It might have been the most fascinating football game I’ve ever seen, even though I didn’t really see it. But at least I wasn’t alone – even the players on the field didn’t see much of the game that has become known as the Fog Bowl.
The ironic thing about that December afternoon on the shores of Lake Michigan is that it started out as an unseasonably warm and sunny day and there was no hint of what was to come.
It was the last day of 1988 and the Eagles were playing in their first playoff game in seven years. They had won the NFC East championship on the final day of the regular season by beating the hated Cowboys in Dallas, 23-7, in what would be Tom Landry’s final game as Cowboys coach.
And this wasn’t just a playoff game—it was also the return to Chicago for Eagles coach Buddy Ryan, who had been the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears team that won the 1985 Super Bowl.
Ryan had a running feud with Bears coach Mike Ditka and there was nothing he wanted more than to come back to Chicago and beat his former boss. And, in typical Ryan fashion, he arrived in style – after the Eagles charter flight landed in Chicago, Ryan had the team buses circle Soldier Field and honk their horns to let everybody know that Buddy was back in town.
Then the game started and the Bears jumped to a 7-0 lead on a 64-yard pass from quarterback Mike Tomczak to wide receiver Dennis McKinnon. The Eagles answered with a 42-yard field goal by Luis Zendejas, but unfortunately for them, that would eventually prove to be their downfall.
The Eagles moved inside the Bears’ 25-yard line 11 times and made it inside the 11-yard line five times, but failed to score a single touchdown. They had to settle for four field goals and that’s what cost them the game.
But nobody remembers that. What they do remember is what happened near the end of the second quarter. I was sitting the press box at Soldier Field, covering the game for the Wilmington (Del.) News Journal, when I noticed what appeared to be smoke from a small fire at one end of the stadium.
It quickly became clear that it wasn’t smoke—it was fog. But it didn’t descend on Soldier Field like a blanket. It literally poured into the stadium, like steam from dry ice cascading over the sides of a bucket.
It started slowly, then picked up speed and suddenly nobody could see anything—not the fans, not the media, not the coaches, not the players. Because the visibility was so poor, the NFL did something it had never done before and hasn’t done since—it allowed the media to stand on the sideline to cover the game, since it was impossible to see anything from the press box.
It didn’t help. Standing on the sideline, I still couldn’t see anything except the sliver of field directly in front of me. Still, I had it better than Merrill Reese, the legendary radio voice of the Eagles. He had to stay in his broadcast booth and do his best to describe a game he couldn’t see.
“All I could do was be honest with my listeners,’’ Reese told me later. “I guess I could have tried to fake it, but that would have been a disservice to the fans who were depending on me to tell that was happening in the game.
So, I just told them what I could see and what I thought was happening, but the truth of the matter was that their guess was as good as mine.’’
One play stands out in my mind more than any other. The Eagles still had a chance to win late in the game when quarterback Randall Cunningham threw a long pass down the left sideline. At least that’s where I thought it was heading—I saw Cunningham release the pass, but then the ball disappeared into the fog.
But even though I couldn’t see it, I knew that an Eagles player hadn’t caught it. The reaction of the fans who were seated right in front of the play made it clear that something good had happened for the Bears.
Cornerback Vestee Jackson had intercepted the pass and the only way you could follow his return was by the reaction of the crowd—as Jackson appeared out of the mist in front of them, the fans would roar. And, like a wave, that roar moved down the length of the field as Jackson returned the interception 51 yards.
The Eagles had plenty of chances to win this game, but a touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Quick was called back because of a penalty and tight end Keith Jackson dropped a pass in the end zone.
Sadly for the Eagles, this game was a portent for the rest of the Buddy Ryan era – the Eagles would make the playoffs for three straight seasons under Ryan and lose in the first round each time.
And this might have been his best team. The 1988 Eagles had 10 players who would make a Pro Bowl team at some point in their careers – Cunningham, Quick, Jackson, wide receiver Cris Carter, running back Keith Byars, defensive ends Reggie White and Clyde Simmons, defensive tackle Jerome Brown, linebacker Seth Joyner and cornerback Eric Allen.
At least, that’s who I think was on the field that day. For all I know, Jack the Ripper could have been out there, too.