(Watch Tom Dempsey’s original 63-yarder for the Saints here.)
The opening weekend of the NFL season provided more than a few of those moments that remind us why we are football fans. Tom Brady’s 99-yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker by itself was enough to bring many fans out of their seats — unless, of course, they are Dolphins fans (a seemingly small group these days) or Patriots haters (a group so large it would get a dozen electoral votes if it were a state). And, of course, there was Ted Ginn, Jr. running back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in the time it took you to read that sentence. And — Cowboys fans please cover your eyes — there was Tony Romo fumbling at the goal line, then throwing a pass directly into the chest of Darrelle Revis, whom Romo apparently never has heard about.
My favorite moment, though, was Sebastian Janikowski kicking a 63-yard field goal against the Broncos on Monday night to tie the league record for longest field goal. (As I was writing this, I learned that the Raiders have filed an appeal with the NFL asking that it be recognized as a 64-yarder, which would break the league record.) It wasn’t as exciting as some of the plays mentioned above, but it was still my favorite for the simple reason that it reminded me of one of my favorite moments ever in NFL history.
Like many of you, I have heard more than my share of idiotic statements in my lifetime. Statements like, “There is no proof that cigarette smoking causes cancer.” And, “George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential election.” And, “Brokeback Mountain was a great movie.”
What’s the stupidest comment I’ve ever heard? It’s hard to say. But way, way, way up on the list has to be this one: “Tom Dempsey only kicked a 63-yard field goal because he had the advantage of missing half of his foot.”
As older readers know and younger readers may have learned on Monday night when Janikowski made his kick, Tom Dempsey was a kicker in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dempsey was born with half a right foot and no right hand. Nevertheless, he was a good athlete, and wearing a special shoe with a flat toe, he was a very good place kicker. How good? Good enough to sign with the New Orleans Saints in 1969.
In 1970, Dempsey would become famous. His picture would appear in virtually every newspaper and on virtually every news program in the country. It was then that, trailing the Lions 17-16 with only seconds remaining in the game, the Saints lined up for a field goal attempt. And not just any field goal attempt. No, they were attempting the longest field goal in NFL history, the holder kneeling down 63 long yards from the goal post.
You could see the Lions players shrug as they walked up to the line to defend the kick, knowing that no one had any chance of making such a kick. The ball would fall 10 yards short, they must have been thinking, and then we can go home. But then the ball was snapped, Dempsey took a few quick steps forward and connected. Incredibly, the ball floated, and just kept floating and floating, until it finally squeaked past the goal post. Immediately, Dempsey was mobbed by his stunned teammates, who probably had shared the same thoughts as the Lions about Dempsey’s chances. Now, they jumped on Dempsey like he had money coming out of his jersey. He had just kicked the longest field goal in NFL history, a 63-yarder to help the Saints turn a 17-16 defeat into a 19-17 victory.
It would be 28 years before Jason Elam of the Denver Broncos would equal the mark by kicking a 63-yarder himself, and it was not until Monday that another kicker tied the record. No one has ever kicked one farther — although Janikowski certainly seems to have the leg to do so should the Raiders ever give him a chance. (If memory serves, Lane Kiffin trotted him out to attempt a meaningless 67-yarder just before halftime in a game a few years back).
Dempsey was an inspiration to many, and rightly so. Kicking a record-breaking field goal made him interesting. Doing it with half a foot made him heroic. But from time to time you would hear people whisper that Dempsey’s accomplishment wasn’t really that special. You would hear them whisper that Dempsey actually had an unfair advantage as a kicker. You see, the argument would go, because he had only half a foot, he could wear that special, flat-toe shoe that would allow him to smack the ball like a polo mallet.
That anyone would try to minimize Dempsey’s accomplishment is both ridiculous and insulting. He had a disability. And he overcame that disability. Making the argument that he had an advantage even more ridiculous and insulting is that fact that many kickers both before and after Dempsey used flat-toe shoes. While most kickers today use the “soccer” style of kicking, that style did not become popular until the mid-1970s. Before then, most place kickers used a straight-ahead style. And they wore shoes with flat toes. None of those other kickers who used flat-toe shoes kicked a 63-yard field goal, did they? Nope. Just Dempsey.
So, wherever you are Mr. Dempsey, I hope you had a nice, long celebration after kicking your record-breaking field goal. I just hope it didn’t involve having a smoke because, despite what you may have heard, smoking in fact does cause cancer. Really. It does. Just ask former President Al Gore.