“It’s a dirty sport, but it’s for a good clean cause,” said Tom Eastman, editor at large of the North Conway weekly, the Mountain Ear, and volunteer publicist for one of Mount Washington Valley’s most celebrated events.
For the 31st time, the annual Mud Bowl Tournament “splashed off” on Sept. 8, with eight teams from New Hampshire and throughout New England, running, passing, slogging and sliding in the muck and mire through 13 games in the weekend-long battle for the Mud Bowl championship.
An estimated 5,000 spectators witnessed the spectacle of grown men playing in the mud.
“When you’re kids, you’re not supposed to play in it,” said Eastman. “There’s some sort of root of fascination there, I guess.” Whatever it is, it brings people into the valley before the leaves start to turn.
“When the Mud Bowl started, the post-Labor Day, pre-foliage time was kind of dead, a slack season that gave people in the restaurant and hotel industry a chance to catch their breath,” said Eastman. Some area businesses now have a shorter respite, but are enjoying the infusion of “mud money.” Players and spectators “need restaurants and hotels to stay in,” said Eastman. “It really has proved to be an economic generator.”
And not just for businesses in the valley. Proceeds from the Mud Bowl are distributed among local nonprofit organizations that help out with ticket and advertising sales, parking, concessions, manning the gates and all the other tasks required for the weekend-long event that last year brought in $31,175 for the non-profits. More than $450,000 for the organizations has been raised over the 31-year history of the mud games.
The grueling battles are fought in games of two-hand touch, not tackle, football, lest someone should drown in a pile-up. It is played on a heavily watered and well-plowed 50-yard field in the “coliseum,” a small valley in the center of North Conway.
“You’d get pretty tired, running through mud over a 100-yard field,” said Wayne McDonald, captain of the Mount Washington Valley Hogs and assistant fire chief in the town. A mud-stained veteran of 12 soggy seasons in the bowl, McDonald is a true believer in the notion that mud football builds character.
“It’s challenging, I’ll say that,” he said. There is, he observed, a real camaraderie among those who grind out their yardage hip-deep in mud. “It’s fun meeting up every year, seeing the same faces, coming together as a group and raising money for local charities. It’s different. Anybody can play football on a regular grass field.”
The Hogs hosted the first New Hampshire Mud Bowl in 1976 “amid a bunch of corn stalks down by the river,” Eastman recalled. A few years later, volunteers, with muscle and mud, built Hog Coliseum, where spectators sit on grassy slopes to witness the mayhem below. The site has been the permanent home of the Mud Bowl since 1983.
The Mud Bowl parade, with its floats and marching bands, had to be canceled this year because of ongoing construction downtown. Instead, the curious gathered at the coliseum for a pageant featuring “Great Moments in Mudmerican History.” In previous years, the “Wizard of Ooze” and a history of “Mudieval Times” have been part of the weekend entertainment.
“It’s amazing how many stupid things we can play with the same mud theme to it,” Eastman said.
The mud theme is music to the ears of Jackie Howe, veteran Mud Bowl volunteer and executive director of the North Conway Day Care Center.
Without the $5,500 received from last year’s games, the center would have to charge more for its service, she said. “The goal of our board is too keep the cost affordable to the working families in our area,” she said.
The Carroll County Retired Senior Volunteer Program found its $5,725 share of Mud Bowl money helped the organization and its more than 400 volunteers countywide deliver meals on wheels, provide transportation to people in need of medical services and perform a wide range of volunteer work at schools hospitals and nursing homes.
The North Conway Community Center received more than $7,500 from last year’s event, in addition to the $5,800 it made by selling food and beverages at the games. Ryan Sommer, then in his first year as director, was impressed with what he saw—so impressed, in fact, that he suited up for mud bowl combat this year.
“I played football in high school,” said Sommer, now 30. “I enjoyed watching the games last year and the players on the field looked like they were having extremely fun times.”
Every football team has its cheerleaders, and the Hogs are no exception. Cathy McDonald, chair of this year’s Mud Bowl Committee, has been leading cheers for the host team for the past 12 mud bowls, or as long as her husband, the team captain, has been playing in the games.
“Because it’s all for charity,” she said, when asked why she and other women in the valley would want to frolic in the mud to entertain the crowd during time-outs and half-time intermissions.
Terry O’Brien doesn’t get into the mud, but she is very much into the mud mania that descends on North Conway and surrounding towns at Mud Bowl time. The part-owner and general manager of The Red Parka Pub in Glen has been a fan and loyal supporter of the event since it started.
“Oh, I love the Mud Bowl,” said O’Brien. “I think it’s because they look like they’re having so much fun. The whole event is geared to having fun.” It also offers the opportunity to run specials on drinks like the mudslide and desserts like mud pie.
“Our business is up in the dining room, our business is up in the lounge,” compared to other post-Labor Day weekends, she said. “It used to be just a bunch of guys having a bunch of beers. Now it’s a real family event.”
Tom Spaulding, general manager of the Green Granite Inn & Conference Center, estimates that about 25 percent of the lodgers at the Green Granite that weekend are drawn to the valley by the Mud Bowl. Just two miles south of the games, the inn is well-positioned to catch the bowl-bound visitors.
“Most people are coming up from the south, so they come to us first,” he said. And the extra business is welcome in the weeks before “the foliage rates kick in,” Spaulding said. “It certainly adds to the September weekend.”
The amount of free publicity the games have generated for the tourist-dependent area has been enormous, said Marti Mayne, spokesperson for the Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve had everybody from MTV to CBS News covering the Mud Bowl,” she said. “It’s gone out on BBC, and last year we had people from Japan doing a documentary. It’s a story that really helps Mount Washington Valley go worldwide.”