GREEN BAY – James Jones has taken to wearing colorful knit hats indoors at Lambeau Field, and at this point little can surprise the veteran of seven Wisconsin winters.
As the NFC North champion Green Bay Packers welcome in the wildcard San Francisco 49ers to Lambeau Field Sunday afternoon, Jones didn’t shy away from the truth about hands and feet in such games:
"If it’s cold enough, they’re going to freeze. Period," he said with a smile. "There’s nothing you can do."
While it’s true the Packers have been playing very cold games at Lambeau since November and all of the veterans on the team have a few years’ worth of them under their belts; there will be no distinct advantage for the hosts over their counterparts from California.
Cold is cold, and the human body – especially smaller extremities like fingers and toes – aren’t calloused to extremes on one side of the thermometer or the other.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his pass catchers and running backs will have the warming pouches available to them, and likely heating packets inside them – but Jones has played in games where both have frozen.
And when you’re on a 10-play march down the field in a no-huddle rhythm, hands and fingers are going to get really, really, cold.
"The pouches help but there’s no way around it," Jones said. "If it’s cold enough they’re going to freeze. When you’ve played in it for so long you know it’s going to hurt. When the ball hits your hands and its frozen, it’s going to hurt. But you gotta catch it, man. You know mentally when the ball comes it’s going to hurt, especially if you know before the play that your hands are already frozen and you know the ball is even harder and you know Aaron isn’t throwing it softer."
This marks place kicker Mason Crosby’s seventh winter in Green Bay as well, and how effective his right foot is in temperatures that many predict to reach -20 with the wind chill could determine if the Packers advance or go home.
He wears a special kicking shoe, and it’s purposely tight, and Crosby acknowledged there’s nothing more he can do to protect his foot from the cold in terms of additional socks or warming sleeves.
"You move around on the sideline and just try to all those little things to just keep the toes and everything as warm as possible so when you go out there to hit the ball, you can still feel it and trust it," Crosby said. "I can’t mess a ton with thickness of socks and stuff like that. It’s mainly get by the heater. Everyone has to be in it. I’m looking at the temp and all the different things and trying to reference games where it’s been close to that and it’s alright, you’ve played in close to this temp and you made it through.
"You just try to go through those processes of we’ve done this before, let’s just see where it’s at and what it is and then you just manage it the best you can. You go out there and try to perform and let loose."
The sidelines will be equipped with heaters, and the players on the sidelines will have hats, additional gloves and heavy jackets available to them, but Packers defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said that because everyone will be chilled, it negates any perceived advantage the Packers may be given by fans or media.
"No, it’s always a factor – you never get warm," Pickett said with a laugh. "You never get used to it."
He laughed and said he went without sleeves in the 2008 NFC Championship game loss to the New York Giants and it took him "three days to thaw out" so he’s worn sleeves ever since, though his teammates on the offensive line plan on going baring their arms.
"I think it’s a norm, an unspoken norm," left tackle David Bakhtiari said. "I don’t have a problem with it. I’m not a big fan of sleeves anyways."
Defensive lineman Mike Daniels tried to find some silver lining in the frigid temps by saying at least he and his teammates are "used" to the cold, as opposed to the 49ers who will be getting their first taste of it over the weekend.
"It’s like, OK, my hands are numb and I still have to play when my hands are numb – but if someone’s not used to that it’s ‘My hands are numb, what am I going to do?’" Daniels said.
It’s interesting he used that description, as rookie running back Eddie Lacy told Peter King of Sports Illustrated that his hand went numb in the cold last weekend and he took himself out of the game for a bit to make sure he didn’t lose control of the ball.
But now that that experience is out of the way for Lacy, and other Packers rookies who may not have dealt with such cold before, Daniels thinks that mentally the Packers will be prepared for it.
"It’s like a boxer, it’s going to hurt, but he knows how to respond to it," Daniels said. "If someone punches you, or me, you might not respond so well. The point I’m making is, when you’re familiar with something – that’s why camp is so important, you’re used to being banged around and you try to come out there week 1 without preparing and try to figure it out – but that kind of stuff is important. You have to get yourself not just physically, but mentally prepared.
"It’s game day. It’s cold. The adrenaline. They might not even feel it. Who knows? I just know we have to do what we have to do."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.