Sure enough, when Dempsey takes a seat in his narrow galley kitchen and begins talking football, his demeanor changes. No longer suspicious or excited, he falls into easy monologues and tales from years ago: how he first kicked barefoot, how he once played guard for a semipro team in Massachusetts, how the shoemakers wanted his boot heavy when he wanted it light. How in his last year in the league, with the Bills in 1979, he and assistant coach Elijah Pitts would soak Red Man leaf tobacco in whiskey, freeze it, and pop in a plug during bitter cold practices. He is alive in the telling.
Sixty-three? "I'm not mad that those other guys kicked it," he says. "Someday [a longer kick] will happen."
MILE HIGH STADIUM, DENVER
October 25, 1998
The Broncos were in the middle of an ungodly roll. They had beaten the Packers nine months earlier in Super Bowl XXXII, and now, in what would be John Elway's final season, they were 6--0 coming off a bye week and leading the Jaguars 24--10 just before the half. Facing fourth-and-three at the Jacksonville 40, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan sent out his punt team on the assumption that his opponents would call a timeout. But when the Jags did not, the clock ran down to four seconds. Shanahan took a delay-of-game penalty, moving the ball back to the 45, and sent out Jason Elam.
"I pulled a hamstring a couple weeks earlier, so Shanahan was testing me all week, pushing me back. I made 63s Wednesday and Thursday. Honestly, if I hadn't pulled that hamstring and Mike hadn't tested me, I don't know that I would have gotten the chance. But when the referee moved the ball back, the crowd got really loud. Right before the snap, my holder, Tom Rouen, looked back and said, 'You know this is for the record, right?' I swung as hard as I could. Elway ran out. Shannon Sharpe too. Pretty cool time."
It takes some work to reach Elam in 2012. The 42-year-old lives with his family—wife Tamy and their five children ranging from age 15 to two—in Soldotna, Alaska, 150 breathtaking miles southwest of Anchorage via the Seward and Sterling highways to the Kenai Peninsula. A September text message goes unreturned because Elam, a licensed pilot for two decades, has flown the smaller of his two planes, a tandem-seat 1966 Piper Super Cub, 200 miles west on a moose hunt in Mulchatna bush country that is inaccessible by car, truck, Internet or cellphone. There he kills and butchers a 1,500-pound bull moose, but he needs eight trips to pack out more than 700 pounds of meat.
Three weeks later Elam, like Dempsey (but only in this way), is waiting outside his house, on tiny Longmere Lake. There are two satellite dishes, but Elam doesn't watch NFL games. "I got my fill of football," he says. A Florida native, he first came to Alaska in the mid-1990s on a fishing trip, bought a house in 2008 intending to use it in the summer, but then moved the family there full time in January '10. Jason and Tamy homeschool their children and embrace a lifestyle that includes driving snowmobiles on the lake and hauling salmon out of the Kenai River in July, where the sockeye can run at 150,000 a day.
"It's not for everybody up here," says Elam. "We like the outdoors. We like the lifestyle. The kids love it. We fell in love with Alaska."
Elam also wrote four spy novels with Steve Yohn. (A description on Amazon of Monday Night Jihad, part of the Riley Covington series: "He thought his deadliest enemy knelt across the line of scrimmage. He was wrong!") He has made several visits to the Middle East as strategic coordinator for E3 Partners, a Christian missionary program. And he's flown to the distant corners of Alaska on winter relief missions. Elam could scarcely be further from NFL Sundays.