The 10 Best Cold-Weather Players in NFL History

With this year’s Super Bowl likely to be a freeze-fest, let’s look at the players who would have thrived in these conditions.

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” the famous quote affixed to Vince Lombardi’s towering legacy reminds us. But so can the cold, and even the toughest men can are subject to the harsh realities imposed by the elements on game days. Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, is a unique departure from the controlled indoor temperatures of big dome events, or Miami-based title games chosen for idyllic weather. This is unofficially dubbed the “cold-weather Super Bowl” – a potential challenge to today’s elite players to be as tough as the frozen soldiers of yesteryear. Soldiers such as…

10. Reggie White

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Reggie White’s breath on low-temperature days is the spirit of cold weather play. After roaring into the NFL in Philadelphia, he brought “the Sack to the Pack” in Green Bay, supporting Bret Favre’s 1997 Super Bowl victory. “The Minister of Defense” appeared in the Pro Bowl in 13 of 15 career seasons, following up Green Bay’s Super Bowl win with an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. While most men shiver in the cold winds of battle, White was known as a genuine leader no matter how treacherous the elements.

9. Bruce Smith

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The Astroturf in Buffalo was essentially injurious, carpeted cement, an ideal playing surface for defensive end Bruce Smith while getting off the line and devastating offenses in the backfield. All-white fields would see a blue and red blur as Smith emerged from the snow like a first-ballot Hall of Fame blizzard. No quarterback escaped this all-time takedown artist as he left the gunslingers of the 1990s searching for answers buried in the freezing cold.

8. Fran Tarkenton and The Purple People Eaters

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Fran Tarkenton is a top-five all-time QB in nearly every category available. From Minnesota to New York and back to Minnesota, Tarkenton’s greatness came from the blistering Midwest and East Coast cold. A nine-time Pro Bowl selection, Tarkenton scored three NFC championships during the 1970s as the offensive counterpart to the feared “Purple People Eater’s” defense, led by Alan Page, who won the NFL MVP as a defensive lineman – a distinction shared only by Lawrence Taylor.

7. Dick “Night Train” Lane

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The Detroit Lions’ secondary displayed the finesse and technique of Dick LeBeau and the brilliant, demoralizing undercutting of Dick “Night Train” Lane. Lane’s propensity to separate players from consciousness resulted in the banishment of the clothesline tackle and facemask. His necktie tackles demonstrated his viciousness, but he had 14 interceptions as a rookie and played perfectly alongside LeBeau’s ability to pick off Unitas, Star, and Tarkenton. Their Motor City dynamics fathered the zone blitz, made possible by a message that was crystal clear no matter how foggy the conditions: Never be on the tracks when “Night Train” is rolling through.

6. Johnny Unitas

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“The Golden Arm” helped define the game of football itself from the discomfort of Baltimore’s unforgiving winters. Unitas gave the Colts their first winning season in franchise history, building toward winning the NFL championship the following year in 1958 for “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Unitas was essentially the inaugural MVP star, and for good reason – his record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass stood for more than a half century. A three-time NFL champion, one-time Super Bowl winner, and seminal Hall of Famer, Unitas was perfectly at home in freezing temperatures and a plain white tee, so long as football was involved.

5. Steve Van Buren

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In December 1948, “hard-nosed runner” didn’t even begin to describe Steve Van Buren. The running back was the show-stealing Eagle for the Blizzard Bowl in Philadelphia; he scored the only touchdown of the game, in the fourth quarter, against the best offense in the league, the defending champion Chicago Cardinals. It put Philly football on the map – and it almost didn’t happen; Van Buren initially thought the blizzard had canceled the game and stayed home. When summoned to Shibe Park at the last minute, Van Buren trudged to the stadium – filled with nearly 30,000 popsicle-like spectators – on foot. He walked and took three trolleys to score the only touchdown in a game in which the two teams combined for 47 passing yards due to the weather conditions. Later, he walked and took the trolleys back home again, despite his success. Van Buren had to work the next day delivering ice – a fitting note on how ungodly tough were both the time period and the man.

4. Jack Lambert and The Steel Curtain

Photo: Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2014

Jack Lambert was an undersized linebacker, physically more reminiscent of a cigarette smoker than an icon of the Steel City. A true enforcer, he commanded respect through a detached dedication to hurting the opposition. Without his top four teeth during games, Lambert’s snarl shook the competition, resulting in an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 1976 – the year in which he led the Steelers’ only allowed two touchdowns in a nine-game span. The Hall of Famer was part of the Steelers’ brutal defensive chorus, which touted men like fellow Hall of Famer “Mean” Joe Greene, and their resulting four Super Bowl wins.

3. Bart Starr

Photo: Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2014

In 1967, during the sub-zero “Ice Bowl” game, Bart Starr called plays on the field like he always did. He set Vince Lombardi’s classic Green Bay Super Bowl-establishing run with 14 of 24 completions, 191 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. Those numbers might not be the most impressive on their own, but the frigid nature of the game – coupled with what the NFL Network called the gutsiest call in history – made something far greater than the numbers can demonstrate. After Green Bay’s defense suffered in the cold, giving up 17 unanswered points to the Dallas Cowboys, Starr called a quarterback sneak to win the game. If he didn’t get to the end zone – game over. With no timeouts and temperatures nearly 20 below zero, Starr got the touchdown after Green Bay failed its two previous running attempts. The gamble solidified their NFL Championship that year, and kept the Vince Lombardi Trophy from being called either the Tom Landry or Hank Stram trophy.

2. Dick Butkus

Photo: Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports| Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2014

Linebackers are some of the most feared men on earth. A 260-pound Dick Butkus set the defensive record for all-time fumble recoveries by capitalizing on the biting Chicago cold, and freezing the opposition in sheer terror. Sub-zero temps were more forgiving than the demoralizing violence Butkus brought to the field with his massive ferocity and impactful speed. His ability to excel in cold weather led to eight Pro Bowls in his nine seasons. Butkus’ destructive abilities were a force of nature, a defining bright spot for the Bears during a reign where even the pile of bodies Butkus sacrificed didn’t translate to Super Bowl success (or anything close). Still, on a cold day, Butkus was more likely to be the cause of shock than any frostbite.

1. Jim Brown

Photo: David Boss-USA TODAY Sports | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2014

There has never been a running back more fearsome at the point of impact. On a cold day, colliding with the Cleveland Browns’ icon would be like hitting an iceberg, only to discover that you are the Titanic. A Pro Bowl player in each of his nine years dressing down defenses, Brown took home the rushing title in all but one of his career years. The Hall of Famer was known to get up slowly after every play, luring defenses into thinking he was damaged and slowed. This trick allowed Brown to rack up 5.2 yards per carry, since bringing him down required more than one man (or one blizzard), and he came back seemingly stronger on every down. He averaged 100 rushing yards per game for his career and is one of few to have 100-rushing touchdowns in a season – all while dealing with the miserable Cleveland cold.

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