Today in Sports History: December 12th

12/12/1982 - The Snowplow Game

A December duel between the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots was scoreless thanks to the snowy, freezing weather at Schaefer Stadium. With conditions getting worse, New England was looking at a 33-yard field on what was likely their last chance to score in regulation.

"With 4:45 left, [Patriots coach] Ron Meyer called a time out," said Mark 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.'"

Mark Henderson was a recently freed convict who had joined the Pats' work-release program. He was part of the crew clearing the sidelines of snow, and knew what Meyer wanted him to do. Henderson drove onto the field and began clearing the patch of turf where the ball was to be spotted. Though the contest would later be known as the "Snowplow Game," the vehicle Mark used was really a John Deer tractor with a sweeper at the end of it.

"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."

Miami coach Don Shula was incensed, but his protests went ignored. Kicker John Smith got a good hold and was able to convert the 33-yard field goal, giving New England a 3-0 victory. Because it was a lockout-shortened year, the win put the 5-4 Patriots into the postseason. The team they met in the first round of the playoffs was none other the Dolphins, who on their own field handled the Patriots 28-13 and exacted a bit of payback.

A year later, the NFL banned the use of snowplows and similar vehicles from altering the playing field. For Henderson, it was the quickest five minutes of fame a recently-released inmate could ever receive. The tractor remained in use at Schaefer Stadium (later renamed Foxboro Stadium), and even made the transition to Gillette Stadium, which the Pats moved into in 2001. "No one had the heart to get rid of it," Jim Nolan, the V.P. of operations at Gillette Stadium, said in 2005. "To us it's a historical artifact."


12/12/2002 - High school LeBron gets ESPN airtime

There had never been an NBA player with more anticipation than LeBron James. By 15 and 16 years old, LeBron was getting national attention as the best future prospect the league had to offer. By 17, he had graced the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline, "The Chosen One" and the highlights of his high school games started airing on ESPN's SportsCenter. Never had more attention been payed to a high school basketball player, and with the presumption that he would skip college and jump straight to the NBA, his sensational highlight reel was all the more important.

James' fever pitch was so huge that on this day in 2002, ESPN2 did something that would have been unfathomable just a few years earlier: they aired one of his high school basketball games, live. Now in front of an audience of millions, the world would finally see if LeBron could handle the gargantuan amount of pressure. James came through with flying colors, collecting 31 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists while making spectacular dunks and no-look passes. His St. Vincent-St. Mary team beat Oak Hill, the best high school team in the country, 65-45; from then on, everyone knew that James was the real deal.

James eventually opted to forgo his amateur status and entered the 2003 NBA Draft. He was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the No. 1 overall pick, meaning that he would play professionally in the state he had lived in his whole life. Remarkably, James lived up to and exceeded his expectations as a basketball player -- he won the Rookie of the Year award in '04, got his team to the playoffs in 2006, got them to the Finals in 2007, and got them the best record in 2009.

By the time he was 24, James was widely believed to be the best player in the NBA.

12/12/2002 - Iraq War is "slam dunk"

It might be the most significant use of a sports idiom in history. According to a book written by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, a meeting was held on this day in 2002 that included President George W. Bush and CIA Director George Tenet. Bush asked Tenet how solid the evidence was that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass direction, to which Tenet responded by saying, "It's a slam dunk case."

The United States invaded Iraq three months later and toppled the Hussein-controlled government. However, no WMD's were ever discovered and the war became increasingly unpopular among Americans. Tenet, who had believed that there were WMD's in Iraq, later said that his statement was taken out of context. He claimed that he had been asked how well the war could be sold to the public and that he had called it a slam dunk.

Tenet was given the Medal of Freedom from President Bush six months after announcing his resignation. However, many blamed him and other CIA operatives for wrongfully portraying Iraq as a nation with deadly weapons. Tenet later wrote a book stating that he had been used as a scapegoat for the invasion in Iraq, and that his slam dunk comment had no weight at all on the administration's objective. "The hardest part of all this has been just listening to this for almost three years," he said in 2007 ."You listen to that and they never let it go. I mean, I became campaign talk. I was a talking point."

Also on this day:

1971: The Lakers defeat the Hawks, 104-95, and extend their winning streak to 21 games, surpassing the record set by the Milwaukee Bucks the previous year. They'd run it to 33 games before losing to the Bucks in January.

Further reading:

Snowplow driver won Patriots' fans hearts [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]

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