's why you can't let it be the biggest factor."

It might have gotten to some of his teammates that day.

Kerry Collins

Packers defensive tackle Santana Dotson told longtime Packers reporter Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal that they could see it in the Panthers' eyes at a certain point.

"I remember early in the third quarter, it was just a typical lead or dive up the middle. I remember splitting a double-team and hitting (Panthers running back) Anthony Johnson right in the facemask — so hard it unbuckled his chinstrap and one of my gloves flew about 10 yards in the air," Dotson said. "After that collision, you could tell in Anthony's eyes that he felt like it was too cold for him to play that physical. That was the end of their running game."

Robbins said that even some of the Panthers' most physical players were reduced by the conditions, and that when they raced back to the sidelines, they made it clear.

"Listen, (outside linebacker) Lamar Lathon was a tough guy," Robbins said. "But he was one of the guys I remember being most vocal about it. It got to a point where when he came off the field, he was very religiously saying: 'It. Is. Too. Cold. To. Be. Playing. Football.'"

Lamar Lathon


PACKING FOR AN EXPEDITION

Of course, the Panthers' lack of production wasn't for lack of preparation.

Toner and former equipment man Jackie Miles wanted to make sure they had everything they would possibly need for the conditions, to the point they may have over-packed. In addition to the normal array of space heaters and heated benches and clothing, they brought along items that didn't prove useful.

Broomball

"Jackie went out and got a bunch of these broomball shoes, because he was afraid the field was going to be frozen solid and no amount of cleats were going to work," Toner said of the flat-bottomed, rubber-soled, awful-looking things that no self-respecting football player was ever going to put on his feet. "They never came out of the trunk."

Likewise, a towel-warmer borrowed from the hospital proved to be not worth the space it took in the equipment truck.

"Basically, as soon as you took a towel out of it, it was frozen by the time you handed it to somebody," Toner said with a sigh. "It was pretty useless."

They weren't the only ones who may have overcompensated.

A certain young newspaper reporter at the time, one who grew up near the mountains in suburban Hickory and spent four and a half years at Appalachian State, was convinced he was going to die of exposure that weekend. Living in Gastonia at the moment, he set out to find a heavy wool overcoat. Oddly enough, they didn't sell that many heavy wool overcoats in Gastonia in January of 1997, and he bought the last one in the last store in town out of desperation. He has worn it at least every three or four years since then, so it's still in quite nice condition. Fits a little baggier now, as he had tried to eat his way to warmth in those years (or just wasn't as committed to a lifestyle of discipline and vigorous physical exercise).

And as it turns out, they cranked the heat up in the press box to make the out-of-towners feel comfortable, to the point where sweats were broken there as well.

Packers fans

Anywhere else, the locals would have spent all their time laughing at the rubes from the South, while eating their cheese curds and dancing shirtless or something.

But that doesn't happen much in Green Bay, at least the laughing at rubes part.

As unforgiving as the atmosphere can be, the locals are unfailingly nice. Minnesota has better PR in that regard, but there's a genuine small-town hospitality there that's as warm as the conditions are cold.

"It's always cool to go there," Toner said, perhaps choosing his words ironically. "They treat you so nice there, they'll do anything for you. And then you look up at the scoreboard, and they're beating you by 20, and they're still telling you how great you are. That's just kind of how it is there."

And that almost makes Toner wish it was going to be colder Saturday night.

Almost.

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