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It's a rare thing to hold an NFL record for 20 years, but the 1990 season marks that milestone for Tom Dempsey. On Nov. 8, 1970, he put his foot to a spectacular, game-winning field goal that sailed a record 63 yards as the clock ran out.
It was the New Orleans Saints versus the Detroit Lions, and the Saints in 1970 were not the toast of pro football. Their record was 1-5-1 as Dempsey was given the seemingly impossible task of pulling out a second win. "Two seconds were on the clock. Most people had started for the parking lot, and some fans were laughing," recalls Dempsey, now 43, who lives in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie.
But Dempsey had already made three out of four field goals that day, and with the Saints down by one point, there was nothing to lose. "I couldn't see where the ball came down, that far away," he says of the 63-yarder. "Suddenly, I saw the ref with his hands up in the air, and I heard the crowd, and I had to accept the fact that I'd done it." Final score: Saints 19, Lions 17. Joe Schmidt, the Lions' coach, compared it to being beaten at the Masters by a 390-yard hole in one on the last hole.
Dempsey, a native of Milwaukee who had been primarily a defensive end at Palomar College, a two-year school north of San Diego, was an instant kicking hero in New Orleans. Tapes of the radio broadcast, with the kick and the ensuing fan mania, sold for $10 apiece, raising thousands for local charities.
The kick, which bettered Bert Rechichar's NFL record of 56 yards for the Baltimore Colts in 1953, was another example of Dempsey's ability to overcome adversity. He was the frequent subject of newspaper columns because he had been born with a withered right arm and without toes on his right foot—his kicking foot.
Dempsey says, "I suppose the 63-yarder was the high point of my career. I wouldn't change a thing, of course, but people expected me to smack it 60-some yards every time I went out there. Eventually I kicked plenty in the 50's, but that wasn't news anymore."
Oddly enough, Dempsey's football career in New Orleans ended with the 1970 season. Tom Fears, who had hired Dempsey, had been replaced as Saints coach by J.D. Roberts in the week before the Detroit game, and Dempsey and Roberts didn't get along. Then in the 1971 preseason, Dempsey made good on only one field goal in eight attempts. Still, it came as a blow to the kicker that Roberts chose the team meal before the final preseason game as the occasion to tell Dempsey he was off the squad. "Coach Roberts and I get along all right now," says Dempsey. "When I was inducted into the Saints' Hall of Fame this past spring, he was the first to call and congratulate me, and we started mending bridges from there."
Dempsey joined the Philadelphia Eagles in 1971. Over the next eight seasons—with the Eagles, the Los Angeles Rams, Houston and finally Buffalo—he boosted his career totals to 159 field goals in 258 attempts.
Upon his retirement in 1979, despite the rude way he had been shown the door by the Saints, Dempsey returned to the bayou. He says, "I guess you can say my family is the key to my happiness. My father taught me not just to survive with my handicap, but to succeed and excel. I want to be the same kind of father. Louisiana takes family values seriously. That's why I came back. It doesn't hurt that it's a hunting and fishing paradise."
Dempsey worked for a few years as a salesman in an automotive-parts warehouse and in Cajun-country oil fields. He would hear of a blocked oil well and would speed to it, then try to convince the owners that they needed his "fishing tools," devices that could be lowered into the borehole to retrieve an obstruction.