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He was just a kid of 23 on that early November afternoon more than four decades ago, unaware of the aging professional football record that he was about to challenge. Tom Dempsey, the Saints' second-year kicker, was still emerging from the hangover fog of a long night's heavy drinking with teammates, and he was thinking about a date he'd made with a young woman named Carlene Baker (whom he would marry seven months later). On the field at Tulane Stadium, the playoff-bound Lions had gone ahead of the woeful Saints 17--16 on an 18-yard field goal by Errol Mann with 11 seconds to play, and Al Dodd had just returned the kickoff to New Orleans's 28-yard line. On the sideline Dempsey heard the voice of special teams coach Don Heinrich. Tell Stumpy to get ready to kick a long one. That was Dempsey's nickname—he had been born without any full toes on his right foot and with a withered, fingerless sapling of a right arm. The Saints ran one play, quarterback Billy Kilmer completing a 17-yard pass to Dodd, who caught the ball falling out of bounds in front of New Orleans's bench. There were two seconds left.
Holder Joe Scarpati, a seventh-year defensive back who was playing in his final NFL season, knelt on his left knee at the Saints' 37-yard line, 63 yards from the goalposts, which back then were on the goal line, not at the back of the end zone. The daunting distance was seven yards farther than the record 56-yarder that the Colts' Bert Rechichar kicked in 1953. The turf was pale brown and dusty, worn from overuse and neglect, a poor kicking surface.
Dempsey took a stutter-step, then two long strides forward—he was an old school, straight-on kicker—and he swung his deformed right foot, which on game days was encased in a custom kicking shoe with a thick, horseshoe-shaped hunk of leather on the front. On CBS's regional broadcast of the game, play-by-play announcer Don Criqui was silent for the snap. Then, as the ball sailed through the autumn air: "I don't believe this...."
It can't be long now. We have surely reached the last days of 63, one of the most stubbornly and strangely enduring records in any sport. Dempsey's kick died in the air just inches past the crossbar and fell to earth like a buckshot mallard dropping into a flat-water pond. The stadium erupted. Stumpy was hoisted onto his teammates' shoulders and carried from the field to the locker room, where New Orleans police eventually brought him two cases of Dixie beer, sating his renewed thirst while the crowd dissipated. The record kick was stunning in the moment, a Beamon-esque performance that skipped a generation of steady progression.
Sixty-three should have fallen years ago, as kickers became deadeye snipers—more explosive, more accurate and better schooled from a younger age—but the record remains intact, shared by a logjam of four kickers across 42 years. It has been protected by circumstance, strategy, worship at the altar of field position and, in no small part, the inherent challenge in guiding a football 63 yards through an opening 10 feet off the ground and 18 feet, 6 inches wide—a task that has become far simpler but not yet simple. "Whatever you say," reasons Morten Andersen, who in 25 seasons with five NFL teams became the league's alltime leading scorer and made field goals from 60 and 59 yards, "it's still a hell of a long way."
Since Dempsey's kick, in a stadium long since razed, there have been at least 23 NFL field goals attempted from 64 yards or farther. ("At least" because there is no comprehensive statistical record of missed field goals.) Those 23 kicks represent one record attempt roughly every 415 games, or a little less than once every one- and-a-half seasons. The first potential record-breaker was a 71-yarder by the Giants' Joe Danelo in 1971; the most recent was a 64-yard try by the Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski on Sunday, the second record-threatening shot this season. Greg Zuerlein, the Rams' rookie sensation, sent a 66-yarder wide left on Oct. 14 in Miami. "I figured it would be long enough," says Zuerlein, whose 60- and 58-yarders in a 19--13 win over Seattle earned him the nickname Legatron. "But my kicks all day were going left."
The number 63 has a life of its own, a poor man's version of DiMaggio's 56 or Wilt's 100. When Zuerlein was a high school kicker in Lincoln, Neb., his coach instructed him to look up 63 online. Packers kicker Mason Crosby, a six-year veteran who has hit from 58 yards and in 2008 came up just short on a 69-yard free kick (which can be taken following a fair catch, though it's rarely used), says, "That number has been out there for so long, it almost defines strategy. Like coaches are thinking, Someone made a 63, so that's about as far as we should try."
Says Andersen, "It's the magic number, man."
Jason Hanson, who at age 42 has been the Lions' kicker for 21 seasons and who has made 51 field goals from 50 yards or farther, says, "It's like the four-minute mile—it's just been sitting out there. A few guys have gotten to it; nobody has gone beyond. But it's not insurmountable. That 63 is going to fall."
In the meantime, the number's longevity has turned two digits into a cult and made brothers in history of four kickers. In New Orleans, Dempsey, now 65, battles early dementia that might have been caused by concussions in his football career. His record kick is a rare vibrant spot in his fading memory. Thirty-five hundred miles northwest, deep on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, far from anyone's mainstream, Jason Elam, who kicked his 63 for the Broncos in 1998, raises five children and seldom accesses his football memories at all.