One of the more overlooked aspects of those great Oakland Raiders teams of the 1970’s is their ground game. Led by one of the greatest offensive lines of all time, the Raiders powered their way to division title after division title. Mark van Eeghen was one of their unsung heroes, a running back who kept them in games by gaining critical yards on the ground. While he never even made a Pro Bowl, he was immeasurably important in the success of the Raiders. This is his story.
Mark van Eeghen was born on April 19, 1952 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After starring at Cranston High School West, van Eeghen accepted a scholarship to Colgate University. In his sophomore year, van Eeghen rushed for 846 yards and 11 touchdowns. As a junior, he rushed for 656 yards and two touchdowns while receiving 12 passes for 184 yards and one touchdown. After setting the school’s single season rushing record in 1973 with 1,089 yards and scoring 14 touchdowns, Mark van Eeghen entered the 1974 NFL Draft where the Oakland Raiders selected him in the third round.
Mark van Eeghen would soon realize his good fortune running behind three future Hall of Fame offensive linemen. Left tackle Art Shell, left guard Gene Upshaw and center Jim Otto had been searching for their first Super Bowl win and going into 1974, they knew that it would be Otto’s final year. The pressure was growing immensely to win that year. The Raiders were magnificent in 1974 and earned the AFC’s top seed in the playoffs. Throughout the 1974 season, Mark van Eeghen played behind Clarence Davis and Pete Banaszak. Van Eeghen didn’t play much, just carrying the ball 32 times for 172 yards from scrimmage and no touchdowns. However, his 5.4 yards per carry was impressive and convinced the Oakland coaching staff to keep on working with him.
The Raiders lost to the Steelers in the 1974 AFC Championship Game 24-13 and Mark van Eeghen didn’t play a down. He became a starter the next year and gained 597 yards on the ground, scoring two touchdowns. But by the playoffs he was hurt and the Raiders lost to the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game again.
1976 was a special year for Mark van Eeghen and the Raiders. Oakland went 13-1 in the regular season and van Eeghen gained 1,012 yards rushing, scoring three touchdowns. The Raiders powered their way to the AFC Championship Game, facing off against the Steelers for a fifth straight year in the playoffs. It was no contest and the Raiders ran all over the Steelers, defeating them 24-7. Mark van Eeghen came of age and ran for 66 yards. The Raiders then faced off against the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl where van Eeghen was even better, rushing for 78 yards. Oakland defeated Minnesota 32-14.
The following year, van Eeghen rushed for 1,273 yards and seven touchdowns while the Raiders made their fifth straight AFC Championship Game. Despite Mark van Eeghen leading Oakland with 71 yards rushing on 20 carries, the Raiders could not overcome Denver’s stout Orange Crush defense and lost 20-17.
The next two years were frustrating for the Raiders as they transitioned from their legendary coach John Madden and their quarterback Ken Stabler. They missed the playoffs during those years of transition but Mark van Eeghen continued to show up every day and put up steady numbers. During the 1978 and 1979 seasons, van Eeghen combined to rush for 1,898 yards and 16 touchdowns. The 1979 season was his best as a receiver, catching 51 passes for 474 yards and two touchdowns, both career highs.
1980 began wonderfully for Mark van Eeghen who was inducted into the Colgate University Athletic Hall of Honor. With the addition of quarterback Dan Pastorini, the Raider’s 1980 season looked to be more promising than the previous two years. However, Pastorini broke his leg in the fifth game and the Raiders had to look to his backup Jim Plunkett for answers. Plunkett delivered and led the Raiders to the Super Bowl. Mark van Eeghen was still effective that season, rushing for 838 yards and five touchdowns while catching 29 passes for 259 yards. Once again, van Eeghen paced the Raiders running game in the Super Bowl. Against a tough Philadelphia Eagles defense, Mark van Eeghen rushed for 75 yards on 18 carries, helping the Raiders win the Super Bowl 27-10.
After the Super Bowl, Mark van Eeghen played one more year for the Raiders but in a strike/injury shortened season he only carried the ball 39 times for 150 yards and two touchdowns. He finished his time in Oakland with the most rushing yards in franchise history with 5,907. When the season ended, he signed with the New England Patriots for the final two years of his career. He only started in 16 games over those two years but carried the ball 177 times during that time span.
His greatest game during that time was the “Snowplow Game” in 1982. Playing against the Miami Dolphins on a snowy December evening, Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan could only muster five passes, forcing New England to rely heavily on Mark van Eeghen. He proved his worth as a Patriot by rushing for 100 yards on 22 carries that night. The Patriots ultimately won that game when they sent out a snowplow to clear enough ground for their kicker to successfully kick a field goal, winning the game 3-0. It would be the last great game of Mark van Eeghen’s career. After rushing for 358 yards and two touchdowns in 1983, Mark van Eeghen retired from the NFL.