When a man who has won 347 games — more than any other coach in NFL history — recalls one in particular, there's a pretty good chance it was more than just the average football game. Given the fact that it was one of his 173 losses and not among his many victories makes it all the more amazing.
Miami coach Don Shula still seethes when asked about his team's 3-0 loss to the Patriots back on Dec. 12, 1982, at Schaefer Stadium. In case you've only been a Patriots fan for a short time, this is better known as the "Snow Plow Game" and easily earns the top spot on my top 10 list of most memorable games in Foxboro Stadium history.
Several Patriots alumni were on hand last week as New England took on Miami in the final regular season game at the old cement bowl. Every player who participated in the game named it as one of his lasting memories.
"My memories?" asked Mosi Tatupu, the former Patriots fullback who led the team to victory that day. "The snow plow, of course."
Most people familiar with the Patriots are aware of the details surrounding the game. The Patriots and Dolphins locked up during a typical December Nor'Easter and neither team was able to generate much offense.
Tatupu and fellow fullback Mark Van Eegen did the bulk of the work for the Patriots. Van Eegen picked up 100 yards on 22 carries while Tatupu earned the nickname "The Snowin' Samoan" for his 13 carry, 81-yard performance. The teams combined for just 11 pass completions and Steve Grogan attempted just five for the game.
As the game appeared headed for a scoreless tie during regulation, the Patriots somehow managed to move within field goal range and called upon John Smith with less than five minutes to go. During a timeout before the kick, Mark Henderson, an inmate at nearby Walpole State Prison on work release, drove his plow onto the field to clear the yard lines.
Acting on instructions from the Patriots sideline, Henderson swerved when he got to the area Smith would eventually be kicking and swept away the snow. Smith, now with enough footing to attempt the kick, made a 33-yarder and the Patriots came away with a 3-0 victory.
But a simple rundown of the game's events doesn't begin to explain this one. Shula was incensed with what he perceived as deceitful tactics. Following the game, he ripped the Patriots organization in general and whoever gave Henderson his orders in particular.
"Somebody in New England is going to have to live with it," Shula said in his postgame press conference. "Whoever ordered it or told the guy to do it has got to think long and hard about the ramifications of something like that."
To this day Shula remains upset about it. When he retired from the Dolphins following the 1995 season, he included the "Snow Plow Game" as one of his most vivid memories. Smith said that he suddenly started receiving phone calls from reporters all over the country on the subject and when he asked why, he was told that Shula constantly referenced it.
Was it fair? Perhaps not, given that Miami wasn't afforded the same opportunity when its kicker, Uwe von Schamann, tried to kick a field goal earlier and missed. But listening to Smith tell the story, Henderson's Sunday drive had little to do with the outcome of the football game.
"I had missed one kick that day and the Miami kicker missed [one]," Smith began. "The day before it rained all day long. Then the temperatures dropped at night and the turf froze. In those days it was still Astroturf and it just completely froze. Then the Nor'Easter came in Sunday morning and it started snowing. We got about eight or nine inches of snow on top of the ice.
"The first kick I tried, I only had about 10 seconds to prepare because [Head Coach Ron] Meyer hadn't decided whether to run the ball with Mosi or try a field goal. Matt Cavanaugh (the holder) and I couldn't even find a place to kick from. If you cleared away the snow, you couldn't stand on the ice. When I tried to kick, I slipped, the ball hit John Hannah in the back and we didn't score."
The difference between Smith's two attempts, in his mind, was the time he had to prepare for the second. Meyer called timeout to allow his kicker and Cavanaugh enough time to clear away the snow and ice. During the timeout, Grogan saw Henderson and approached Meyer with the idea of using him to help clear a spot. Meyer told Grogan to get Henderson out there and the rest is history.
"Matt and I were digging away through the ice for a spot for my non-kicking foot," Smith continued. "The actual snow plow — he kept coming out to clear the yard lines every 5 yards — made a bit of a veer where I was. He actually swept the snow where I'd cleared it and came in front of us.
"We had to move the spot and he actually annoyed the hell out of me. Matt moved the spot, which was a little disconcerting to me at the time, but it was just about the distance ... you couldn't have made one from any further away."
Through the years the credit/blame for sending Henderson onto the field has shifted between Meyer and Grogan. Meyer, who coached the Patriots from 1982 until midway through the 1984 season, was quick to accept the credit and Henderson himself believed that to be the case.
"It was definitely Meyer's call," Henderson said. "If you watch the video tape you can see him looking everywhere during the whole timeout and he's looking everywhere for me. He said, 'Get on that thing and go out there and do something.' I knew what to do; I just went and did my thing."
Smith and Grogan have a different story: "I don't think the guy would have listened to Meyer, but I'm sure he would have listened to Steve Grogan," Smith said.
"I came off the field and told Meyer that we should get the guy to clear a spot," Grogan said. "He grabbed me and told me to tell him and I ran over and told him."
Henderson was in town as part of the Patriots pregame ceremonies for the Miami game on Dec. 22 and enjoyed his return to the spotlight. There even had been rumors of his death several years earlier, but he explained that a different Mark Henderson that lived in Attleboro, Mass., had passed away.
Whoever gave the final OK, the players at the time didn't think it was such a big deal. It wasn't until after the game in the locker room that they realized the magnitude of the situation. "The press had gone absolutely berserk asking me questions about this guy driving the tractor," Smith said. "I had no idea who he was."
Nowadays there's barely a Patriots fan anywhere that hasn't at least heard of Mark Henderson and what he did on that cold December day. And you can bet that Don Shula will never forget as well.
The Top 10
No. 10 - Dec. 10, 1978 - Patriots 26, Buffalo 24 (Pats clinch first-ever AFC East title)
No. 9 - Sept. 22, 1996 - Patriots 28, Jacksonville 25 (ot) (Pats survive Jags Hail Marys)
No. 8 - Jan. 2, 1994 - Patriots 33, Miami 27 (ot) (Drew Bledsoe caps promising rookie season)
No. 7 - Sept. 9, 1979 - Patriots 56, New York Jets 3 (Steve Grogan rolls over Jets)
No. 6 - Dec. 31, 1978 - Houston 31, Patriots 14 (Oilers spoil Pats first-ever home playoff game)
No. 5 - Nov. 23 & 29, 1998 - Patriots 26, Miami 23/Patriots 25, Buffalo 21 (Bledsoe completes consecutive miracle comebacks)
No. 4 - Sept. 14, 1997 - Patriots 27, New York Jets 24 (ot) (Pats outlast Jets in Tuna Bowl I)
No. 3 - Nov. 13, 1994 - Patriots 26, Minnesota 20 (ot) (Bledsoe rallies Pats from 20-0 deficit)
No. 2 - Jan. 5 & 12, 1997 - Patriots 28, Pittsburgh 3/Patriots 20, Jacksonville 6 (Roll to Super Bowl goes through Foxborough)
No. 1 - Dec. 12, 1982 - Patriots 3, Miami 0 (The infamous "Snow Plow Game")