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 1� 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.