Commentary

Fog Bowl: 'A supernatural experience'

Nearly 20 years ago, a batch of fog dominated a Bears-Eagles playoff game. It remains entrenched in the minds of those who experienced it, writes Greg Garber.

Originally Published: September 26, 2008
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Fog BowlUS PresswireNot only did Eagles QB Randall Cunningham, left, have to deal with a fierce Bears defense, his job was made a lot tougher on Dec. 31, 1988 when a dense fog invaded Soldier Field.

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

-- Carl Sandburg

That simple, sublime poem, written in 1916 by a favorite son of the Midwest, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sandburg, preceded professional football in Chicago by four years.

Sandburg understood Chicago's peculiar quirks and rhythms intimately, apparently even the strange thermodynamic properties of adjacent Lake Michigan. It's called the Windy City, but nearly 20 years ago a batch of fog dominated a Bears-Eagles playoff game. It remains entrenched in the imaginations of those who experienced it.

Fog Bowl revisited

With the 20th anniversary of the "Fog Bowl" approaching and the Eagles returning to Chicago to play the Bears, the participants of that one-of-a-kind playoff game recount their vivid memories from that foggy day.
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"There hasn't been another game that was affected by atmospheric conditions quite like this one, I think, in the long history of the NFL," said CBS announcer Verne Lundquist.

Said former Philadelphia linebacker Seth Joyner: "If you have a bizarre category, it absolutely ranks right up there at the top of the list."

It was New Year's Eve 1988, and the story line was the Chicago return of former Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, the Philadelphia Eagles' coach, for a divisional playoff game. The Eagles -- who meet the Bears again Sunday in Chicago -- had won the NFC East with a 10-6 record, and football fans salivated at the thought of a collision with Mike Ditka's Bears at Soldier Field.

The day dawned gloriously, with abundant sunshine and temperatures that climbed into the upper 30s by kickoff. The Bears had just taken a 17-6 lead late in the second quarter on Kevin Butler's 46-yard field goal when the gray, velvet mist descended on Soldier Field.

Up-Close View (Sort Of)

The coldest I've ever been was Jan. 5, 1986, when the wind-chilled temperatures at Soldier Field dipped into the minus low teens.

Bears quarterback Jim McMahon wore gloves and one blast of wind caused Giants punter Sean Landeta to whiff on a kick. Chicago beat the Giants 21-0 that brutal day and both teams would go on to win a Super Bowl in the next year or so.

Two years later, as a reporter for the Hartford Courant -- I was back at Soldier Field for the Bears-Eagles divisional playoff game. It was warm by the Midwest standards of winter; I left my hat at the hotel. But by the end of the second quarter the combination of fog and condensation on the glass of the press box windows made it impossible to follow the action.

The Bears' communications staff gave us the option of watching from the sideline and I jumped at the chance. Outside of a few late-fourth quarter finishes, I had never been that close to the action.

It was eerie; because the crowd couldn't see the players very well, it was unusually quiet. Even from 20 yards away, the players seemed like ghostly apparitions. I remember Randall Cunningham's parabolic passes disappearing into the clouds. I recall wondering how the return men could follow the flight of punts and kicks.

After it was over, I remember walking across the field, scribbling notes. I had witnessed one of the NFL's more curious pieces of history from a ringside seat.

-- Greg Garber

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"We went to the two-minute break and all of a sudden [there was] this bizarre feeling," said then-Bears quarterback Mike Tomczak, now an analyst for the Big Ten Network. "I thought the parking lot was on fire."

"Hey, that's weird," Eagles QB Randall Cunningham said to himself. "These clouds are dropping down on us. What's going on here?"

Said Mike Singletary, then a Bears linebacker and today a San Francisco 49ers assistant coach: "It looked like a football game when they're introducing the players. This fog was just artificially being pumped in.

"It was the most amazing thing that I had ever seen."

Although fog is relatively rare in Chicago, it is not unheard of, according to Tom Skilling, WGNTV's longtime meteorologist.

"It was daytime warming that caused this cool, dense air out over the 32-degree waters of the lake to start moving inland -- that's what brought the fog bank in," Skilling explained. "There's fog and then there's fog. The Fog Bowl was fog. I mean, this was pea soup, London fog, zero visibility."

