Ron Meyer gazed out at the snow carpeting the field in Schaefer Stadium on Dec. 12, 1982, and made a coaching call that secured a spot in pro football history — and turned a burglary convict on a work-release program into a timeless hero for New England Patriots fans.
In a scoreless game against the Miami Dolphins, with 4 minutes and 45 seconds left, the first-year Patriots coach wanted placekicker John Smith to attempt a 33-yard field goal. But first, Mr. Meyer turned to Mark Henderson, who was standing next to a John Deere tractor on the sidelines. “He said, ‘Get out there and do something,’ ” Henderson, then an inmate who had volunteered that morning to run the tractor, recalled years later. “I knew exactly what he meant.”
It became known as the snowplow game, but to be precise, Henderson flipped a switch on his tractor and brooms whisked a strip of snow off the AstroTurf. Smith’s field goal was the only score in the Patriots’ 3-0 victory. Dolphins coach Don Shula was livid. Miami’s players cursed. New England fans chanted Henderson’s name and “MVP . . . MVP.” And Mr. Meyer?
“Great coaching genius, I guess,” he told the Globe after the game. “We had called time out so John Smith could clear a patch for himself. Then I saw the sweeper and just went down and told him to sweep.”
Mr. Meyer, who was fired partway through his third season with the Patriots and later coached the Indianapolis Colts, suffered an aortic aneurysm while playing golf Tuesday and died in a hospital outside Austin, Texas, a few hours later, his family said in a statement. He was 76.
During his first season with New England, Mr. Meyer took a team that had finished 2-14 the year before his arrival to the playoffs — only to lose, 28-13, in the first round to the Dolphins, who were still smarting from their snowbound loss in Foxborough less than a month earlier. Still, Mr. Meyer was named AFC coach of the year after the Patriots went 5-4 in a strike-shortened season and made their first playoff appearance since 1978.
“I am sad to hear of Ron Meyer’s passing,” Robert Kraft, the team’s chairman and CEO, said in a statement. “He was a colorful head coach who was very entertaining for fans during his tenure.”
Mr. Meyer was named AFC coach of the year a second time during his first full year with the Indianapolis Colts. The team had dropped 13 straight when he took over in December 1986. The Colts won their last three games that season and the division title the following year. That turnaround “gave our fans their first taste of what it meant to have an NFL team experience success. It gave them a glimpse of what could be,” Pete Ward, chief operating officer for the Colts, told the Indianapolis Star.
Overall, Mr. Meyer compiled a 54-50 NFL coaching record in nine seasons, including finishing 18-15 with the Patriots. Before coming to New England, his coaching record at Southern Methodist University in Dallas was 34-32-1 from 1976 to 1981. Among his SMU players was future NFL star running back Eric Dickerson, who tweeted that he was “devastated” to hear Mr. Meyer had died.
“My mom and I loved Coach Meyer,” Dickerson wrote. “He was a great man. Coach and his family are in my thoughts and prayers. God bless Coach Meyer!”
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Ronald Shaw Meyer was a son of George Meyer and Mary Harsha. He grew up in Westerville, Ohio, was an Eagle Scout, and graduated in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
He was a walk-on for Purdue’s football team, according to the Patriots, and subsequently secured a scholarship, leading the team in minutes played as defensive back his junior and senior years. He also received the Noble E. Kizer Award for academic achievement, and graduated with a master’s in education in 1965.
After starting out as a high school coach, Mr. Meyer was an assistant coach at Purdue before becoming a talent scout for the Dallas Cowboys — coach Tom Landry gave him a Super Bowl ring when the team won the championship. In 1973, Mr. Meyer was named head football coach at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where he took a team that had gone 1-10 the previous year to 8-3 during his first season.
When Mr. Meyer was picked to head the Patriots in January 1982, he became the fifth head coach in little more than nine years. “In taking over the Patriots, Meyer inherits the worst team in professional football, a muddled front office and an organization in disarray,” Globe sports columnist Michael Madden wrote.
Mr. Meyer was eager for the challenge. “I have a chance and I am going to take a swing at it,” he said in a Dallas news conference, and later added: “I spent my life preparing to coach in the National Football League. It was a lifelong dream.”
At the Patriots training camp in Rhode Island a few months later, he told the Globe: “I hope I’ve made my last move.” That was not to be. Partway into the 1984 season, his third with the Patriots, amid disagreements with his superiors and acrimony with many players, Mr. Meyer was fired, after the team started with a 5-3 record.
Little more than a year later, when the Patriots made their first Super Bowl appearance, he wished the players well, but declined to discuss his feelings about the front office. “Some things are better left unsaid,” he told the Globe in January 1986. “I’m mum on that subject. I’ll stay mum.”
According to a statement from his family, Mr. Meyer leaves his wife of nearly 50 years, the former Cynthia Osborne; his children, Ron Jr., Ralph, Elizabeth Petersen, and Kathryn Markey; and his grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday in Tarrytown United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas.
“Our family is heartbroken to see him go so suddenly, and we miss the twinkle in his eye that flashed brighter than his Super Bowl ring,” Mr. Meyer’s family said in a statement.
In a Globe interview 15 months after he was fired from the Patriots, Mr. Meyer didn’t regret the coaching decisions that contributed to his abrupt departure. “You don’t make an omelette by just cracking a couple of eggs,” he said. But he noted that the experience had offered valuable lessons, not least of which was what it was like for the players he had cut from the team or traded.
“I understand that better now that I’ve been fired, too,” he said. “And when you let a player go, that’s what you’re doing — firing him. All of a sudden, he’s not working at his profession. I can see that bitterness maybe more so now than I did before; after all, I’d never been fired in my life before the age of 43.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.