In the late morning of Jan. 20, 2008, Lawrence Tynes walked out of the Radisson Paper Valley and into the frigid Wisconsin air, flanked by bundled New York Giants teammates. They marched toward a bus, which would drive them 30 miles from Appleton to Green Bay, where they would face the Packers in the NFC championship game.
The temperature hovered around zero, the wind chill arctic. Jim Phelan, the Giants’ director of administration, tossed hot coffee in the air, an impromptu experiment. Liquid came out of the cup. Down floated tiny, frozen crystals.
Tynes, a place-kicker in his fourth NFL season, had never played at storied Lambeau Field and had never kicked in a game of such massive consequence. In the steps from the hotel’s front door to the bus, one thought flooded his mind.
“This,” Tynes said to himself, “is going to suck.”
On Sunday, the Packers and Giants will meet in a playoff game at Lambeau Field for the third time in the past 10 seasons. In the first two, the Giants defeated the Packers on their way to Super Bowl victories.
The first, on that day in 2008, stands as one of the most memorable NFL playoff games to watch and one of the most painful to participate in. It was a game played for a chance at the sport’s biggest prize and a game played to survive.
The Giants outlasted the Packers, 23-20, in overtime. Neither team led by more than six points. In retrospect, the outcome serves as a hinge in league history. The Giants went on to beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, stopping New England’s quest to become the NFL’s first 19-0 team. Had Green Bay won, it either may have convinced Brett Favre to retire on top or placed pressure on the Packers to hold off on turning over their quarterback position the next season to Favre’s understudy, a kid out of Cal named Aaron Rodgers. Favre instead played his last game with the Packers, his final act a crucial interception in overtime.
But what those present remember most is the cold. The wicked, sapping, unrelenting cold.
“I tell people, I’ve never been cold in my life since then,” Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer said. “Because I know what real cold feels like.”
Officially, the temperature at the 6:42 p.m. kickoff was minus-1, with a wind chill of minus-23 and 12-mph winds. By the end, it was closer to minus-5 with a minus-27 wind chill. Favre smeared Vaseline on his face. Giants players lined the ear holes of their helmets with fur. The grounds crew gave referees hot chicken broth and apple cider to drink during breaks. Even hours after the game, back at home, Green Bay defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins’s body would not return to normal warmth.
“I was shivering,” Jenkins said. “I was doing a lot of shivering.”
The elements wreaked havoc even before kickoff. Typically, Tynes would kick eight or nine warmup field goal attempts at each set of uprights. He had to stop after five or six because punter Jeff Feagles, the Giants’ holder, could not catch the ball. “His hands were frozen solid,” Tynes said.
Quarterback Eli Manning and receivers Plaxico Burress and Toomer quit halfway through their own early warmup. “We just looked at each like, ‘We’re good,’ ” Toomer said.
When the entire team emerged for pregame, Toomer looked in shock at the back of offensive lineman Dave Diehl, who teammates knew could sweat no matter the conditions.
“He had icicles from the sweat off his helmet dripping onto the back of his shoulder pads,” said Toomer, who now co-hosts “Going Deep” on NBC Sports Radio. “That’s when I knew it was going to get real cold.”
The Packers had played a game in Chicago a few weeks earlier that, to some players, had felt even colder because of the wind whipping off Lake Michigan. The Packers’ offensive linemen left their arms exposed.
“You never wear long sleeves as a lineman,” tackle Mark Tauscher said. “Looking back on it now, you think it’s ridiculous. When you’re playing, you do some crazy stuff. It’s more macho. We thought there was some magic Vaseline that would keep your skin warm. It turned out, bare skin in negative-degree weather, you’re going to be cold.”
The Giants’ offensive linemen responded in kind, although “we had to do a lot of convincing with Kareem McKenzie,” Diehl said. Diehl played through the flu, and playing without sleeves contributed to a frostbite diagnosis.
“Looking back at it now, it was great to be able to do it,” Diehl said. “But would I do it again? Probably not. It took me two or three months to get feeling back in my left middle finger.”
An underground heating system kept the field soft, but on the sidelines, the ground froze. Tynes never kicked balls into the net, unable to plant his left foot on the cement-hard turf. Still, he nailed field goals from 29 and 37 yards in the first half to put the Giants ahead 6-0.
“Everyone wants to say it feels like a rock,” Tynes said. “It just feels like you’re kicking — I’ve referenced cardboard. You don’t really get a response from the ball. It doesn’t explode off your foot. You had to labor so hard just to get it to come off your foot.”
