It wasn’t just cold at Lambeau Field. With the temperature at 13 below zero at kickoff, and the wind chill at 36 below, Dec. 31, 1967, ranked as the coldest New Year’s Eve day that Green Bay, Wisconsin, had ever witnessed.
Some 51,000 loyal fans slipped on balaclavas and slugged down brandy from flasks to watch the NFL championship game between the Packers and the Dallas Cowboys. The stakes were enormous: Green Bay could claim its third consecutive NFL title with a victory, and the winner would go on to play the AFL champion Oakland Raiders in the second Super Bowl.
John Biever was a 16-year-old high-school junior from the nearby town of Port Washington. He was “cold as ice” throughout the game, he said, but did his best to ignore the harsh conditions because he was on the field assisting his father, Vernon Biever, the Packers’ longtime team photographer.
As the sun disappeared down the late afternoon sky, Green Bay got the ball back with under five minutes remaining in the game, trailing 17-14. Facing Dallas’s “Doomsday Defense,” quarterback Bart Starr mounted one final drive, moving the ball 67 yards, all the way down to the Cowboys’ one-yard line.
Vern Biever directed his son to shoot the action while he went over to the Packer bench to capture coach Vince Lombardi’s reaction to the game’s climactic moment. John kneeled at the back of the end zone and raised one of his father’s cameras to his windburned face.
He peered through his glasses at the viewfinder as Starr followed center Ken Bowman to the line of scrimmage, steam billowing from their helmets. Linemen from both teams kicked at the frozen ground in a vain attempt to gain traction.
The game that would forever be known as the Ice Bowl—that would shape the legacy of Lombardi and the Packers’ dynasty of the 1960s—was about to be decided.
Like nearly everyone born and raised in the vicinity of Green Bay, John Biever grew up a Packers fan. But it was his father’s longstanding connection to the team that provoked awe (and some jealousy) among his classmates in Port Washington, located on the shores of Lake Michigan, about 90 minutes south of Green Bay.
Vern Biever began photographing the Packers at their summer training camp in 1941, when he was a freshman at St. Norbert College and Earl “Curly” Lambeau was the team’s coach. After serving as divison photographer for the U.S. Army’s 100th Infantry Division in France and Germany during World War II, Vern returned home and approached the Packers with a unique proposition: he offered to photograph all their games (home and away) and supply them with free prints in return for a sideline credential.
The bespectacled Biever thus turned his hobby into a gig as one of the first team photographers in professional sports. Dressed in a suit and an ever-present fedora, he and his 4x5 Speed Graphic camera recorded the moments when the Packers first donned green and gold uniforms (1950) and when they moved into the new City Stadium (1957) that would later be renamed Lambeau Field. He did so while operating the family’s Ben Franklin five-and-dime store in Port Washington.
At first, Vern brought along his father, Emil, to note the details of each play so that he could write accurate captions to accompany the images. Then, as Vern invested in better equipment, he enlisted his oldest son, John, who had his own budding passion for photography
John Biever was “around nine” when he received a Kodak camera for Christmas. At 11, he cashed his first check for a gag photograph of a friend looking cross-eyed at a Christmas tree ornament; the local paper paid him the princely sum of $2, which he used to buy more film. By the time he turned 13, John was allowed to operate one of his father’s “good” cameras: a 35-millimeter, single-lens reflex Nikon.
John began accompanying his father to Packer home games in Green Bay (and, on occasion, Milwaukee) when he was a high school freshman. He shot alongside his father and helped ready the equipment: cleaning the different sized lenses; preparing 20 rolls of film for each game; checking the batteries in the cameras and motor drives.
After driving home, they would retreat to the darkroom Vern had built in the far end of their wood-paneled basement. They dumped the film into the developing fluid and then the fixer, washed the prints, and hung them to dry. They selected the 20 best action shots and made a stack of prints for the Packers, while also printing pictures for other clients, including national outlets like Sports Illustrated and Pro Football Weekly. On Monday morning, while John went off to school and Vern opened the store, John’s mother, Frances, would send out the various packages of prints.
“Having my dad was a big advantage,” John said, “and having camera equipment that was almost professional grade was a big advantage. He was always very encouraging. Just observing him I learned stuff. He didn’t really sit me down and say, ‘This is a lens. This is an f-stop.’”
