First in a series on iconic NFL games.
Bad weather, from ice, snow and sub-freezing temperatures to downpours and excessive heat, has plagued NFL games since the league began over 100 years ago. But no game in NFL history matches the odd weather of the “Fog Bowl” playoff game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears on December 31, 1988.
Meteorologists said the fog was so thick during the game at Soldier Field in Chicago it was like having clouds on the ground. The freak of nature was caused when cold air over Lake Michigan was blown by a breeze towards warm air at Soldier Field on the lake, according to the National Weather Service.
“It will be remembered as the best game you have ever seen,” wrote Fred Mitchell in the first sentence of his game history the next day. Chicago Tribune.
The Bears won, 20-12, in the game featuring despicable head coaches: Buddy Ryan of the Eagles and “Iron Mike” Ditka of the Bears. Ryan was Chicago’s defensive coordinator on their 1986 Super Bowl championship team.
But the Eagles-Bear result was almost secondary to the thick fog that kept fans and players talking for days.
“In about 30 years of covering sports, I thought I had seen just about everything,” wrote Frank Dolson of Philadelphia Investigator. “Yesterday, sitting in a 50-yard seat at Soldier Field, I saw next to nothing.”
Fog envelops Shroud of Gray stadium
Other NFL games have been played in a haze of pea soup. Two were greeted by the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. On January 6, 1997, New England defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 28-3. Twenty years later, in the Patriots’ 23-7 win over the Atlanta Falcons, the fog was so thick that NBC relied on its Skycam for most in-game coverage instead of the usual sideline cameras.
No NFL game, however, was as steamy as the “Fog Bowl.”
“I’ve never even driven a car in something like this before,” Chicago kicker Kevin Butler told reporters afterwards.
The game started off in relative comfort for fans, especially for Chicago in the winter, with temperatures in the 40s, light wind and bright sunshine. At the end of the first half, fog rolled in from Lake Michigan, enveloping the stadium in a gray shroud.
Some thought the fog was smoke from a fire outside the stadium. Eagles wide receiver Gregg Garrity initially thought it might be snow. “I don’t think a blizzard would have been this bad,” he said, according to the Tribune. “You couldn’t see what was going on in the back field. It was strange.”
The fog was so thick that the visibility on the ground was sometimes reduced to about 20 meters. CBS, which broadcast the game on television, was forced to stop the helicopter it was using for aerial shots of the stadium. Network play-by-play broadcaster Verne Lundquist and color analyst Terry Bradshaw couldn’t see the pitch, so they called up the game from the TV screens.
Many of the 65,534 fans in attendance left their seats to watch the game on lobby televisions. Many more just went home to watch. “For the fans, this is the Invisi-Bowl,” wrote one astute writer for the Tribune.
Phil Sheridan, who covered the game for the Bucks County Courier (PA) Times and other sports journalists were escorted from the press gallery to the pitch for a better perspective.
“But we couldn’t see the opposite touchline or either end zone from midfield,” he recalls. “Sometimes the players would run by, but it was impossible to know where they were coming from or where they were going.”
The Soldier Field public address announcer, powered by a walkie-talkie from an observer on the sidelines, did his best to provide one game per game for fans at the stadium.
“It was like being home and listening to the radio,” Bears linebacker Dante Jones said. “You just sat there waiting for the announcer and the crowd. It was a whole different experience.”
Sometimes fans would weirdly cheer even a mundane play, but most had no idea what they were seeing. “It would make it look like a guy was going 1,000 yards and he was doing two,” Ryan told reporters of the fans’ reaction.
Surprisingly, the fog then lifts
Eagles owner Norman Braman was furious that the game had not been stopped. The NFL has discussed his suspension or delay, but referee Jim Tunney said he can see both goalposts from midfield. So that was the game. “That referee should go to the Hall of Fame if he could see both goalposts,” Butler said.
The Eagles dominated, edging the Bears 430 yards to 341. Philadelphia, however, was prone to errors. Before the fog set in, two Eagles touchdowns were called up for penalties, and tight end Keith Jackson dropped a safe touchdown pass.
The Eagles owner suspected someone else had dropped the ball.
“I think we should have had the opportunity to play this football game under reasonable circumstances, and I think we were denied those reasonable circumstances, and I’ll try to find out why,” said Braman. “I think I know why.
Some speculated televisions dictated that the game should be played despite the thick fog.
Ryan, however, declined to attribute the loss to the odd weather, although he later told reporters: “… I could barely see across the field, and I’m sure they didn’t. couldn’t either. They were playing a play, and I didn’t know who had the ball or what was going on.
At least the game gave some sports journalists a chance to show their wits. In the coming days TribuneColumnist Bob Verdi wrote: “Could anyone have been hurt? Damn, someone could have gotten lost… ”
As strange as the second half was, probably the strangest thing was what came after the game. “The fog was gone,” recalls Sheridan, a longtime sports journalist. “The day was again as clear and sunny as it was before kick-off.”
The following week, the Bears were featured in a haze, as Chicago lost to eventual Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game.