/Remembering Tom Dempsey and ‘the kick’

Remembering Tom Dempsey and ‘the kick’

We are there. We’ve been there for many days. There will be more. We lost Tom Dempsey on Saturday night. He was a half-footed football player who performed one of the most remarkable athletic feats in the 20th century. Dempsey succumbed to the virus 10 days later. He was 73 years old. Dempsey’s passing is a devastating blow for Saints fans, as well as at least one sportswriter. Dempsey’s heroism is something I am very familiar with. I was there. It was seeing that made the difference. However, Dempsey’s accomplishment is still hard to comprehend from a distance of almost 50 years. Dempsey was born with no toes on his right leg – the one that he used to kick – as well as no fingers on his right hand. His teammates called him “Stubby”. Dempsey was a fun, single man at that time. He was a big fan of beer. It was evident in his belly. It was November 8, 1970 at the grand old Tulane Stadium. I was a just-turned-18-year-old sports writer, working full-time for my hometown newspaper in Hattiesburg and going to classes as a college freshman as time allowed. That day, the Saints were playing against the Detroit Lions. They knew that the home team was a big underdog. My father, who was a former sports journalist, rode shotgun on that day. It was gray, humid and unseasonably hot in New Orleans. We were sitting in an open-air press box. Dad was to my right and the supervisor of NFL officials to his right. My dad was not happy with the majority of officiating calls, and he let the supervisor know. They continued to argue. I wish I had a tape. The Saints were bringing in a new head coach. J.D. Roberts was a former Oklahoma football player and a former Marine lieutenant. John Mecom, Saints’ original owner, felt the team needed more discipline. Roberts was to be adamant about it. Roberts was coaching a semi-pro Virginia team five days prior. You should be aware that the Saints needed more than just discipline. They needed direction. They needed talent. They were in their fourth season and had never won more five games in a single season. In 1970, they had only won one of seven games. They were a terrible football team. My Dad loved them, but he had a description of the Saints’ style in those days. He said that the Saints played fiddle-farted instead of football. It was an excellent description. The Saints fiddle-farted a lot. They also fumbled quite a bit. That day, the Saints fiddle-folked. Funny thing: The Lions also fiddle-farted that day, acting as if it had been Sunday morning on Bourbon Street the night before. It seemed that the Lions would win New Orleans. With two seconds left, they led the Saints 17-16. New Orleans held the ball at its 44. It was time for one play. Dad and me thought it would be a Hail Mary. However, we were not sure that Billy Kilmer (Saints quarterback) could throw the ball 56 yard. Roberts didn’t believe so, apparently. We later learned that Dempsey was suggested by a manager that Dempsey could kick the ball so far. The manager said to the coach, “Stubby can do that!” This was 1970, four years prior to the NFL moving goal posts from the goal line. Dempsey’s kick must travel 63 yards to the Saints 37-yard line, and then go between the posts. It was humid at sea level again. There was no altitude, and very little wind. This would mean all leg, all foot, or in Dempsey’s case, all one-half foot. Roberts called Dempsey. Dempsey had already kicked three field goals that morning, but his longest was 29 yards. This one was impossible to believe. 56 yards was the longest NFL field goal. Jackie Burkett’s perfect snap proved it. Joe Scarpatti also held the ball perfectly. Dempsey approached straight on, swung thickly with his right leg, and slammed his foot into the ball. If not more, the ball cleared the crossbar about an inch. Under the goalpost, an official leapt into the air as he signaled the kick good. The great stadium was quiet for a moment as everyone tried to understand what was happening. But then, there was an explosion of sound, a New Orleans celebration unlike any Mardi Gras, or New Year’s Eve. Strangers hugged each other. I looked at Dad and saw that he was high-fiving him. Alex Karras was the Lions’ star defensive player and four-year “Mongo” character in “Blazing Saddles,” on The Tonight Show a couple of nights later. Johnny Carson asked him why the Lions did not rush the kick. Karras replied, “We were too busy laughing about the very idea of an 63-yard field kick.” Dempsey later came to Jackson to talk, and I introduced him. Dempsey asked me about my memories of the kick, and I explained how Dad and I went to the French Quarter later to celebrate. It turned out that Dempsey had done exactly the same. He said, “Til’ daylight.” “Didn’t have to purchase a single beer.” Tom Dempsey hoped that he never had to spend again on a beer in a New Orleans pub. He shouldn’t. He shouldn’t have.