The first significant game that John remembers shooting was the 1965 NFL championship between the Packers and the Cleveland Browns, a muddy affair that was the last such game before the Super Bowl was devised, as well as the final game played by Jim Brown. “My dad gave me a camera or two to try out,” said John, who was 14 at the time. “I made a few pictures there. I guess I picked it up enough that he trusted me to do it regularly.”
His timing was excellent. The fate of the Packers franchise had changed profoundly in 1959, with the hiring of Vince Lombardi as head coach. Between 1947 and 1958, the Packers hadn’t finished above .500 or made the playoffs. They went 1-10-1 in 1958. Lombardi bullied the Packers into perennial winners. They surged to 7-5 in his first season, made it to the NFL title game in his second, and won NFL championships in 1961, 1962, and 1965.
According to Biever, the hard-nosed Lombardi even intimidated his father. “He was almost scared of Lombardi,” John said. “One of the first things he told me when I started was, ‘Whatever you do, do not get in Mr. Lombardi’s way.’ I spent my youth staying out of Mr. Lombardi’s way.”
At a time when the NFL was poised to eclipse baseball as America’s game, Lombardi’s mystique and the team’s success created an insatiable demand for Vern Biever’s photographs. His images burnished the Packers’ glory years: Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung running power sweeps behind Fuzzy Thurston and Jerry Kramer; the gap-toothed Lombardi stalking the sidelines; linebacker Ray Nitschke, his uniform and helmet covered in mud.
Kramer and journalist Dick Schaap used Vern and John’s photos when they collaborated on Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer, which became one of the best-selling sports books of all-time. Their color and black-and-white pictures also enlivened a two-volume book entitled Vince Lombardi on Football, edited by George Flynn.
When journalist and book packager Zander Hollander heard about John’s precocious talent, he paired him with New York Times columnist George Vecsey to produce Young Sports Photographer with the Green Bay Packers. (Vern chose Vecsey over Hollander’s other ghostwriter suggestion: Brent Musburger.) An excerpt of the book, illustrated with numerous black-and-white photos, appeared in Boys’ Life magazine.
“If we were shooting for the last-place team, no one would’ve ever heard of me,” Biever joked.
In 1966, as Lombardi tallied his fourth NFL title and bragging rights for winning Super Bowl I, Green Bay looked invincible. But their roster was aging fast and before the next season they lost Hornung and Taylor, both future Hall of Famers. Their successors, Elijah Pitts and Jim Grabowski, were injured, and so Lombardi was forced to rely on inexperienced Donny Anderson and late-season pickup Chuck Mercein in the backfield. The Packers dropped their final two games and finished 9-4-1.
Green Bay rebounded to defeat the L.A. Rams in the Western Conference championship game, while Dallas whipped the Browns. That set up a rematch of the 1966 NFL championship, when the Packers downed the Cowboys at the Cotton Bowl to advance to the first Super Bowl. Because the site of the game alternated between the NFL’s two conferences, the 1967 edition was held at what Sports Illustrated reporter Tex Maule called “the gelid confines of Lambeau Field.”
The temperature in the week leading up to the game hovered around freezing, normal for Wisconsin in wintertime. But players and fans awakened to the coldest Dec. 31 of the 20th century. There was nothing for John to do but layer up: wool pants over cotton long johns, thick sweaters over a long-sleeved flannel shirt, two pairs of socks, boots with fur lining, gloves, a ski cap with openings for his eyes and mouth.
“It was like locking myself in an icebox,” he recounted in Young Sports Photographer. “My father and I kept jumping up and down, holding our cameras inside our coats, but nothing helped—not the gloves, not the wool caps, not the pocket hand-warmers.”
Over his clothes, Biever wore a heavy jacket loose enough that he could stick the cameras inside during timeouts to keep them from freezing. Besides staying warm themselves, their greatest challenge in the severe cold was handling the film. The film leader could snap off, and the photographer wouldn’t know it until he opened the camera and discovered that a roll was ruined. Or, the film could break while the photographer was rewinding it. “The film was so brittle that you had to keep the cameras warm and be very careful of what you were doing,” he said.
One official’s whistle froze to his lips and peeled off skin. CBS broadcaster Frank Gifford said on the air, “I think I’ll take another bite of my coffee.”
