Mud Bowl 1968

Playing conditions were far from ideal in the NFL's Thanksgiving Day contest between the Philadelphia Eagles and the host Detroit Lions on Nov. 28, 1968. There was no distinguishing the muddy players as the game progressed on the rain-soaked field. Managing to keep fairly clean, he was rarely spilled, was Eagle quarterback Norm Snead (16), preparing to hand off the ball in the fourth quarter. Philadelphia won the game 12-0, but was caught up in a scandal about illegally substituting dry footballs for Sam Baker's four field-goal kicks.

Think New England is the first NFL team to be accused of tampering with footballs in inclement weather?

Think again.

Think, in fact, of the Philadelphia Eagles.

In the famous "Mud Bowl" in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day 1968, the Eagles were accused of illegally substituting dry footballs for each of Sam Baker's four field goals in a 12-0 victory over the Lions. But the bending of the rules led to bad karma. The victory would have a disastrous effect on the future of the Eagles' franchise, ultimately leading to Philly fans' reputation as rogues who would direct their ire — and snowballs — at Santa Claus.

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It all began with the lowest-scoring Thanksgiving Day game in NFL history, due no doubt to 36 consecutive hours of cold rain that left the grass and dirt floor of Tiger Stadium a swamp.

For those of us who watched the game on national television that Nov. 28, the "Mud Bowl" remains memorable because it's a reflection, as The Supremes sang at the time, of the way life used to be. Back in the days before the NFL became big business, before domed stadiums and manicured fields.

Wayne Walker, a Lions linebacker in 1968, recalled the mud at Tiger Stadium being "ankle deep" even before the game started. Roger Keim of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, "Tiger Stadium's turf made the average pig's quarters appear to be wall-to-wall carpeted by comparison."

Punts and incomplete passes stuck like arrows in the quagmire. Baker was a 14-year pro at the time but acknowledged he "never played on a field like that in the pros." Holder Joe Scarpati agreed. "I don't remember anything like this anywhere," he told reporters.

Baker credited Scarpati, who in turned praised center Dave Lloyd for the Eagles' success on special teams that afternoon. But there was more to it. Prior to Baker's field goals from 36, 18, 32 and 35 yards, a Detroit ball boy noticed something unusual.

Why is it, he asked Lions equipment manager Roy "Friday" Macklem, that every time the Eagles kick they throw in a dry ball from the bench?

Macklem was stunned. "Why didn't you tell me earlier? They're not supposed to do that."

NFL rules in 1968 stated that only the home team could supply game balls. So while the Lions were toiling with muddy, rain-soaked footballs, the Eagles were using clean, dry ones. Except on kickoffs, when Walker noticed Baker would load the ball up with mud to make life difficult for Detroit's return men.

Unfortunately for the Birds, their tampering with the rules backfired badly. Philadelphia entered Thanksgiving 0-11 but in first place in the O.J. Simpson Sweepstakes. Simpson at the time was the Heisman Trophy-winning running back for reigning national champion Southern Cal.

Defeating Detroit was a win in the standings but a loss in the larger sense. Eagles' followers, already irate with their head coach — "Joe Kuharich couldn't sell iced tea to a Tasmanian at a dried up water hole," Sandy Grady wrote in the Philadelphia Bulletin - could see their No. 1 draft pick slipping away.

In the season finale against the visiting Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 15 — the infamous Santa game — some 55,000 fans crowded into Franklin Field on a snowy afternoon that featured wind-chill temperatures of 15 degrees.

With quarterback Joe Kapp accounting for three touchdowns, the Vikings won 24-17 to clinch the Central Division championship. But the real story occurred during the halftime Christmas pageant. Santa's float became mired in the snowy muck and Saint Nick himself was nowhere to be seen. Eagles brass found in the crowd 20-year-old Frank Olivo, who attended the game dressed as Santa. As the 5-6, 170-pound Olivo ran onto the field waving at the crowd, belligerent fans booed the skinny Santa and pelted him with snowballs.

The Eagles finished 2-12 and had to settle for the No. 3 pick, which they used on Purdue's Leroy Keyes. Simpson went to the Buffalo Bills, where he rushed for 11,236 yards in a Hall of Fame career. Keyes rushed for 369 career yards.

Tampering with the rules muddied the Eagles' future. How the Patriots fare following Deflategate won't be known until Super Sunday.

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