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Steelers Snowplow driver won Patriots' fans hearts

Friday, January 25, 2002

By Lillian Thomas, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Less than a month before the New England Patriots' freaky snow win over the Raiders on Saturday, Mark Henderson came back from the dead to man the tractor that had cleared the way for the most famous freaky snow win ever.

Mark Henderson now works for a company that installs fences in the Boston area. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

In 1982, Henderson was a 24-year-old who had strayed from his father's fence installing business into burglary. He served 18 months and then went on work release on the maintenance crew for the Patriots in what was then called Schaefer Stadium, now Foxboro Stadium.

"We'd do painting, clean up the bathrooms after games," said Henderson, now 43, of Cumberland, R.I.

"On the day of the event, Nov. 12, 1982, it started snowing really early," he recalled. The maintenance crew was put to work cleaning off the stands for the game against the Miami Dolphins.

"I remember they invited fans to come help. They could get $10 and a free ticket. About 400 or 500 people came.

"There were four or five guys on my crew. We got the stands cleared out. At 3 p.m. it was still snowing. We were soaking wet by game time. No one seemed to want to run the tractor to sweep the sidelines, so I did," Henderson said.

Though it has come to be known as the snowplow game, it wasn't really a plow.

"The apparatus was a sweeper attached to a John Deere tractor. It was a 4-foot-long brush that spun, and it would sweep off the carpet," he said.

Henderson made repeated runs up and down the sidelines and along the lines marking the 10-yard divisions on the AstroTurf field. The snow kept coming, the players staggered around the field, and by late in the fourth quarter it was still a scoreless game. The Patriots got within field goal range.

"With 4:45 left, [coach] Ron Meyer called a time out," said Henderson. "He thought I might be able to help out. In the film you can see [Meyer] running down the sideline looking for me. He finally spotted me, and he said, 'Do something.'

"I knew what he wanted," Henderson said. "When I got on the tractor, Matt Cavanaugh saw me. He was the spotter, a former quarterback. I guess he got wind of the whole thing. He knew the spot. He started clapping and said, 'All right, follow me.' They had been trying to clear the area with their feet. It was kind of a fruitless effort.

"I went down the 20-yard line, which is where I was stationed. Then I did a little swerve over to the 23, kind of a nonchalant swerve.

"And there was a nice clean carpet."

Cavanaugh put down the ball on the clean carpet and kicker John Smith put a 33-yard kick through the uprights. That was the only score of the game.

Henderson's name was flashed on the scoreboard, and the Patriots crowd went nuts. He did an encore at the two-minute warning.

"I decided I was going to go completely around the field again. I guess I was guilty of going too slow in front of the Miami bench. The snow was kicking up in their faces. I could see the fire coming out from under their helmets. A few profanities were slung my way," he said.

It didn't improve the mood of Don Shula and his team, who were questioning the action.

"After the game, [owner] Patrick Sullivan told me not to talk to the media. Less than five minutes later, I had 14 reporters surrounding me. I was still on the tractor, and I tried to go up the ramp, but it was icy and the tractor wheels kept slipping," Henderson said.

The press closed in and kept asking him: "Who told you to do it?"

"It was Ron Meyer who had told me, but actually I didn't say it at the time," he said. "I told them I didn't know, I wasn't sure."

When the film came out showing Meyer going to the sideline and talking to Henderson, it was pretty clear how it had happened.

"I guess there's a couple [or] three pages in the NFL rule book named after me," said Henderson.

Now there are bad weather guidelines, and coaches confer before games and agree on what can and can't be done on the field.

After Henderson's few minutes of fame, all was quiet for another decade and a half. He finished serving his sentence and went back into the fence installing business. He moved from Massachusetts across the state line to Cumberland, R.I.

A few years later, he was reported dead.

"I grew up in a little town called North Attleboro. An unfortunate gentleman by the same name, from Attleboro, passed away. Everyone assumed he was the snowplow Mark Henderson," he said. Since the man also was reported to have a criminal record, he fit the profile.

"Some of my friends called up radio stations and said, 'He's not dead.' I never called. I was being quiet at the time."

Henderson continued to be a big fan, and followed this season's Patriots through the regular season.

Meanwhile, the Patriots were looking for a way to celebrate a winning streak and mark their last regular season game in Foxboro Stadium. In a meeting with team owner Robert Kraft, someone suggested bringing in Henderson for the game, which was also against the Dolphins, recalled Stacey James, of Patriots media relations.

"I remember telling them that would be nice, but he's dead," he said.

But on the Thursday before the Dec. 22 game, a CBS producer who had been told that former Pats kicker John Smith believed the snowplow guy might not be dead after all found Henderson's number and called him. James and the other Patriots staff learned that Henderson was apparently alive and living in Cumberland.

"When I relayed that to the owner, he remembered what I'd said," James said, smiling ruefully.

The Patriots wanted to make sure they had the right guy before they brought him out during a game.

"I was a little nervous that someone was playing a hoax," said James. "So we took people down who had known him."

Henderson said, "In fact, they were quite skeptical of my identity. They brought an assistant equipment manager [who'd worked with Henderson] and he ID'd me."

So the next day, Henderson once again mounted the tractor, which was still on the premises after all those years. His 13-year-old son, Mark, came with him, and they met Kraft.

Henderson re-enacted the drive on a snowless field, nonchalant swerve and all. The crowd went wild.

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