45 years ago today, Saints fans celebrated Tom Dempsey

Cleveland
Cleveland

It happened 45 years ago today. I saw it with my own 18-year-old eyes. I still don’t believe it.

Tom Dempsey, on Nov. 8, 1970, shocked the football world with a 63-yard field goal that lifted the New Orleans Saints to a most improbable 19-17 victory over the Detroit Lions.

I was there. I was sitting beside my daddy in the rickety, old Tulane Stadium press box. Let me try to put this in perspective. I saw Ray Guy’s 93-yard punt that rolled through the opposite end zone. I saw Walter Payton break about 10 tackles on one run. I saw Big John Daly drive a golf ball more than 400 yards. I saw Brett Favre throw a 40-yard bullet that his receiver heard coming. I saw Jerry Rice run a crossing pattern and reach back behind him with one hand and snatch the ball. I saw Pete Maravich score 69 points in a game (and if there had been a 3-point line, it might have been 80). I have seen some stuff.

But Dempsey’s kick remains the most spectacular singular athletic achievement these eyes have witnessed. The performer of this feat was a fat guy with half a right foot.

Two seconds remained on the clock. The Detroit Lions led the New Orleans Saints 17-16. This was back when the Saints were a stumbling, bumbling definition of the word “abysmal.” This was also back when NFL goalposts were on the goal line. The Saints had the ball just shy of their own 45-yard line. Time for one play, almost surely a Hail Mary pass.

But, no, J.D. Roberts, coaching his first game for the Saints, sent out Dempsey, the big, heavyset man who, due to a birth defect, had half a right foot and was missing four fingers on his right hand. “Stubby,” his teammates called him.

The ball actually was placed down on the Saints’ 37, 13 yards shy of midfield. It looked preposterous. But Jackie Burkett’s snap was perfect. So was Joe Scarpatti’s hold. Dempsey approached straight on, slammed his half-foot into the ball and sent it into the record books. Underneath the goal post, an official actually leaped into the air when he threw his hands into the air. There was a brief silence in the great stadium, as everyone grasped the magnitude of the achievement. Then, there was an explosion and a New Orleans celebration to rival any Mardi Gras.

Strangers hugged strangers. True story: My dad was sitting next to the NFL’s supervisor of officials, and they had carried on a game-long debate. Dad thought the officials were making bad call after bad call. The NFL chief of officials thought his guys were perfect. After Dempsey’s kick, I turned around and the two of them were slapping hands. It was that amazing.

An inch to spare

The kick carried past the crossbar by less than an inch. I remember that a few nights later Detroit Lions great Alex Karras was on the Tonight Show. Johnny Carson asked Karras why the Lions didn’t appear to rush the kick.

Replied Karras, “We were too busy laughing at the idea of a 63-yard field goal.”

Several years ago, Dempsey came to Jackson to speak. My good fortune was to spend about an hour with him beforehand. I asked Dempsey what he did that night after the kick. And I remember his reply: “I went to Bourbon Street and partied all night. I didn’t have to buy a single drink.”

My dad and I (just turned 18) went to the French Quarter, too. I remember we left well after midnight. People were still dancing in the streets. Dad had work the next day; I had classes. In retrospect, we both should have skipped.

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