When is a handicap not a handicap? When does a physical “deformity” make you more valuable on a football field?
Those are questions that were asked when Tom Dempsey shattered an NFL record against the Detroit Lions more than 40 years ago.
Yesterday, the Lions and New Orleans Saints played a football game on prime time television, the big story going in being the suspension of Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
But when those same two teams met on November 8, 1970, it was placekicker Dempsey who grabbed the headlines, booting an improbable and unbelievable field goal from inside his own team’s territory. The result was a 19-17 victory for the Saints over the stunned Lions.
With the game deadlocked at 17 and with two seconds on the clock, the Saints had the ball at their own 37 yard line. In those days the goal post was situated so that the crossbar was at the goal line. That meant that a field goal would have to be kicked at least 63 yards to clear.
“Tell Stumpy to get ready,” the Saints offensive coach hollered. And with that, Dempsey trotted out onto the field.
Dempsey was born without toes on his right kicking foot nor fingers on his right hand. Despite that challenge, he grew up playing sports, and played football at San Dieguito High School in Encinitas, California, and college football at Palomar College in San Marcos. Using the straight-on kicking technique that was becoming less common as kickers used the “soccer method”, Dempsey was efficient enough as a kicker to earn a shot with Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers as a walk-on. In college he once booted a 65-yarder in his stocking feet.
Eventually “Stumpy” found his way to the hapless Saints, a laughingstock team who rarely won. On this November day in 1970s, many of the Lions on the field couldn’t believe the Saints were attempting a field goal from such a distance. The previous record for longest field goal was 56 yards. Dempsey would be adding 21 feet to that mark.
The ball was snapped, the Lions defensive line rushed, and the football was placed on the ground by the holder. Dempsey, wearing a special shoe that was shortened for his toeless foot, took a two-step approach and met the ball squarely.
Two officials, stationed at opposite ends of the goal post, watched as the ball squeezed over the crossbar. It was a booming kick, some players on the field describing it later as a “thundering sound” that they had never heard on a gridiron before.
Seemingly delighted, but most likely amazed, the officials thrust their arms enthusiastically into the air. The Saints had defeated the Lions on the most unlikely and astounding kick in NFL history.
Dempsey was mobbed and the Saints danced off the field with what would be one of their two wins on the season. But controversy over Dempsey’s kick would follow.
Some critics, even a few from other teams and the NFL office itself, questioned if Dempsey’s “deformity” was an unfair advantage.
“I guess if not having any toes is an unfair advantage, I have an advantage,” Dempsey replied.
Other critics pointed to his shoe. “Everyone said I had steel in it,” Dempsey told the New York Times in 2007. “But they X-rayed it. It was just a thin piece of leather.”
The play stood, and the 63-yarder has not been exceeded since, though two kickers (Jason Elam and Sebastian Janikowsi) have equaled it. It took 28 years for Elam to tie Dempsey’s feat. (no pun intended)
However, a new rule was established which stated that footwear worn by kickers must have the same design as those of other players. Dempsey’s “cut-off” shoe could no longer be used.
Nevertheless, Dempsey continued to kick at the highest level. It was not the shoe or his lack of toes that made him a great kicker, it was his incredibly strong leg. He finished his career in 1979 with the Buffalo Bills, having played more than a decade in the National Football League.