The Snowplow Game

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Posted: February 4, 2018


The Snowplow Game refers to a controversial game played between the Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots on December 12, 1982. The game is most notable for a controversial incident in the game, where the Schaefer Stadium snowplow operator Mark Henderson was sent onto the field to clear a spot on the snow covered field for Patriots kicker John Smith to take a field goal.

The field goal resulted in the only points of the game, with New England winning by a paltry 3-0 score line. The game resulted in a rule change by the NFL that prohibited snowplows or other similar equipment from entering the field of play under certain circumstances during gameplay.

Buildup to the Snowplow Game

The 1981 Patriots had been woeful all season finishing the season with a 2-12 record which ended with a nine game losing streak. The shortened 1982 season was not shaping up much better going into the Snowplow Game. They were on a 2-3 record and another loss would be disastrous. The Dolphins on the other hand were having a great season and would reach the Super Bowl in January.

On the night before the game, heavy rains fell over Foxborough with the surface at the Patriots’ Schaefer Stadium getting soaked. A snowstorm followed hours before the game leading to the surface freeing over. The game was given a greenlight despite the poor conditions, with ground maintenance staff having a rough time maintaining the playing surface in good condition. As a result, officials used an emergency ground rule which allowed them to pause play to allow grown crew to clear the surface periodically. In the stands, empty bleachers dominated, with fans staying away in droves due to the miserable weather. Just 25,716 fans showed up.

The Game Unfolds

The difficult playing conditions reflected as neither team managed to get into any kind of offensive rhythm and the game remained scoreless into the fourth quarter. With 4:45 left on the clock in the fourth quarter, the Patriots drove to the Dolphins’ 16-yard line. Facing fourth down, they found themselves with a field goal chance and they took it. With place kicker John Smith getting ready to take the field goal attempt, Patriots coach Ron Meyer signaled to Mark Henderson to move into the field with the snowplow. Up to this point nothing was out of the ordinary as Henderson had been coming onto the field to clear snow at 10-yard intervals during breaks.

However, this time, he veered to the left of the 20-yard line with the snowplow- more like a tractor fitted with a sweeper at the front- and went to clear a spot at the 23-yard mark where Smith was to take his kick, and then left the field. Dolphins coach Don Shula flew into a rage and protested to the officials in an attempt to stop the play but his protests were disregarded. Matt Cavanagh held the ball for Smith and the placekicker put his foot through the ball which flew in between the uprights to hand the Patriots a 3-0 lead. The Patriots managed to see out the game to win with what is one of the lowest scoring games in NFL history.

Aftermath of the Snowplow Game

Shula’s rage did not come down easily, with the irate coach describing the incident after the game as “the most unsportsmanlike act” he had ever witnessed. He continued his protests against the handling of the incident, including a meeting with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle who declined to cancel the game because there were no rules at the time governing the act. However, the following season, the NFL prohibited the entry of snowplows into the field during the duration of a game.

Due to the foreshortened season, both the Patriots who finished 7th and the Dolphins who finished in 2nd place, went into the playoffs. As fate would have it the two teams met and the Dolphins took their pound of flesh, eliminating the Patriots 28-13 and zooming all the way to the Super bowl.

Among the Patriots’ faithful, the play and indeed Henderson were held in eternal reverence. Mementos from the game, including the snow sweeper attached to the John Deere tractor, are displayed at the team’s museum at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots’ new stadium.

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