Forty years ago today, Nov. 8, 1970, a guy with half a foot kicked himself into the record books . . . and into the hearts of New Orleans Saints fans forever and ever, amen.
The scene: Tulane Stadium.
The foe: the Detroit Lions.
The score: Detroit 17, New Orleans 16.
Until. . . .
Peter Finney of the New Orleans Times-Picayune picks up the story:
HAPPY DEMPSEY DAY!
A 22-year-old kid, born with half a right foot and four fingers missing on his right hand, had no idea "long" meant 63 yards.
With 11 seconds remaining, Errol Mann of the Detroit Lions had just booted an 18-yard field goal to put his team ahead, 17-16.
Now, with two seconds left, the Saints had the ball at their 45-yard-line, following a kickoff return by Al Dodd and Dodd's catch of a Billy Kilmer pass as he went out of bounds.
In those days, the goalposts were on the goal line, not at the rear of the end zone.
As Dempsey looked downfield into the north end zone, the uprights reminded him of "a tiny target'' for someone who had booted three field goals that day, the longest from 29 yards.
"I was more concerned about kicking it straight because I felt I could handle the distance, whatever it was,'' Dempsey said. "I knew I was going to get a perfect snap from Jackie Burkett and a perfect hold from Joe Scarpati. It was all up to me. I had to hit it sweet.''
Dempsey had complete confidence in Scarpati. "Joe told me he was going to put it down eight yards behind the snap, a yard longer than normal. He asked the linemen to hold their blocks a little longer.''
As Scarpati awaited the snap at the Saints' 37, with the crossbar sitting 63 yards away, Kilmer, standing on the sidelines, remembered some members of the Detroit special team laughing. "They thought Tom had no chance,'' he said.
Dempsey would remember something else: a photograph he was given days later.
"It's my favorite,'' he said. "It doesn't show me. It shows what Wild Bill Cody did defending the rush. Bill used his body to take care of the inside rusher and he used his foot to take care of the guy on the outside, who was the great Alex Karras. Wild Bill kicked Karras in the groin.''
And there went Tom Dempsey's historic kick, sailing north, actually sailing a shade more than 63 yards (the ball unofficially cleared the crossbar by a foot).
And there went Dempsey, carried off the field on the shoulders of teammates.