Lambeau Field itself was indeed frozen tundra. Said Jerry Kramer in an interview: “The field grew worse as the game wore on. It was a skating rink more than a football field.” The Packers had invested in an underground system of electric coils to keep the field from freezing. A tarp covered the ground the night before the game. But when they removed the tarp on gameday, they discovered that the coils had malfunctioned.
The Packers took an early lead, only to see Dallas’s Doomsday Defense stiffen. On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Cowboys turned the home-field advantage into frosted steam. Running back Dan Reeves took a pitch from quarterback Don Meredith and shuffled to his left before throwing an option pass to Lance Rentzel for a 50-yard touchdown, giving the Cowboys a 17-14 lead.
Green Bay stalled on their next two drives before getting the ball back with 4:50 remaining in the game. Their offense finally clicked, with Starr distributing the ball to Anderson and Mercein, alternating runs and passes and milking the clock, until they reached the Cowboys’ 11-yard line with 47 seconds remaining.
Mercein ran the ball to the two. Anderson surged forward for another yard, making it first-and-goal at the one. After Dallas stopped Anderson on a running attempt, the Packers called timeout.
John and Vern Biever were positioned at the back of the south end zone, slightly to the right of the goalpost (which in that era was placed squarely on the goal line). Vern decided to head to the Packer sideline, anticipating that they would find a way to win and he could capture Lombardi being carried off the field.
Vern directed his son to stay put. “He said, ‘It doesn’t make any sense for both of us to be here. We should be in two spots,’” John recalled. “Looking back, I’m amazed. He’s asking a 16-year-old kid with a semi-professional camera to do this.”
Twenty seconds remained. The Packers tried Anderson again, but he slipped on the rock-hard surface short of the goal line. Green Bay took its third and final timeout, facing third-and-goal less than a yard from the end zone.
Lombardi and Starr conferred. Many fans figured that Starr would attempt a rollout pass. A touchdown would win the game, of course, while an incompletion would stop the clock and allow time for a chip-shot field goal to tie the score and send the game into sudden-death overtime. Instead, the Packers decided to keep it on the ground and go for the win, all or nothing. The play-call was “Brown right, 31 Wedge,” designed for the fullback to run between Bowman, the center, and Kramer, the right guard.
Starr had other ideas. Wary of Mercein slipping like Anderson had on the previous play, he wanted to keep the ball himself. Starr apparently didn’t tell everyone; Mercein later claimed he didn’t know he wasn’t going to get the handoff.
Lombardi told Starr, “Well, then run it and let’s get the hell out of here.”
Sixteen seconds left. John Biever blew on his hands and gripped the camera, one finger poised on the shutter button. Kneeling on ice some 30 feet from the line of scrimmage, he aimed his father’s Nikkormat single-frame camera with a 135-millimeter Tokina lens at the quarterback.
Starr took the snap and, instead of pivoting and handing the ball to Mercein, slipped forward into the end zone behind Kramer’s block, all the while staving off All-Pro linebacker Chuck Howley’s vain attempt to strip the ball.
“It happened fast coming out of the timeout,” Biever said. “A quick snap, a hole opened up, a helmet rushed through, I clicked my camera. Luckily I wasn’t blocked by the referee.”
A mob of half-frozen fans raced onto the field, only to be ushered off so they could finish the game. After the extra point and two failed passes by Dallas, the final score was 21-17. Lombardi and the Packers had their three-peat, their fifth NFL title in nine years, and a date with the Raiders in Super Bowl II.
Biever told me he’s often asked, “‘Did you shoot the celebration on the field afterwards?’ I honestly don’t remember any of that. I was so keyed into this play and into this picture, I must’ve bolted right for the car and turned the heater on.”
Father and son hurried back to Port Washington to see what John had. “When we got home we went right to the basement,” Biever recalled. “My dad processed the film and held it up to the light with a loupe. And there it was. He said, ‘You got it.’”
What he had was a strip of three frames, two of which were not terribly good. The second shot, the one in the middle, was very good: a razor-sharp image of the Ice Bowl’s climactic play. Starr (No. 15) with his torso across the goal line, after Kramer (No. 64) and Bowman (hidden in the pile) had wedge-blocked lineman Jethro Pugh (No. 75) and created the smallest of crevasses.
