It wasn’t just any given Sunday though, as rains had passed through Foxborough Massachusetts the night before, and with the cold temperature, froze over the astroturf field. A snowstorm then made itself known earlier that day, and the field was a winter wonderland by game time. Still, almost 26,000 fans came out to cheer while the nor’easter worsened throughout the contest.
The Dolphins were leading the AFC East at 4-0, coached by the legendary Don Shula, while the Pats were trying to get back to .500, at 2 wins and 3 losses. The 1982 season was shortened to 9 games by a player’s strike, so this was a do or die game for New England’s wild-card hopes. Because of the inclement weather, there was an emergency ground rule put in place that allowed the officials to stop play at any time and have the ground crew uncover the yard markers with a makeshift snow plow: a John Deere tractor with a roller brush attachment in front.
As the game progressed and weather conditions deteriorated, it became increasingly difficult for the players to stay on their feet or even to keep their hands warm enough to catch the slippery ball. Patriots Quarterback Steve Grogan would only make 5 passing attempts, and it became a running, defensive game for New England. It was impossible to keep the ever increasing snowfall off the field long enough. Miami did not fare much better with an air attack, as David Woodley completed only 9 of 18 passes for 76 yards in the match.
The snowfall abated late in the game. With fullback Mark van Eeghen and running back Mosi Tatupu leading the rush, the Patriots somehow drove all the way to the Dolphin’s 23 yard line with only 4:52 left of the 4th quarter in a still scoreless tie. Tony Collins had fumbled on the previous play while running into his own right tackle Brian Holloway, but had fallen on the ball to preserve the scoring drive. As the Patriots took a timeout to prepare for placekicker John Smith’s field goal attempt, groundskeeper Mark Henderson was using the jury rigged snow plow contraption to knock away snow on the 20 yard line.
Henderson was a convicted burglar who was on a work-release program from a local prison, and as he was pushing the snow away, coach Ron Meyer instructed him to carve out a spot so that Smith would have a better shot of putting it through the uprights. Miami’s Shula appeared visibly upset across the field, since there was no allowance for such a maneuver in the emergency rules. As a matter fact, there was nothing AGAINST doing such a thing, either.
Smith, a left-footed kicker, proceeded to kick it slightly to the left and over the crossbar to give the Pats a 3-0 lead. The Dolphins coaches were incensed. They tossed various game paraphernalia, including playbooks, clipboards and helmets in protest.
The Fins would get the ball back with a chance to win it. They drove deep into Patriots territory but QB Woodley was picked off by linebacker Don Blackmon at the 10 yard line. Miami would get one more shot at it with 8 seconds left after a Patriot punt, but Woodley’s attempted hail mary pass was picked off; this time by strong safety Roland James as the Patriots sealed the victory
Don Shula contacted National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle days after the game and tried to get the league to overturn the game result. Rozelle denied his request, saying that because there was no rule AGAINST clearing away snow for a field goal, the win had to count. The league would ban the use of snow plows on the field the following off-season.
The two teams would meet almost a month later for a first round playoff game in (not so) sunny Miami’s Orange Bowl. Although it was a cloudy moist day, it was a much better climate than what the players had braved in snowy New England. Miami would exact revenge in a 28-13 victory that set them on their way to the Super Bowl, where they eventually lost to the Washington Redskins.
Despite the playoff defeat, Mark Henderson became a local folk hero. In fact the Patriots even enshrined the John Deere at an exhibit in the hall of fame at Gillette Stadium. Dolphins fans are annoyed by the snow plow game to this day, but it was an odd twisting of the rules and just enough to bend them so that they didn’t break which helped New England plow their way to victory.