The Patriots beat the Dolphins thanks to a convict and snowplow


In 1982, the New England Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins in a 3-0 affair long remembered for a convict out on work release, riding a snowplow.

Game balls typically are reserved for star players. Quarterbacks are a popular choice. So is anyone who scored a game-winning touchdown or kicked a last-second field goal. Or maybe it’s a defender who made a goal-line stop.

But a snowplow operator? Sorry. Not on the checklist.

Yet it happened. And it happened after a Dec. 12, 1982 contest when New England upset Miami 3-0 and awarded a game ball to snowplow operator Mark Henderson.

True story.

The 24-year-old Henderson was no ordinary snowplow driver. In fact, he wasn’t a snowplow driver at all. He was employed by the Patriots on a work-release program from MCI-Norfolk prison and made such an impact that he and his snowplow – OK, so it was a John Deere 314 tractor with a brush on it – are immortalized in the team’s museum at the Hall at Patriot Place.

I’m serious.

Climb the stairs to the second floor and there, suspended by steel cables from the ceiling, is the green tractor — along with the attached brush — that made history and turned Henderson into something of a cult hero in what is commonly referred to as “The Snowplow Game.” There’s also a display with commentary by Henderson and Patriots’ kicker John Smith, who scored the only points of the game.

Essentially, Henderson was called on to the field late in the fourth quarter to clear snow from the field, allowing Smith to nail a 33-yard field goal that won the game. That’s the beginning of our story. But it’s nowhere near the end.

Because this is a tale of near mythic proportions.

Then-New England general manager Patrick Sullivan called it one of “comic relief,” saying it was a story to tell grandchildren about a not-so-good Patriots’ season. Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, on the other hand, was not amused, complaining to the league office in the immediate aftermath of what he saw as chicanery at its worst.

OK, more like cheating.

The game was played during the strike-truncated 1982 season, with the campaign divided into two parts – the first, two games before a 57-day player strike; then seven more contests following the layoff. Miami was 4-1 entering the Patriots’ game and on top of the AFC East. New England was 2-3 and desperate for a victory.

Conditions at Schaefer Stadium (later Foxboro Stadium) that afternoon were miserable. Snow blanketed Massachusetts prior to the game, temperatures were sub-freezing and rain the evening before had frozen the AstroTurf field. In fact, the weather was so bad that the Patriots offered a free ticket and $10 to anyone who volunteered to help shovel out seats before the game. What’s more, Shula and then-New England coach Ron Meyer agreed that a snowplow – OK, a John Deere tractor — could be used to clear the field in 10-yard increments.

But that was the end of it. No one envisioned what would happen next.

And what happened was … well, virtually nothing. The field was slippery. So was the ball. Passes were dropped. Field goals were missed. Yards were hard to come by. And points … well, there were none. With just under five minutes left the game was tied at zero.

And that’s where the plot thickens.

With 4:45 left and New England at the Miami 16-yard line, Meyer sent Smith on the field for a 33-yard field-goal attempt. But he wasn’t alone. Henderson was there, too, behind the wheel of the aforementioned John Deere. During a timeout that preceded the kick, Meyer frantically searched for Henderson (he’d volunteered before the game to sweep the sidelines and keep line markers clear) and told him to clear the field.

So that’s what he did.

But as Henderson motored on to the field, Patriots’ holder Matt Cavanaugh intercepted him and told him to follow him to the 23, where Cavanaugh planned to spot the ball for Smith’s kick. No problem. Henderson did as he was told, veering the tractor to a spot at the 23, clearing a space and then leaving.

No big deal, right? Wrong.

Watching from the Miami sideline, Shula wasn’t sure what he just witnessed. When he was, he became apoplectic. So did his assistants, players and anyone associated with the Dolphins, as clipboards, helmets, playbooks … you name it … were thrown to the turf.

“I wanted to go out there and punch him out,” Shula told the Boston Globe. “In retrospect, I should have laid down in front of the snowplow.”

In retrospect, he did neither.

With a swath of green suddenly visible, Cavanaugh was able to spot the ball for a kick that sailed perfectly through the uprights. Curiously, Smith later claimed Henderson’s yard work didn’t help with his heroics; that he could have succeeded without him. Maybe. But Henderson and the court of public opinion disagreed.

You might, too, if you dial up the video on YouTube. It certainly didn’t hurt, and, in all likelihood, it helped. A lot. Why else would the Patriots have flashed Henderson’s name on the scoreboard, along with an image of him on the tractor? Smith wasn’t the MVP. Mark Henderson was.

The Most Valuable Plower.

Afterward, a nervous Sullivan told Henderson not to speak to reporters. He and the Patriots were fearful there would be repercussions because Shula was on the league’s competition committee and wielded considerable influence within the league office. So he told Henderson to avoid the press, put the tractor away and leave.

Except that didn’t happen, either.

As Henderson drove the machine up a Schaefer Stadium ramp with under a minute left, the tractor stalled. Unable to move, Henderson immediately was surrounded by the media, with cameras and microphones thrust in his face. Nevertheless, Henderson played it coy, saying he didn’t remember who ordered him on to the field and that he wasn’t concerned about possible fallout.

“What are they going to do,” he said, “throw me in jail?”

That got a laugh. It should have. After the game, Meyer telephoned the Norfolk prison to tell them one of their inmates – a Mark Henderson – would be late to return.

The game ball officially was awarded to Patriots’ linebacker Steve Nelson, but Henderson got one later from the equipment manager, with the score “3-0,” the date and the words “Clean Sweep” written across it. As you might expect, Shula wasn’t amused. Not then, nor years later when asked about the event.

“I think it’s the most unfair thing I’ve ever been associated with in coaching,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s the most unsportsmanlike act that I’ve ever been around.”

He made that clear to then-commissioner Pete Rozelle after the game, saying the win shouldn’t count. But it did, and it did because there was no rule involving the clearing of fields for field goals during the course of a game. But there was the following season, with snowplows banned from clearing turf for field goals or PATs, a rule that remains in effect today.

Maybe you didn’t know that. But my guess is you probably knew about “The Snowplow Game,” because it’s one of the most extraordinary and indelible events in NFL history.

Its legacy isn’t that it had an impact on the standings or the playoffs. Because it didn’t. Miami won the AFC East and met – who else? – New England in the first round of that season’s “Super Bowl Tournament” at the Orange Bowl. The Dolphins won 28-13 and wound up in Super Bowl XVII where they lost to Washington.

No, the legacy of “The Snowplow Game” is it’s part of football folklore, celebrated in one corner of this country and reviled in another. Patriots’ fans remember Mark Henderson before they remember John Smith. In fact, before the last regular-season game at Foxboro Stadium on Dec. 22, 2001, the Patriots thought it would be a good idea to have Henderson re-enact the Snowplow incident.

Only one problem: They heard he was dead.

He wasn’t. Another Mark Henderson, who was the same age, grew up in the same area and had a criminal record passed away in the 1990s. When a CBS producer finally located Henderson and his identity was confirmed, he was wheeled out prior to the Foxboro finale and introduced to the crowd.

He was given a standing ovation.