Above the scrum looms Mercein (No. 30), his arms extended like he’s signaling for the touchdown. He later said he threw his arms up at the last second to show the officials that he was not pushing Starr from behind (a maneuver that would have drawn a penalty at the time).
Other photographers captured the play (including Sports Illustrated’s Walter Iooss Jr. and Neil Leifer in color). But Biever’s in-the-trenches angle revealed the block that cleared the way for Starr’s winning score.
Demand for the dramatic image was immediate. Biever ended up selling the photo to Look magazine for a whopping $450. He was 16 years old, and he saw his future. “The Sneak was the moment,” Biever told me, “when I said, ‘I think I can do this. Photography could be my life.’”
Some 50 years later, The Sneak is seen as emblematic of something larger than a single game. “That final drive, more than anything else, was the perfect expression of Vince Lombardi,” wrote author-journalist David Maraniss in his epic biography When Pride Still Mattered. “The conditions were miserable, the pressure enormous, and there were no fumbles, no dropped passes, no mistakes, just a group of determined men moving confidently downfield toward a certain goal. In his speeches Lombardi talked about character in action, and here it was, in real life.”
Several weeks later, after Green Bay defeated the Raiders in Super Bowl II, Lombardi announced his retirement as coach of the Packers. The dynasty was over.
John Biever shot the Packers with his father until he began studying at the University of Wisconsin and his younger brother Jim took over the post. Jim and Vern worked together until the elder Biever retired in 1997 and published a coffee-table book entitled The Glory of Titletown: The Classic Green Bay Packers Photography of Vernon Biever. Vern died in 2010 at age 87. Jim handled the transition to the digital-camera era and the Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers eras; he only stepped down as team photographer in 2016, marking the end of 70 years with a Biever in the role.
Meanwhile, John Biever was becoming a photojournalist. He shot the student protests against the Vietnam War in Madison, and picked up stringer work for the Associated Press. He joined the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and “shot everything” for the next 13 years.
By then he was freelancing for Sports Illustrated on weekends. The magazine hired him full-time in 1998. He worked for SI until 2014 and is credited with over 130 covers; he shot 10 Olympics, 24 Masters tournaments, and numerous World Series, NBA Finals, and Final Four games.
Now 66 and “essentially retired,” Biever lives with his wife outside of San Diego, happy to have traded Midwest winters for balmy Southern California. Iconic Packer photos taken by his father line an upstairs wall. A framed print of The Sneak, signed by Starr and Kramer, hangs in the den. Biever retains copyright to the image, which has been reproduced thousands of times (including on cereal boxes and in countless newspapers, magazines, books, and films), and whose usage fees have long since dwarfed Look’s $450 check.
One event that he continues to shoot is the Super Bowl. Thanks to his father’s connections and the Packers’ winning ways, he scored press credentials for Super Bowl I at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Super Bowl II at the Orange Bowl in Miami. In January of 1969, John was at home when Vern returned to Miami for Super Bowl III, featuring the New York Jets against the Baltimore Colts. Vern ran into Steve Sabol, who helped launch NFL Films with his father Ed, before the game. When Sabol heard that John didn’t have a credential, he told Vern, “Send him down. We’ll get a pass for him.”
John’s streak is still alive. He’s worked all 51 Super Bowls, a total matched by only two other photojournalists: Iooss Jr. and Mickey Palmer. The trio were profiled in an excellent 2015 documentary on ESPN, Keepers of the Streak, directed by Neil Leifer. (The fourth photographer featured in the film, Tony Tomsic, has since seen his consecutive streak end.)
Biever plans to travel to Minneapolis next February to shoot Super Bowl LII for the NFL. As the youngest of the three photojournalists to have shot every Super Bowl, he intends to keep The Streak going as long as possible. His portfolio includes four SB covers for SI (including the first digital Super Bowl cover) as well as a picture of Doug Williams from SB XXII that’s a classic study in grit.
His personal favorite is an image of Vince Lombardi coming off the field after the Packers defeated the Chiefs in the inaugural game. To the right of Lombardi, with his camera at the ready, is Vern Biever.
It’s not a glamour shot or even one that is reproduced often. But in one frame Biever captured the coach who molded the Packers into an NFL powerhouse and his father, the man who taught him how to make pictures.
“I got two of my heroes in the same shot,” he said.