NFL's most stubborn record finally falls
It was among the most stubborn records in NFL history, set miraculously 43 years ago by a 23-year-old kid with no toes on his right foot, and then tied three times but never broken. On the second Sunday in November of 1970, Tom Dempsey kicked a 63-yard field goal, seven yards longer than anyone had previously made, to give the New Orleans Saints a 19-17 victory over the Detroit Lions. A guy his teammates lovingly called Stumpy (for not just his sawed-off kicking foot, but for his withered, fingerless right arm) celebrated by drinking Dixie Beer in the team's subterranean locker room at long-since-demolished Tulane Stadium. He hadn't known about the old record, and he sure didn't expect this one to last so long.
But it proved as tough as the thick leather in Dempsey's custom kicking shoe, which sits behind a glass wall in the Saints' Hall of Fame at the Superdome. Twenty-eight years after Dempsey's kick, in 1998, Jason Elam of the Broncos made a 63-yarder in the thin air of Mile High Stadium in Denver. Thirteen years after that, again at Mile High, Sebastian Janikowski of the Raiders booted a 63-yarder. And then on the first weekend of the 2012 season, David Akers of the 49ers became record holder No. 4 when he bounced a 63-yarder off the crossbar and through at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
Not long after Akers's kick, I wrote a story for Sports Illustrated on the enduring strength of 63. SI editors called it, "The Last Days of 63,'' because it seemed like, with better, stronger, more accurate kickers, the record would fall soon. "It's not insurmountable,'' said then-Lions kicker Jason Hanson. "That 63 is going to fall.'' In that story, I wrote, It can't be long now. We have reached the last days of 63. ... Yet the record hung on, for more than a full year after the story was published in late October of 2012, just as it had hung on for the decades before. Another man's quote loomed more prescient. It was longtime NFL kicker Morten Andersen who said, "That number has been out there a long time. It's the magic number, man.''
At last, not anymore. On the last snap of the first half Sunday afternoon in Denver, across a parking lot from the location of the former Mile High Stadium, the Broncos' Matt Prater dropped a 64-yard field goal over the crossbar and relegated Dempsey, Elam, Janikowski and Akers to the second paragraph of history. It was not a surprise that the record fell in Denver. Janikowski told me in 2012, "The ball goes extra good in Denver, maybe like five or seven yards further.'' And it was no surprise that the kick came on the last play of the half; few NFL coaches were inclined to risk the dramatic loss of field position that would result from a missed 64-yarder during the run of play. Yet because the record had stood so long, it was a shock nonetheless.
(On a personal level, I had become just a little unhealthily obsessed with 63. First, a year ago, as I was finishing the story on the Fab Four, I was terrified that the record would fall before the story was published. Since then, wherever I was on a Sunday afternoon, I would monitor Red Zone of NFL.com in search of an opportunity to take down the record. Oddly, I was in the Broncos locker room this week, reporting an unrelated story. I interviewed Prater, but didn't ask him about 63. Or 64. I thought about it, because I think about 63 all the time. But that story was long over and I just let the moment pass. It's my obsession, not Prater's.)
There is a bittersweet quality to the record falling. When I met Tom Dempsey in the fall of 2012, he was living with his wife, daughter and grandson in a small New Orleans house, and he was also battling the effects of dementia, which he believed resulted from concussions in his playing career. (Dempsey was a hard-hitting, old-school defensive lineman in college and semi-pro football, and routinely threw himself into kickoff coverage in the NFL). Now he lives comfortably in a New Orleans retirement community, but suffers from full-blown Alzheimer's disease.
Shortly after the kick, I exchanged texts with Dempsey's daughter, Ashley, who helped him through an interview with me and SI photo- and video-journalist Bill Frakes last fall. "We told him about [the 64-yard field goal] and he said, `Must have been a great kick,''' wrote Ashley. "He always said records were made to be broken.'' Dempsey always took great pride that his kick came at sea level (actually below), whereas two of the other three 63s were in Denver.
Janikowski (Raiders) and Akers (Lions) are both still active in the NFL. Elam lives with his family in Soldotna, Alaska. He wasn't watching football on Sunday, because he's more likely to be spending his time hunting or fishing or flying his small planes. But early in the afternoon, his phone blew up. Elam texted me back: "Still surprised it didn't happen sooner. Fun stuff!''
It is logical to think that the floodgates will swing open at some point, leading to 65s and 66s and somewhere in the low 70s, which most kickers view as the outer limits of their legs. Or maybe Matt Prater is about to share a record for the next 43 years.