For members of the La Crosse State University marching band, the last day of 1967 was to be the biggest performance of their lives. It turned out to be one of the most painful.
More than 50,000 fans packed into Lambeau Field, and an estimated 100 million more were watching on television as the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys vied for a spot in what would be the second Super Bowl. The Marching Chiefs were the halftime entertainment.
Fifty years later, the game known as the Ice Bowl remains the stuff of legend, the coldest in NFL history. As for the band, they barely survived the dress rehearsal.
More than 170 students gave up their winter break to rehearse for what was to be the biggest musical day in the school’s history.
In military surplus overcoats procured by band director Ralph Wahl, the 150 musicians and 23 “pom pom” girls drilled for 10 hours a day in the week before the game, sometimes marching in single-digit temperatures.
“This is worth it,” Robert Looney, a junior from Kentucky told a Tribune reporter at the time. “It is for La Crosse and the school.”
They hadn’t seen anything yet.
On Saturday the band traveled to Oshkosh, where they took over a Howard Johnson’s motel.
“Everything went downhill overnight,” said Gordon Nelson, the band’s drum major.
Drummer Jerry Bonsack remembers waking up and seeing minus 45 degrees on the thermometer outside the door.
“That’s without the windchill,” he added.
The morning of the game, the band was asked to do a run-through for the CBS camera crews who would be broadcasting some of the halftime show. Bonsack had helped Wahl mix glycol, kerosene and valve oil to keep the wind instruments from freezing, but the concoction was no match for the minus 19 degree temperatures.
The wind was blowing at 20 mph when the band took the practice field outside the stadium.
“I don’t remember having wool socks. I don’t remember boots,” said Kathy Giese, then an 18-year-old drummer. “We had shoes and spats.”
By the end of the first number, trumpeter Rick Young said he was down to one working valve. When Wahl pulled his metal whistle from his mouth, some of his lips came with it.
“The network people saw that and they up and left,” Nelson said.
The musicians ran to the arena bathrooms to put their hands under water. When the sinks filled up, they used the toilet bowls.
Assistant student director Al Thompson told the student newspaper band members were crying and collapsing as they came in. One member said it looked like they had been “defeated in battle.”
At least a dozen were taken to the hospital to be treated for exposure.
The dress rehearsal had lasted just 13 minutes. The halftime show would require them to be outside for close to an hour.
After consulting with doctors, Wahl called off the show.
Some cried. Others said they were willing to march if Wahl gave the word.
“We were crushed,” Giese said. “We worked hard…. We were proud of what we were doing.”
Giese got to watch the game from the 50-yard line but couldn’t make it to the end.
“We just didn’t have enough clothes on,” she said.
Nelson and Young were content to listen on the radio from the warmth of the buses.
“If it had been even zero on up without windchill we probably could have made it,” Young said. “It was quite an experience.”
Despite the pain and disappointment, the Marching Chiefs — now known as the Screaming Eagles — would go on to play at NFL games in Green Bay, Minneapolis, and Chicago. In 1970, they performed in the Rose Bowl parade in Anaheim, Calif.
Wahl, who built the band from a few dozen members to more than 200, left in 1969 for the University of South Carolina, where he tripled the size of the marching band before resigning several years later. He later entered the ministry and died in 2016 at the age of 81.
“Mr. Wahl just never got the credit that should have stayed with him,” Nelson said. “He just kind of disappeared, and that’s not right.”