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The Last Days of 63
Tim Layden
October 29, 2012
IN THE 42 YEARS SINCE TOM DEMPSEY KICKED THE LONGEST FIELD GOAL IN NFL HISTORY, HIS MARK HAS BEEN MATCHED THREE TIMES, BUT NEVER SURPASSED. NOW THE MOST MYSTERIOUSLY ENDURING RECORD IN SPORTS MAY FINALLY BE RIPE TO FALL (LEGATRON, ANYONE?)
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October 29, 2012

The Last Days Of 63

IN THE 42 YEARS SINCE TOM DEMPSEY KICKED THE LONGEST FIELD GOAL IN NFL HISTORY, HIS MARK HAS BEEN MATCHED THREE TIMES, BUT NEVER SURPASSED. NOW THE MOST MYSTERIOUSLY ENDURING RECORD IN SPORTS MAY FINALLY BE RIPE TO FALL (LEGATRON, ANYONE?)

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Two of the record holders are still playing. In Oakland, Janikowski, who made his 63 last season, lives an increasingly sedate life that's far from the miscreant adventures of his youth. His record-tying kick fulfilled a thunderfoot tag slapped on him as a teenager transplanted from Poland to Florida. And in San Francisco, David Akers, who made his 63 on the opening weekend of this season in Green Bay, prolongs a brilliant career, one that has already been rescued from deep wells of rejection and failure.

The digits connect them. For another week, at least, they are members of an exclusive club.

TULANE STADIUM, NEW ORLEANS

November 8, 1970

Dempsey's kick is the only one of the four 63s to win a game. His came five days after the Saints, a fourth-year franchise, had fired popular coach Tom Fears and replaced him with J.D. Roberts, whom New Orleans's players disliked. The Saints were 1-5-1 coming in; the Lions were 5--2, and their season would end in a bizarre 5--0 playoff loss to the Super Bowl--bound Cowboys. One historical footnote: Statistical rules enacted after Dempsey's kick would have deemed it a 62-yarder because, while the Saints had not reached the 38-yard line, they were fully beyond the 37. The NFL long ago chose not to recalibrate Dempsey's kick.

"We went out till about 3:30 the night before because they fired our coach. Then I kicked four field goals. I didn't know how far [the record breaker] was. I knew it was a long way. My holder moved us back a yard so I could kick it low. All my life I had great holders. I knew I hit it well. I saw one of the officials jump up and raise his hands. I didn't know it was the record until somebody told me. I was happy to hear it. The whole thing was fun."

The big man is anxiously walking up and down the sidewalk in front of his small New Orleans home, awaiting visitors. In 2005 he was flooded out of his old place in Metairie by Hurricane Katrina and lost a lot of his personal memorabilia. Now he lives here with his wife of 41 years; their daughter, Ashley (one of Tom and Carlene's three grown children); and Ashley's son, 13-year-old Dylan. Dempsey is wearing a black T-shirt honoring former Saints safety Steve Gleason, who has Lou Gehrig's disease, and a big, black felt hat. He played at 6'2", 255 pounds, and still looks all of it. Almost instantly he launches into a series of disconnected rants against various villains: NFL bureaucrats, Democrats, Junior Seau's doctors....

There had been a warning. "He's not doing well, health-wise," said Ken Trahan, G.M. of the Saints' Hall of Fame and a longtime friend. Despite Dempsey's physical limitations, he was a football player, not just a kicker. He played linebacker at Palomar College in Southern California, where he would occasionally poke his arm stump into an opponent's helmet or groin. In the NFL he covered kicks, often launching the crown of his helmet at opponents, and he says he sustained multiple concussions.

"He's got dementia," says Dr. Gregory Stewart, director of the Neurological Care Program at Tulane's Institute of Sports Medicine. "He's having memory problems ... some emotional instability. We can't make him better, but we can make him function better." Dempsey's doctors find that he works best with a schedule, so they help him set alarms on his phone and give him cognitive drills, like writing out his address five times every day.

But what seems to help Dempsey most is going back in time. "Memories are laid down and ingrained," says Stewart. "Tom is very comfortable going back to his kick. It helps him cover. If he didn't have that, he might be in a lot of trouble."

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