November 8, 2009

1970: Tom Dempsey Kicks 63-Yard Field Goal to Jolt Lions

The November 8, 1970 game between the New Orleans Saints (1-5-1) and visiting Detroit Lions (5-2) at Tulane Stadium hardly seemed like a matchup that would come down to the last play. The Saints weren’t playing well, had lost their last two games by 32-14 and 30-17 margins, and had just replaced Head Coach Tom Fears with J.D. Roberts.

The Lions were contenders in the NFC Central and were coming off a key divisional loss to Minnesota, with the rematch coming up the following week. But they led by only 7-6 at the half and were down, 16-14, in the fourth quarter when Saints RB Tom Barrington scored on a four-yard run. However, with 6:42 left in the game, QB Greg Landry led the Lions on a 76-yard drive that ended in an 18-yard Errol Mann field goal with only 11 seconds remaining.

The Saints ran one play after the ensuing kickoff, with QB Billy Kilmer hitting WR Al Dodd along the sideline for a 17-yard gain to the New Orleans 45 yard line (there was some doubt that Dodd had managed to keep both feet inbounds). With two seconds remaining, placekicker Tom Dempsey came onto the field to attempt a field goal.

Dempsey had been born without a right hand and with no toes on his right (kicking) foot. In spite of his disabilities, he played football for Palomar Junior College in California, and joined the Saints in ’69 after a stint on San Diego’s taxi squad. A hefty 6’2” and 255 pounds, he had a powerful leg, but accuracy was always an issue. There was also controversy regarding the modified shoe that he wore on his kicking foot which was in questionable compliance with league rules on footwear.

In his first season in New Orleans, he had been successful on 53.7 % of his field goal attempts (22 of 41) – and was just one for 11 from 50 or more yards away – and thus far in 1970 he had been hampered by a pulled muscle in his hip and had been good on only five of 15 field goal attempts.

On this day against the Lions, Dempsey had kicked field goals from 29, 27, and 8 yards. Now he instructed his holder, Joe Scarpati, to set up eight yards deep rather than the customary seven to provide a bit more time and room for his long attempt.

The snap and hold were just right, and Dempsey kicked the ball solidly. Many of the Detroit defenders didn’t take the long field goal attempt seriously and barely mounted a rush, although veteran DT Alex Karras came charging in and nearly got a hand on the kick. But the ball cleared the line with plenty of height, hung for a long time, and went over the crossbar just to the right of center by about a foot, landing three yards beyond.

Fans and teammates erupted wildly, over both the 19-17 win for the Saints and the wholly improbable manner in which they had won. As Detroit Head Coach Joe Schmidt put it afterward, “You’ll never see it again. It’s like winning the Masters with a 390-yard hole-in-one on the last shot”.

Dempsey’s kick broke the existing record for longest field goal – 56 yards by Baltimore’s Bert Rechichar in 1953 – by seven yards. To date, few have come close, and it was finally tied by Jason Elam of the Broncos 28 years later.

The 63-yard field goal made Dempsey an overnight celebrity, but it didn’t guarantee him job security. He finished the ’70 season at 18 for 34 (52.9 %) and was cut the following preseason. Picked up by Philadelphia during the 1971 season, he actually led the league in field goal percentage (70.6 on 12 of 17 attempts) and set a then-team record for the Eagles with a 54-yard boot. He went on to play three more seasons in Philadelphia before moving on to the Rams, Oilers, and Bills.

The win was the high point for the New Orleans Saints in ’70 – they lost the remainder of their games and ended up with a 2-11-1 record at the bottom of the NFC West. Detroit recovered to finish at 10-4, good enough for second place in the NFC Central and, in this first season of the newly-merged NFL, a postseason spot as the conference’s wild card team.