This weekend the Philadelphia Eagles travel to Chicago to play the Bears in the NFC playoffs. Thirty years and a week ago, the Eagles and Bears played in the very same stadium in the most bizarre weather-related game in NFL history.
The Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles didn’t like each other, basically because head coaches Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan hated each other at the time. Three years earlier, Ryan was Ditka’s defensive coordinator and had something to prove. So the NFL made sure they had an experienced crew to handle the playoff tilt.
Jim Tunney, the dean of NFL referees, lead the crew along with umpire Ron Botchan, head linesman Tom Johnson, line judge Bama Glass, field judge Tom Sifferman, side judge Dave Parry and back judge Jack Vaughn. Parry, who is now deceased, is the father of current NFL referee John Parry. This game was his last as a NFL official. He retired after this game to be supervisor of officials for the Big Ten.
Most of this crew would work a Super Bowl in their careers, with Botchan working five Super Bowls and Sifferman working three straight.
Tunney is the author of The Tunney Side of Sports, a blog he’s authored for several years. He recently recounted the Fog Bowl on its 30th anniversary, December 31, 1988. Tunney wrote, “It is comforting to have an experienced crew who finished the 1988 season with high marks.” Tunney and the crew were relieved that the temperature was above average and there was no wind. The game started in brilliant sunshine along the shores of Lake Michigan.
Things changed when the crew came out after halftime. Tunney remembered, “We were greeted by a massive fog that had rolled in from Lake Michigan and practically covered the entire stadium. ‘Are we able to continue?’ is the question I had to ask myself.”
Could Tunney have suspended the game?
First, Tunney asked both coaches their opinion. The Eagles, who relied on the passing game could have protested that the weather hurt their offense because the quarterback and receivers could not see each other. But Buddy Ryan said that the fog was the same for both teams so he said the game should continue. Tunney then trotted over to Mike Ditka who also agreed to continue the game. Before kicking off the second half, Tunney consulted with the commissioner’s representative. Tunney wrote, “After exploring several options, it was decided that we would play.”
Under NFL rules, Tunney had the authority to suspend the game, but given that it was a NFL playoff game, such a suspension would have been a group effort involving all the above participants.
Since both coaches did not object, no one knew when the fog would lift and since there was network TV pressure to finish the game and not run into the second playoff game of the day, the game went on.
No uniform alterations
In Ben Austro’s book, So You Think You Know Football?, he broke down the rules that prohibited the Eagles from altering their uniforms for better visibility in the fog. According to Rule 5-4-4(j), teams may not use any “contrasting color tape that covers any part of the helmet, jersey, pants, stockings, or shoes; transparent tape or tape of the same color as the background material is permissible for use on these items of apparel.”
The Eagles’ jerseys were white, which blended in nicely with the fog. But, the only tape the players could wear were white, black or the team’s green color — no reflective tape allowed. And, of course, the rules forbade players from wearing any other reflecting or lighting equipment on the field.
Tunney should have billed CBS for a talent fee
Tunney worked as a professional speaker in the offseason and that public speaking experience was his ally in the second half. Plain and simple, no one could see the field from the press box. That meant the official statistician, public address announcer, radio and network television announcers could not do their job. CBS improvised and shot the game from the field-level cameras. Back in those days, the NFL forbade sideline announcers (believe it or not), but CBS bent the rules and had Brent Musberger, who was in Chicago for the The NFL Today, assist booth announcers Verne Lundquist and Terry Bradshaw, but even he said he couldn’t see to the other sideline.
Tunney helped them all out. “With the stadium’s announcer also unable to see the playing action, I took to my referee’s mic to announce down and distance before each play.” In an era where referee announcements were bare bones, Tunney used his microphone as a tool to keep the fans at the game and at home informed.
The Bears won the game 20-12. Philadelphia fans protested that the NFL should have suspended the game until the fog lifted. While some Eagles players complained about the playing conditions, the protests were mostly fan and media-driven.
Tunney’s job wasn’t over yet. After the game, the NFL told Tunney to keep his uniform on and get ready to talk to Will McDonough of CBS Sports and Jim Gray from NBC Sports about the decision to keep playing.
In 1988, it was still rare for game officials to give interviews, especially about a game they just officiated. In 1978, the NFL allowed one pool reporter to ask the referee about a call or a rules interpretation. But, a TV interview with a game official was almost unheard of. In fact, Tunney was only the second NFL official to appear on TV at the stadium to talk about the game they just worked. Referee Fred Silva spoke to NBC Sports after the 1981 AFC Championship Game, The Freezer Bowl, to discuss the extreme weather.
The NFL Playoffs are a show, and 30 years ago, Jim Tunney helped make sure the show went on, even in extreme weather.
Here’s hoping this weekend’s referee, Tony Corrente, and his crew enjoy pleasant and clear weather.