On the field, it was difficult to see beyond a radius of 10 to 15 yards. The view from the press box was completely obscured. Lundquist, calling the game for CBS with analyst Terry Bradshaw, took the handicap in stride. Fifteen years earlier, Lundquist had hosted a game show called "Bowling for Dollars," and it taught him to remain calm amid chaos, as this third-quarter exchange demonstrates:

Lundquist: "Cunningham will throw … or run. Sacked for the fourth time. Wait a minute …"

Bradshaw: "He got rid of the ball, Verne."

Lundquist: "Must have. He completed it to somebody. And we're not trying to make light of this, but it is actually impossible for us to see the field."

CBS eventually deployed two sideline cameras that had been dedicated to the pregame show, "The NFL Today," to give viewers a better sense of the action. Jim Riebandt, Soldier Field's public address announcer, couldn't see the field or the scoreboard. When he ap ologized, and asked the crowd to "bear with me," they booed.

"A Bears crowd is a tough crowd," Riebandt said.

The Bears public relations director dispatched an usher with a two-way radio to the field and he handed it to an NFL statistician, who passed the critical information to Riebandt, now in his 27th season.

"As I heard it, I would relay it -- with some embellishments," said Riebandt, who ordinarily would restrict his observations to down and distance and very basic play-by-play specifics. "What I always remember, as he is watching the play he says, 'It's an Eagles reverse,' and I yelled, 'It's a reverse!' And some of the Bears did reverse play and pick up the reverse.

"I never got a complaint from the NFL about that, but that is a true story."

After the fog appeared, referee Jim Tunney approached both head coaches and they agreed to play on. In a recent interview, Tunney said he was never told by commissioner's representative Don Wise to continue play, but added that he felt a sense of urgency to finish the game.

"This was a doubleheader on Saturday, and the next day, Jan. 1 was another doubleheader of the NFL," reasoned Tunney, who is a motivational speaker in California. "And on Monday, all the colleges were playing bowl games. So if you stop the game at the second quarter, when would you play it -- Tuesday?"

Mike Golic, a defensive lineman for the Eagles, said he could see the ball leaving Tomczak's hand, but a second later … nothing.

"I remember the referee at one point stood in the middle of the field and I could hear him telling upstairs, 'I can still see both goalposts,'" said Golic, now an analyst for ESPN. "And I remember looking at him and saying, 'What are you looking at?' "

Said Joyner, who lives outside Phoenix: "That is a straight-up lie. I don't think the league, the referees or anyone else wanted to delay the game."

The conditions -- neither team could call audibles or change defenses or offenses on the fly -- reminded Tomcazk of his childhood.

"We've all played in the backyard past sundown," he said. "And the moonlight kept us going at times. It's all about timing. It's angles. It's vision. It's accuracy.

"Fortunately, for us, we had a lead when all the fog came in."

[+] EnlargeFog Bowl
US PresswirePlayers and officials struggled to see through the fog. The view from the stands and pressbox was even worse.

Tomcazk, whose 64-yard touchdown pass to Dennis McKinnon was the difference in the game, would throw three interceptions before suffering a separated shoulder in the third quarter. The Eagles kicked a field goal before halftime, but couldn't ride Cunningham's strong arm through the decreased visibility. Although Cunningham passed for more than 400 yards, the majority went to fullback Keith Byars (9 catches for 103 yards) and tight end Keith Jackson (7 for 142).

"When that fog rolled in, you might as well close your eyes and close up the shop," said Cunningham, now the pastor of Remnant Ministries, a church he founded in Las Vegas. "That was it.

"We could probably have had the whole team on field and people wouldn't have known," Cunningham said, laughing. "Maybe that's what we should have done."

Each team could manage only a field goal in the second half and the Bears won, 20-12. They would lose the next week in the NFC Championship Game to the San Francisco 49ers, the eventual Super Bowl champions.

"We were the better team that day," Tomczak insisted. "They know they got beat on the scoreboard. That's the only thing that matters."

Joyner, respectfully, begs to differ.

"Some wins you win by domination, and some wins you win by default," Joyner said. "He needs to go back and look at the film."

On Sunday, 19 years and nine months after the Fog Bowl, the forecast calls for partial sunshine and temperatures in the low 70s. Fog is not in the forecast -- but, then again, it wasn't back in 1988.

"It was the best game that a player could ever play," said Singletary, "because you could do horribly and tell the coach you were doing great and come off the sideline and he would never know. And, of course, you didn't have the film to show it.

"It was like a supernatural experience."

Said Skilling, the WGN meteorologist: "That will forever go down as one of the most major weather events in Chicago. It didn't kill anyone. There were no injuries, no property damage, but none of us will ever forget the Fog Bowl."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.