Monday, November 8, 2010

November 8, 1970: Dempsey for 63

NEW ORLEANS - The Lions couldn't have been taking this seriously. The Saints were on their own 45 yard line - not even at midfield yet - and the field goal team was out on the field. Were they really going to try a 63-yard field goal?

What also looked strange was the Saints' kicker. Second-year kicker Tom Dempsey was built more like a linebacker than a kicker, a big, bulky player who was one of the team's heaviest players. He was also born without a right hand and an incomplete right foot. The lack of a hand wasn't a big issue for a player who wasn't expected to handle the ball or make a tackle, but it was weird for a kicker to have half a foot. Dempsey got over that with specially made shoes that were flat in front and featured a wooden arch for support. It was with that arch that Dempsey struck the ball on his kicking attempts.

Trailing the Lions 17-16 late in the fourth quarter on November 8, 1970, the Saints were short on options. With the ball 55 yards away from the end zone, they decided to try an impossibly long field goal rather than a Hail Mary of some kind. Out trotted Dempsey, getting ready for a field goal that would be the longest in league history by 7 yards. He lined up for his kick at the Saints 37 yard line, something that looked comically far away from the goal posts. Even with the goal posts in the front of the end zone in those days, it still seemed impossible that he was even trying this.

The Lions sure thought it was impossible, and they gave a half-hearted attempt at blocking it. As the snap came, Dempsey strode forward and crushed the ball. A couple of Detroit players later said the ball made a cracking sound when it hit his foot, sounding ilke a baseball bat hitting a ball. It soared through the air right down the middle, clearing the crossbar by two feet.

While the Lions were almost too stunned to even react, the Saints were jubilant, lifting Dempsey into the air in celebration. It was a rare moment of celebration for the Saints, who won only two games that year. It was also the highlight of Dempsey's career. He left the Saints after that season and bounced around the league, playing for four more teams until retiring in 1979. His career field goal percentage of 61 percent was pretty pedestrian, and he probably would have been forgotten completely if not for his record-shattering kick.

Shoes similar to Dempsey's were outlawed in 1977, with the new rule saying that any player with a prothesis that wore a modified shoe must have the shoes shape conform to that of a standard shoe. While it was never determined definitively whether Dempsey got an unfair advantage from his shoe, the rule was known as the "Dempsey Rule" anyway. While his record 63-yard kick has since been equalled, it has never been topped in a regular season game.

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