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40 Years Ago: Tom Dempsey’s 63-Yard Field Goal

Posted on November 06, 2010 by Dean Hybl

Tom Dempsey gave the Saints an improbable victory with his field goal 40 years ago.

The New Orleans Saints didn’t have a lot to celebrate during their first two decades in the NFL, but they did enjoy one special moment 40-years ago this week when their improbable kicker made a seemingly impossible kick to defeat the Detroit Lions 19-17 on November 8, 1970.

Even during an era when straight-on kickers were still the majority in the NFL, Tom Dempsey was not your pro-typical NFL player.  Dempsey was 6-foot-2, but weighed more than 250 pounds. He also was born without fingers on his right hand or toes on his right foot.

Nonetheless, Dempsey played football at Palomar Community College in San Diego and then somehow found his way into the NFL with the New Orleans Saints.

As a rookie in 1969, Dempsey earned first-team All-Pro honors and appeared in the Pro Bowl while ranking fifth in league with 99 points. He led the NFL with 41 field goal attempts and was third in the league with 22 successful attempts.

In 1970 Dempsey and the Saints were struggling when they hosted Detroit in week eight. Dempsey had converted only five field goals through the first seven games and the Saints were 1-5-1 on the season.

Just days before the game against the Lions, who entered the game with a 5-2 record, head coach Tom Fears had been fired and replaced by J.D. Roberts.

The Saints played a solid game for their new coach, but still seemed destined for defeat.

During the first three quarters Dempsey connected on three field goals to account for the only New Orleans points as they trailed 14-9. A touchdown by Tom Barrington early in the fourth period gave the Saints a 16-14 advantage.

Rookie Detroit quarterback Greg Landry led the Lions down the field on their final drive and with 24 seconds left on the clock kicker Errol Mann connected on an 18-yard kick that seemed to ensure victory for the Lions.

However, while Landry had helped put Detroit in field goal position, he also inadvertently contributed to their demise. Instead of running the clock to only a few seconds left before calling his final timeout, Landry gave the Saints 24 seconds for a miracle.

Though quarterback Billy Kilmer and the Saints weren’t known for their miracles in those days, the quarterback did connect on a pass to Al Dodd that positioned the ball at the New Orleans 45-yard line with enough time for one kick.

Prior to 1974 the goal posts were even with the front of the end zone, so the Saints were able to try the long attempt even though the ball wasn’t past midfield.

Holder Joe Scarpati lined up eight yards behind the line of scrimmage at the 37-yard line to give the ball an opportunity to rise above the line without getting blocked due to the low trajectory needed to get the ball 63-yards.

In interviews over the years, Dempsey has said that he didn’t know exactly how far the kick was, just that he had to make good contact and kick it as far as he could.

He did indeed get everything into the kick as it sailed through the air and over the crossbar to give the Saints an improbable victory.

The kick broke the previous NFL record of a 56-yard field goal by seven yards and gave the Saints their last victory of a season in which they finished 2-11-1.

Surprisingly, despite the many advances that have been made in the kicking game over the last 40 years, no kicker has yet exceeded Dempsey’s distance in a regular season game. Jason Elam of the Denver Broncos matched the record with a 63-yard kick in 1998, but it has yet to be surpassed.

Despite his heroics, the 1970 season ended up being his final year with the Saints. He played for four different teams over nine additional seasons in the NFL. In 1973 he scored a career-high 106 points for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Dempsey finally retired following the 1979 season with 729 career points and sporting 61.9 percent accuracy on his career field goal attempts.

But even 40 years later, Dempsey is best remembered for his unlikely kick into the record books.

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