Football Short Story
The Snowplow Game
Don Shula: A Biography of the Winningest Coach in NFL History, Carlo DeVito (2018)
After a players strike canceled eight weeks of the 1982 NFL season, the 4-1 Miami Dolphins met the 2-3 New England Patriots on December 12 at Schaefer Stadium in Foxboro MA.
The Dolphins and Patriots played to a scoreless tie going into the fourth quarter on a frozen field ... There had been ice and snow, and only the yard lines had been plowed the snow was so thick. Both teams slipped and slid throughout the game, finding no traction on the covered field.
Miami DE Kim Bokamper recalled, "I woke up that morning and looked out the window and just saw snow everywhere. I could see it was going to be that kind of day. It was always tough for us to play up in New England, but during the game the snow was on the field nonstop."
Bokamper remembered that during any break in the action the field crew would plow the yard lines "just so you could see where you were out on the field." The crew worked feverishly throughout the game. "There were two field goal attempts in the game and neither was made. The kickers couldn't get any footing because under the snow there was ice."
The Patriots had struggled into Dolphins territory with 4:45 left in the game. Patriots head coach Ron Meyer signaled for his kicker, John Smith, to attempt a 33-yard field goal. But before he did, Meyer suddenly turned to a man sitting on a John Deere tractor and motioned to him.
"Get out there and do something," yelled Meyer.
"I knew exactly what he meant," said operator Mark Henderson. Henderson was a convicted burglar on work-release who volunteered to operate the field equipment. He had come directly from the MCI-Norfolk prison.
"I remember standing on the field, and they were going to attempt another field goal, and I see the snowplow going on the field," said Bokamper. "I didn't think anything of it because he had been clearing the yard lines and it was a stop in play. He got about 10 or 15 feet away from me, then he veered back on to the field and went right to where the kicker was and he cleared out a patch for him.
Holder Matt Cavanaugh now had a place to kneel, and Smith had a clear place where he could plant his foot. Smith kicked the ball through the goalposts for a 3-0 Patriots lead. The crowd went crazy. His picture was put on the scoreboard with his name underneath. Patriot fans chanted Henderson's name and "MVP! MVP! MVP!"
"Matt Cavanaugh was already getting down on one knee to hold for John Smith's field-goal attempt. This part of the story is very misconstrued," recalled Hall of Fame Patriots offensive tackle John Hannah. "In reality, the tractor had not swept the exact spot where the ball was going to be placed. Instead the drive had actually thrown a whole bunch more loose snow over the spot Cav had cleared. So Cav and Smith had to quickly get down and sweep the spot clear with their hands again just in the nick of time." ...
Bokamper: "Coach Shula started yelling from the sideline. He was just livid. The one thing about Coach Shula is that we were always the least-penalized team in the league. He believed in the letter of the law. If it wasn't legal, he wasn't going to do it. Even if he could gain an advantage, he wasn't going to do it. So anytime anyone circumvented the rules, he just went livid. He was beside himself on the sideline throughout the whole thing."
"I could see the Dolphins sideline explode on the opposite side of the field, and instantly Shula was leading a charge of assistant coaches and players toward the middle of the field. They were all yelling and screaming, throwing playbooks, headsets, and helmets," remembered Hannah. "After what seemed like an eternity of argument, protests, screaming, and hollering, the game resumed, and the play stood."
"I think it's the most unfair thing that I've ever been associated with in coaching. It's the most unsportsmanlike act that I've ever been around," said Shula. "I was bewildered ... about what was happening out there on the field in front of my eyes. The magnitude of it never really set in until after he had lined up to kick the field goal."
"We got a chance to tie the game at the other end. No snowplow. Our kicker slips and falls on his butt," chuckled Shula years later. The Patriots won, 3-0.
"It's the first time since I've been in professional football we've ever taken such serious exception to something which happened on the field," said an incensed Joe Robbie, the Dolphins owner. "That kind of thing should not occur as a result of somebody putting a snowplow run by a convict with a day off from prison, out on to the field to give special advantage to the home team."
"I'm sure if you were the other coach on the other sideline, you would say it would be a black mark," said Patriots Coach Ron Meyer. "But I know one thing: I can live with myself on it, and it wasn't an attempt to deceiver or it wasn't an attempt to cheat anybody." ...
Shula continued to protest to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Rozelle agreed but could do nothing about it after the fact. Not surprisingly, the NFL Competition Committee banned the use of snowplows on the field during a game. ...
Said Bokamper years later: "It's funny. The Dolphins played up there many years later when they were closing the stadium before they moved into Gillette Stadium. They had a ceremony where they brought back some of the legends who had played there like Russ Francis and Steve Grogan. I'll never forget who got the loudest ovation. It was Mark Henderson." The John Deere Model 314 tractor, complete with sweeper attached, was commemorated at the Hall at Patriot Place at the new Gillette Stadium, where it hung from the ceiling.Watch a video of the winning kick ...