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Battling the bitter cold of Lambeau Field

  • Press Democrat photographer John Burgess stands on the sidelines during Sunday's 49ers-Packers playoff game in Green Bay, Wis. (JOSE CARLOS FAJARDO / Bay Area News Group)

I had to psych myself up for the 75-foot walk from my hotel to my ride Monday morning near Green Bay, Wis., where Packers football fans have proudly laid claim to the phrase “frozen tundra” as an expression of their toughness and their team's toughness. The hotel employees backed away from the opening doors in fear for their own safety. I sucked in one last warm breath myself before stepping out, and 20 seconds later was safely inside the car ... alive. My jeans, however, testified to the cold, refusing to conform again to my thighs. Like some kind of exoskeleton, they had frozen stiff.

I have only myself to blame. When the 49ers travel to Green Bay, the first thing you check is the weather report. The forecast a week before Sunday's wild card game called for a high of 27 degrees on game day. I whined to co-workers in mock disappointment that a trip to Lambeau Field should be epic, an Ice Bowl II. My wish came back to bite me in the butt, or rather the fingertips.

When I asked the gentle people of Wisconsin why anyone would choose to live there, even the oldest explained I was sharing the worst cold of their lifetimes. The temperature Sunday was a biting -14, with wind chill factored in. On Monday, I raced to the car in 45 degrees below zero weather, more than 100 degrees cooler than the temperature in Sonoma County that day. The game would have been canceled in that weather, simply for the safety of Packers fans willing to brave the elements with only cheese wedge hats for warmth. Cheeseheads save their loudest cheers and praise for the shirtless fans regularly appearing on the stadium's huge video screen.

My battle with the polar vortex that froze so much of the country affected even my travel to and from the game. It was 18 hours each way, with canceled flights, lost luggage, snow drifts whipping across the highway at midnight on long, unexpected drives. I shared that experience with thousands (maybe millions?) across the Northeast. Only a few dozen know what it was like on the field. The sports writers who covered the big win in Green Bay described the cold from the warmth of the press box. They're soft. Yeah, I'm talking to you, Lowell Cohn. The tough guys were on the field.

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