Favre responded with a 90-yard touchdown pass to Donald Driver, beating cornerback Corey Webster, and the Packers took a 10-6 lead into halftime. In the Giants’ locker room, the units split up then reunited so Coach Tom Coughlin could address the team.
“We’re all looking at each other like, ‘I kind of hear what he’s saying, but is he going to be okay? His face looks terrible,’ ” Diehl said. “There was a sense of concern among all of us.”
The teams traded leads in the second half until Mason Crosby’s field goal tied it at 20 early in the fourth quarter. Players battled the weather as much as each other. In the third quarter, Diehl removed his helmet on the bench. A horrified teammate exclaimed, “Diehl, look at your hair.” He pawed at the left side of his head and felt chunks of ice.
“It became a situation where it’s part-survival,” Toomer said. “You look on the field: Either we’re going to the Super Bowl, or they’re going to the Super Bowl. I kept telling people, ‘It’s going to be warm in Arizona.’ ”
“It required a lot more concentration to keep your head in the game,” line judge Scott Steenson said. “Because you’re thinking about staying warm.”
Halfway through the fourth quarter, Tynes missed a 43-yard field-goal try, sending it left despite ample distance. On the last snap of regulation, Tynes faced a 36-yarder to send the Giants to the Super Bowl. The snap sailed high. Feagles put down an awkward hold. Tynes smother-hooked it wide left.
“My immediate thought after that was, ‘What the hell is it going to be like to live in Green Bay?’ ” Tynes said. “I thought the charter was going to leave me in Green Bay. I’m going to have to live here.”
On his way off the field, Tynes heard Coughlin screaming at him. By that point in the season, Tynes had learned to tune out his coach at such moments — Coughlin yelled a lot.
“But when I saw him, I just thought, ‘Holy [smokes], something is wrong with your face,’ ” Tynes said. “I just glanced at him and said, ‘Man, he should cover his face up.’ ”
Tynes had noticed what television viewers had fixated on for hours: Coughlin’s face had turned a horrific shade of purplish-red, burned from the chill.
The Packers won the coin toss before overtime, and with NFL still using sudden-death rules, the Giants faced the chance of not touching the ball again. On the Packers’ second play, Favre dropped back and again looked to Driver, who had beat Webster on a deep out. The pass sailed behind Driver, and Webster stepped in front of it for an interception.
“I remember thinking when we won the coin toss, ‘Our offense has got this. We’re not even going to have to go on the field. We’re going to the Super Bowl,’ ” Jenkins said. “You’re sitting there, looking at the replay on the Jumbotron. You didn’t want to believe it at first. You’re looking for a flag or something.”
In three plays, the Giants moved just five yards. A game-winning field goal would measure 47 yards. Tynes had missed two shorter kicks in the fourth quarter. Coughlin mulled the choice. The Giants’ offense watched him and waited.
“As we’re looking at Coach Coughlin, Lawrence Tynes comes jetting out,” Toomer said. “He just runs out to the field. We look at Coach Coughlin. Coach Coughlin goes, ‘We’ll kick it then!’ ”
“I made him make a decision,” Tynes said. “I’m going to make up for my mistakes. I wanted to show Coach my confidence. I knew I could make it.”
Tynes lined up the kick. He did not know what bad shape his right foot was in, the toll the weather had taken. In the locker room after the game, he would remove his sock to reveal a foot cloaked in black and blue. He would see an enormous contusion sprout on the spot he had mis-hit a kickoff. He would realize that, if the Giants had a game the next Sunday, he could not have played. He did not kick another football for 10 days, until the Wednesday of Super Bowl week.
In the moment, all Tynes faced was a 47-yarder and the weight of the past half-hour.
“You kind of were thinking, maybe he’s a little bit rattled and we’ll get another shot at it,” Tauscher said.
Tynes never worried about the miss at the end of regulation — the whole operation had been screwy on that play. He thought back to the fourth-quarter 43-yarder he pushed left. He knew he had the distance. He just had to make the same kick but start the ball at the right upright.
Hours after Tynes had walked out of the Radisson and lamented the day ahead, that’s what he did. The ball sailed through. The Giants went to the Super Bowl.
In retirement from football, Tynes has enjoyed certain perks because of the kick. Someone offered him tickets to Sunday’s Giants-Packers showdown.
Tynes checked the forecast, saw a projected high of 15 and gave his response.
“Hell, no,” he said.