Craziest moments in NFL history: The Snowball Game(s)

We’re having difficulty containing our excitement for the start of the NFL season. In an effort to cope with that delirium, each day until the Sept. 4 kickoff, the Buzzer will post about one crazy moment in NFL history. "Crazy" is subjective, so what does that mean here? In this series we won’t be highlighting the most outstanding plays or statistical feats — but those plays that make your jaw drop and cause you to blurt out, "holy $*%," that was crazy!"

Get all of The Buzzer’s previous "Craziest NFL Moments" here.

The same nickname refers to two infamous games separated by 10 years.

The first one involves a mysterious snowball that caused a botched field goal in Denver in November 1985. The second, the Giants-Chargers contest at the Meadowlands in December 1995, is remembered for an ignominious barrage of wintry powderballs.

The better-known Snowball Game may be the more recent version, at least to this writer, who grew up a Giants fan and whose wife actually attended the game in the nosebleed seats.

All told, 175 fans got ejected and 15 of them arrested; a ball made predominantly from ice knocked Chargers equipment manager Sid Brooks unconscious, and the man who became the face of the disaster owing to a widely-circulated AP photo, Jeffrey Lange, age 26 at the time, claims he lost his job after he was identified.

Before the final game of a disappointing 5-11 season, snow covered the New York Giants’ Meadowlands home. The timing of the storm prevented crew from removing much of the precipitation. Snowball fighting started out playful in the stands but once the booze kicked in during the second half, all hell broke loose.

“It was a miserable end to a miserable season,” said Pat Hanlon, the Giants vice president of communications, who was the director of public relations at the time. “It was an absolute nightmare.”

“If you know someone who attended that game, be assured that that person chucked some snow,” wrote Mark Weinstein, a book editor who attended the game and who penned an open letter to Jeff Lange in 2009. “That means your mom, your dad, your uncle Lou. Father McGuigan. Your barber, your congressman, your nanna. Sheila from accounts receivable and her husband, Irv. Your fourth-grade teacher, your dry cleaner, the Harry M. Stevens guy. All the dudes in the wheelchair section.”

The Giants took out a full-page ad in the The San Diego Union-Tribune to apologize to the Chargers organization.

Now, the OTHER snowball game: in quite a contrast with the Meadowlands edition a decade later, it took just ONE snowball for the Nov. 11 1985 Broncos-49ers contest to earn the “Snowball Game” moniker.

That’s because the snowball in question actually impacted the outcome of the game. Down 14-3 with 17 seconds left in the first half, on fourth and one, the 49ers lined up for a field goal on the Broncos 2-yard line.

It should have been a chip shot but a mystery fan at Mile High Stadium heaved a snowball from the stands that plunked down a few feet in front of holder Matt Cavanaugh.

"I saw the snowball. It broke my concentration,” Cavanaugh said. “I’m not sure if I got the ball back up in time to kick it, but there must have been time because Ray decided not to kick it.”

Instead, Cavanaugh could only grab the ball, get up and shuffle a few steps before Broncos defenders broke free and slammed him to the ground.

Skip to the 4:00 mark for the play and some replay.

Referees ordered more security for the second half of the game but that’s all they could do. No do-over. 

Those points proved crucial: the 49ers came back but the Broncos held on to win the game 17-16.

As for the mystery fan? I suppose he swelled with pride, shock, maybe a tinge of shame, and for the rest of his life can say he threw and completed one pass as a member of the Broncos.

Get all of The Buzzer’s previous "Craziest NFL Moments" here.