This excerpt appears in the book Offensive Conduct by John Hannah. The author spoke with Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. (Listen to our interview with Hannah and read Bill’s book review.)
The Snowplow Game is one of the most misunderstood, controversial games in NFL history. I believe the day we played this game was the coldest I had ever been in my life. We were playing one of our rivals, the Miami Dolphins, on our home field at Schaefer Stadium just outside Boston. For an Alabama farm boy who was used to steaming hot summers, the temperature that day chilled me to the bone, even though I’d been in Boston almost nine years by then and had somehow already survived some remarkably harsh, Northern winters with even colder days.
In the days preceding that December 12, 1982 game, it had rained almost non-stop. It hadn’t snowed yet because the temperatures hovered just above freezing, but still the rain was as cold and dank as it could be, and the frigid Boston air made it feel like a meat locker even without snow on the ground. There had been so much rain in the days before the game, the field at Schaefer Stadium was completely saturated.
The weather forecasters were calling for snow on gameday, but we did not know how much or hard it was actually going to snow. Frankly I think the intensity of the snowstorm actually caught everybody off guard, and even though it was coming down in huge, blinding sheets of white, the game kicked off as usual. When it became apparent it was going to accumulate heavily on the playing field, head coaches Ron Meyer (Patriots) and Don Shula (Dolphins) met and agreed to a special game rule that would allow the use of a small snowplow to come onto the field and clear the yard markers in order to give the players a general point of reference. Quickly the Patriots’ maintenance crew rigged up a small John Deere lawn tractor with a spinning brush attachment normally used for clearing leaves off the field in the fall and trash debris from the stadium after home games. It saw repeated service as a snowplow to clear those yardage markers all through the game.
Despite regularly clearing the yardage lines, the game remained scoreless until deep into the fourth quarter. The ball had gotten extremely firm in the cold snow, and most receivers and backs’ hands were numb, which caused many fumbles and missed passes. The ground was so slippery that the players weren’t even running. They were just walking fast. It was perhaps one of the ugliest professional football games I played in my entire career. Every time a team would have to kick, the holder would try to sweep as much snow away as he could with his hands. This was necessary for the ball to be spotted firmly enough to plant in the right spot and long enough for the kicker to strike it.
With less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, we had finally driven the ball down to the Dolphins 33-yard line and we were within field goal range. With the snow continuing to pour, the field was a blanket of complete white. Just as our kicking team was preparing to get in position at the line, out of nowhere came the guy on the John Deere snowplow brushing the yardage markers. Matt Cavanaugh had already done his best to sweep a clean spot for the placement of his hands, but to my utter amazement, just as the snowplow driver reached nearly the center of the line he cut the ersatz snowplow left and brushed a clear swath of snow right where our holder, 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. In reality the tractor had not swept the exact spot where the ball was going to be placed. Instead the driver 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. Bill Lenkaitis snapped the ball to Cav, who caught it and set it down perfectly for Smith, a lefty, to come sweeping in for the kick. Even in the driving snow, the kick was good and the Patriots went up 3–0.
As the kicking team ran off the field, 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.
After what seemed like an eternity of argument, protests, screaming, and hollering, the game resumed, and the play stood. The Dolphins played like their hair was on fire. In the remaining few minutes, pure adrenaline pushed them within field goal range for the tie attempt. In all fairness the Dolphins were also offered the use of the snowplow by the head referee to clear the field for their kick, but with complete indignation and certainty the game would be nullified for the unfair use of it by the Patriots, Coach Shula adamantly refused to stoop to such tactics and chose to kick as the field lay.
The kick was no good, and the Patriots went on to win 3–0 in what would infamously become known as “The Snowplow Game.”Shula appealed vehemently to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, who ultimately decided that since there was no specific rule prohibiting the clearing of a snow-obscured field for a field goal kick, he ruled the win would stand. Shula later was said to have called it the biggest event of overt cheating he had ever witnessed in professional football. If you look closely at the game films of that play, however, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. The snowplow didn’t help us. It made the kick more difficult.
What made that game even more memorable is the guy driving the John Deere lawn tractor or snowplow was Mark Henderson, a convicted burglar who was on work release. When Shula’s appeal to the NFL commissioner was rejected, Henderson became a Patriots hero, and his John Deere snowplow now hangs from the ceiling in the Patriots’ Hall of Fame as a permanent exhibit.
Miami made a huge deal about the fact that the Patriots had sent in a criminal to execute another criminal act. Whenever we played Miami in Florida during the years after that game, they sold a bunch of fake plastic snowballs to the fans. The fans would pelt us with thousands of those things as we ran into the stadium.
Excerpted by permission from Offensive Conduct: My Life On The Line by John Hannah with Tom Hale. Copyright (c) 2013 by John Hannah. Published by Triumph Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes.