Some football players still put cayenne pepper on the bottoms of their feet on a frigid game day. Some pull out a pair of oversized uniform pants reserved just for cold games, ones they can squeeze over three pairs of spandex running pants. Still others spend hours in the locker room with a pair of scissors trimming up multiple layers of shirts so they are short enough not to need tucking in.
Preparing for an outdoor football game in the wicked temperatures of January is a science, and every player has his tricks.
"There's no question it is quite a topic of conversation in every NFL locker room during the week of a cold-weather game," said Steve Tasker, a former Buffalo Bills wide receiver and a six-time Pro Bowler who is now an analyst for CBS. "With constant weather updates and superstitions at play, guys will talk at length about what they will wear and what quirky preparations they have in mind, and his teammates will definitely tell him what they think."
Sunday's forecast calls for temperatures as low as -10 C in both Chicago and Pittsburgh, the two cities that will play host to the NFL's conference championship games.
The Green Bay Packers have flung wide the doors to their indoor practice facility this week, inviting in the frigid air of a Wisconsin winter and plummeting the temperatures to about -1 C in preparation for their NFC championship match against the Chicago Bears. The Packers also practised outside and quarterback Aaron Rodgers will tell you he doesn't like it. But getting used to the feel of a cold football is crucial.
"You just have to understand how to be effective in those conditions. As the ball gets colder, it gets a little bit slicker. You just have to understand how to throw," Rodgers said. "I kind of like practising indoors in the winter. [Head coach Mike McCarthy]created that outdoor area where we can practise outdoors, and as much as I like to fight it sometimes, it really probably does help us to be able to practise in that weather in December and now in January, as well."
John Brenkus, creator of ESPN's Sport Science, recently did a study on cold-weather football and was surprised by his findings.
After enduring -12 C cold for 30 minutes wearing just short sleeves and football pants, Brenkus observed his core body temperature did not change, yet the temperature of his skin had dropped to about 1 C. The strength of his grip was reduced by half, and his reaction time dropped by 45 per cent.
He also found that a football left in that temperature for an hour changed, too: its diameter had shrunk by roughly 1.3 millimetres and it lost 20 per cent of its air pressure, meaning it had less bounce and would come off a kicker's foot more slowly.
For all of the negative changes Brenkus observed in freezing temps, he was certain it must mean reduced performance in cold-weather football games. Yet in his statistical study of all NFL games on record, he found little difference between games played in temperatures below about 4 C and those in warmer weather. His study revealed that in the colder games, pass completion was down just 2 per cent, field-goal accuracy dropped by 1.7 per cent, and punts travelled an average of just three yards fewer.
"We genuinely were surprised that the game was largely unaffected. Really once they buckle their chin strap, it's the same game, warm or cold," Brenkus told The Globe and Mail. "We are dealing with such a high calibre of athlete with such focus, training and mental preparation, they are so far more prepared for the cold than the average Joe."
Which takes us back to those tricks of the trade.
Many of the warming tricks are old school: chicken broth and hot chocolate at half time; mitts and capes on the sidelines, and lots of stretching and jogging around. But there is also the modern addition of heated sidelines: forced-air torpedo heaters around which players huddle and glass-fibre player benches that not only blow warm air but also have heating posts for helmets.
"Our guys will prepare by putting on a thin layer of a special cream that insulates their skin, then some guys will wear thermals," said John Norwig, head athletic trainer for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who will play the New York Jets in Sunday's AFC championship game.
"Everyone thinks it's a macho thing when the linemen don't wear sleeves, but it's not - if you've got sleeves, you're giving the opponent something to grab, so they just stick with the skin cream."
The lotion is called Warm Skin and it has no medicinal properties, yet it dissolves quickly and provides an invisible and non-greasy barrier to insulate the skin, even the fleshy exposed arms of a lineman on the frozen tundra.
"The biggest concern we hear from our guys is the need for warm, dry hands," Norwig said.
That's where Edmonton-based company B'Warmer comes in. It is the maker of many thermal items, including the hand-warmer packs worn around the waist of many an NFL player, particularly quarterbacks.
"It used to be that the skilled players were the guys who wanted to wear hand-warmers: your quarterbacks, receivers and corners" B'Warmer owner Tim Brockelsby said. "But we have seen a definite shift. Now, we see more linemen - particularly centres who need to handle the ball a lot - want them and realize how much more effective their hands are."
Canadian Gordon (Red) Batty, the long-time equipment manager for the Packers, has helped design cold-weather products for B'Warmer, backed by his experience at outdoor games at frosty Lambeau Field and across the CFL when he held the same position with the Montreal Alouettes.
"A lot of equipment managers will talk to Red and say 'you know, we need something like this,' and together they'll sketch something that fits the needs of a player, and we'll make it for them," Brockelsby said.
Teams address every need. There are boot socks and tear-away pants made to the specific needs of kickers, heating packs made in every size for hands, feet and even toes, and hand-dryer pouches with natural chamois hide for players to wipe their hands between plays. No competitive detail has been overlooked: the pouches even have release mechanisms that allow them to fall off if an opponent grabs hold.
Winning still trumps warmth, after all.
"A lot of things can happen in the cold, and when something bad happens it's easy to doubt everything you're doing, but when players start doing that, it's a dangerous thing," Tasker said.
"Above all, you better make sure you have a strong mental state going into one of those cold games. Once you're out there, you better be able to get the cold off your mind completely."Report Typo/Error