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Memorable game; Pro Bowler LeClair reflects on career, Freezer Bowl

Jim LeClair played 10 years in the NFL for the Cincinnati Bengals.1 / 2
Jim LeClair2 / 2

It’s hard to escape the unremitting conversation about the weather in North Dakota.

Just try saying hello to someone in January.

So in that respect, it’s only fitting that one of the newest members to be enshrined into the North Dakota Sports Hall of Fame played in arguably the coldest game in NFL history.

Mayville’s Jim LeClair was near the end of his 10th season at linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals on Jan. 10, 1982. The air temperature at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium was minus 9 as the Bengals and the San Diego Chargers took the field for the AFC Championship Game.

To add insult, standing in the way of Super Bowl XVI was a sustained wind of 27 miles per hour, producing a teeth-chattering wind chill of minus 59. But LeClair and the Bengals, led by quarterback Ken Anderson, overcame what came to be known as “The Freezer Bowl” to defeat the Chargers and NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts by the final of 27-7.

LeClair, 63, along with Grand Forks’ Glenn Hansen and Oxbow’s Mike Podolak, will be inducted into the North Dakota Sports Hall of Fame tonight at the Jamestown Civic Center. The induction banquet, auction and awards program begins at 5.

“That was cold. I mean really cold,” LeClair recalled of the ‘81 AFC title game. “It was a great game. We ended up winning it, and it was a good setting for a football game from that standpoint.

“But the wind … I just can’t tell you how cold it was.”

The Freezer Bowl stands as the coldest NFL game played in terms of wind chill. The 1967 NFL Championship Game, dubbed “The Ice Bowl,” won by the Green Bay Packers over the Dallas Cowboys 21-17 at Lambeau Field, was colder in terms of air temperature at minus 15.

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in October of 1950, LeClair became a standout football player and wrestler at South St. Paul High School before bringing his talents to the University of Minnesota-Crookston in 1968, and then to the University of North Dakota in 1970.

LeClair shined at North Dakota, garnering Little All-American honors and being awarded the North Central Conference’s most valuable defensive lineman during his senior season in 1971. He piled up 187 tackles, three interceptions, four fumble recoveries and 11 forced fumbles that season, en route to his second All-North Central Conference selection and North Dakota’s 12th conference championship.

“That was a great season,” LeClair said. “You get there and you try to help the team get things done, and before I knew it, it was all set. We got things done.”

LeClair didn’t have to wait too long for the NFL to come knocking. He was selected 54th overall by Cincinnati in the third round of the 1972 NFL Draft.

“When I got the call it was very exciting. You can’t say that it wasn’t,” LeClair said. “It was about where I thought I was going to go.”

LeClair spent 12 years and played in 158 games for the Bengals from 1972-83, recording 10 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries. He became a full-time starter at linebacker in 1975 and was named to the NFL Pro Bowl in 1976.

The Bengals reached the pinnacle after defeating the Chargers in the Freezer Bowl, but another NFL Hall of Fame quarterback stood in the way of LeClair and Cincinnati in Super Bowl XVI. San Francisco’s Joe Montana completed 14 of 22 passes for 157 yards and one touchdown, while also rushing for a second TD, as the 49ers defeated the Bengals 26-21.

It was the first of four Super Bowl rings for Montana, and his first of three Super Bowl MVP performances.

“It was challenging. (Montana) was a good player,” LeClair said. “But we played pretty good too and left it all on the field.”

After the 1983 season, LeClair played two seasons for the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League before returning to North Dakota to coach football at Mayville State University from 1986-88.

LeClair has remained rooted in Mayville ever since — even serving as the city’s mayor — where he and his wife, Betty, raised the couple’s three children.

“Thinking back, I think most about just playing the game,” LeClair said. “I played it pretty well, and (Cincinnati) was the right fit, and the right setting for me.”

Along with the North Dakota Sports Hall of Fame, the retired Pro-Bowler and insurance agent is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame (1999), the University of Minnesota-Crookston Hall of Fame (1999), the University of North Dakota Athletic Hall of Fame (1985) and the South St. Paul High School Hall of Fame (2007).

“It’s quite an honor, and I’m really looking forward to it,” LeClair said of tonight’s induction. “You can’t beat it.”

Sun sports writer Michael Savaloja can be reached at 701-952-8461 or by email at