The Hog of Steel was as filthy as a person can get, and about as ecstatic. He had just caught his second touchdown pass of the game, and his team, the Mount Washington Valley (N.H.) Hogs, was headed to the finals of the 1994 mud football championships. The World Mud Bowl, as the tournament is officially called, has been an annual event in northern New England since 1971, and the Hog of Steel—his name away from the mud is Gary Sheldon—was playing in it for the 19th consecutive year.
"I'm the widest wide receiver in all of mud football," said Sheldon, 44, who is 6'3" and weighs 250 unevenly distributed pounds (most of them in his thighs, shoulders and belly). "I'm also one of the oldest—the dirtiest old man you'll ever meet." Sheldon, who is distinguished by a bird's nest of salt-and-pepper hair and a whooping laugh, has the uncanny ability to run atop the mud while nearly everyone else churns through it. And he has seemingly become swifter and stronger every year. Hence his nickname.
Sheldon was the inaugural member of the Mud Bowl Hall of Fame, and going into the '94 tournament he had been on the winning team a record 11 times. He does double duty as Mud Bowl committee cochairman. He is not paid for either playing or cochairing; the Mud Bowl, which is held every September in North Conway, N.H., is a nonprofit endeavor whose proceeds go to local charities. The Hog of Steel earns his living working for a distributor of Kraft Foods.
"Once you've been in the mud, you never want to leave it," said Sheldon, attempting to explain his participation in an event more suited to players half his age. "Some people—and I'm one of them—never grow up, and the Mud Bowl is the one weekend each year when you get to act like the little kid you can't act like the rest of the year."
The World Mud Bowl takes place in a stadium called Hog Coliseum. "It's the world's only full-time mud football arena," said Steve Eastman, 45, the Mud Bowl's other cochairman and a former player. Hog Coliseum consists of a grassy hillside that can accommodate 4,000 spectators, at the bottom of which is a bog 120 feet long, 60 feet wide and 1½ feet deep.
The bog contains some of the most lovingly tended mud on earth. "We truck in tons of prime New England loam, pump in thousands of gallons of water, and rototill everything until it's just right," said Mike Lynch, the Mud Bowl's chief grounds-keeper. "I test it by feel. You need to sink in it, but not too slowly or too quickly."
The game itself is similar to real football, with a few significant mudaptations. (Mud Bowl players have a contagious habit of slipping the word mud into conventional terms.) In mud football seven people play on a side, two-handed touch is substituted for tackling, and field goals don't exist. A team has to move 12 feet for a first down, although nobody refers to feet or yards; instead there are mud increments. The mud sticks to everything the players wear, so uniforms are spare. Most Mud Bowlers play barefoot, wearing only bicycle shorts and tank tops.
Eight teams are invited to the Mud Bowl: four in the Class A division, four in the more prestigious World Class Division. Qualification for the tournament is based on tradition rather than football prowess. If a team participates in all the pomp surrounding the bowl games (builds a float for the Saturday-morning Tournament of Mud Parade down Main Street in North Conway, assembles a cheerleading squad and choreographs a witty team introduction), it is automatically invited back, no matter how badly it plays. The four teams in the World Class Division—the Mass Muddas (from Andover, Mass.), the Carrabassett Valley Rats (Kingfield, Maine), the North Shore Mudsharks (Danvers, Mass.) and the hometown Mount Washington Valley Hogs—have played each other for 14 years.
The World Class games showcase some impressive football, considering that it is played in a foot and a half of mud. The squads have coaches and playlists and special teams. There are wing formations and audibles and backfield motion. Most Mud Bowlers have played at least varsity high school ball, several played in college and a few performed in regional semipro leagues. In past years even some former NFL players have been imported as ringers: New England Patriot running back Bob Gladieux and Seattle Seahawk offensive lineman Tom Lynch have both competed in Hog Coliseum.
For the fans the Mud Bowl is riotous fun. But for the participants the games are long, slow journeys into muddrenched exhaustion. The athletes lumber gracelessly through the goo, using any number of amusing mud-maneuvering techniques—leaping straight out of the bog, rabbit-style, between strides; zigzagging crazily along the sidelines in search of spots where mud has hardened; bulldozing resolutely forward on brute force alone. Some players succumb to fatigue in mid-run and begin slogging through the mud on all fours, like soldiers in a basic-training exercise.
Mud Bowl difficulties aren't limited to running. A mud-covered football is about as easy to grasp as a greased pole. At times the ball squirts in and out of so many players' hands that the game becomes something of a Three Stooges act. And though Mud Bowl teams often begin a game wearing brightly colored uniforms, within minutes of flopping and gyrating in the bog, they are coated head to toe in mud. They become creatures from the brown lagoon. Rookie Mud Bowl quarterbacks are often flummoxed when attempting to pass the ball: All players on the field look exactly alike.
Mud football has its hazards. Mud settles everywhere—"You dig gunk out of your ears for weeks," said Sheldon—and everywhere, unfortunately, includes the eyes. When mud gets in players' eyes, their reaction is natural: They rub them. With muddy hands. Which leads to more rubbing. The cycle is cruel, and sideline eyewash volunteers, armed with bottles of saline solution and eyedrops, do a brisk business. Another potential danger is reflected in a longstanding Mud Bowl tenet: When you fall in the mud, don't forget to close your mouth.
The Mud Bowl's most bitter rivalry is between the Mass Muddas and the Hogs. "We're friends in the barroom," said Sheldon, "but on the field their name is mud—literally." Entering the 1994 Mud Bowl, the two teams had played each other for the championship 10 of the previous 12 years, with the Muddas winning six times. And in the '94 bowl things remained true to form. In Saturday's semifinal games the Muddas brownwashed the Mudsharks 12-0, and the Hogs (on the strength of two TDs by the Hog of Steel) swamped the Rats 33-7.
This set up the expected Sunday showdown. A crowd of about 2,000 witnessed the Muddas dance to Born in the M.U.D. (a Mud Bowl adaptation of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A.) as a pregame warmup. Sheldon served as the Hogs' official dirtier; as each Hog was introduced, Sheldon soiled the player's uniform with a handful of mud. In the stands the Hog of Steel's father, George Sheldon, 71, looked on bemusedly. "I've watched my son play in the Mud Bowl for 10 years, and each time I'm sure it'll be his last," George said. "Gary's too old to be out there. But I guess it's just not in him to stand on the sidelines like a normal adult and watch the kids play."
In the championship, though, it was a kid on the Muddas—23-year-old Adam Gillan—who stole the spotlight from the Hog of Steel. Gillan caught three touchdown passes while Sheldon was held scoreless, and the Muddas disappointed the hometown crowd by trouncing the Hogs 24-7 for their second title in a row.
After the presentation of the Mud Bowl trophy, all the players retreated to Hog Coliseum's makeshift locker room for desperately needed showers. All, that is, except Sheldon. He seemed perfectly content to remain coated in mud. Cleanliness, after all, connotes maturity, sanity, normality—ideals antithetical to the Mud Bowl. And the Hog of Steel was in no rush to return to those. So instead of showering he wandered around the stadium, leaving a trail of dirty footprints while talking with whoever would listen about how the Hogs would win the next Mud Bowl.