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A Look Back In Saints History: Tom Dempsey

Perhaps the greatest moment in Saints history before the post-Katrina era, Tom Demsey’s 63 yard field goal in 1970 has a special place in not only Saints lore, but NFL lore as well. Though Jason Elam would later tie Dempsey’s mark in 1998, Dempsey’s kick still remains the benchmark for kickers everywhere. Dempsey, born with no fingers on his right hand or toes on his right foot, nailed the long game winner on a humid afternoon at Tulane Stadium.

Michael Lewis, the popular author who wrote best sellers Moneyball and The Blind Side, witnessed the kick firsthand as a young 9 boy. Below is an excerpt from his October, 2007 article on NFL kickers written for the New York Times.

My first exposure to the precarious social status of the professional field-goal kicker came unexpectedly, at a game between the Detroit Lions and the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 8, 1970. There were just two seconds left, and the Saints were losing, which wasn’t unusual. The unusual thing was that the game was still close: 17-16. The Saints had the ball, and a field goal would win it — except the ball was in the Saints’ half of the field, on the 43-yard line. And the record distance the ball would have to travel — 63 yards — was only the first of the kicker’s problems. He was kicking from a dirt surface churned up like a World War I battlefield. The ball would need to cut through the thick, humid New Orleans air and into the closed end of Tulane Stadium, where the wind swirled unpredictably. On top of all that, the kicker lacked the most basic requirement for his job: a foot.

His name was Tom Dempsey, and he was born without fingers on his right hand or toes on his right foot. The gnarled stub of his arm jutted from his jersey with an effect, to my 9-year-old mind, so grotesque that even from a great distance my first instinct was to look away. The foot, however, wasn’t repellent — less a malformed appendage than the business end of a useful tool. Other professional football teams had kickers. We had a sledgehammer, or the head of a 1-wood, attached to the end of a 260-pound cripple. Stump! Stump! Stump!

From this distance, the chant that usually accompanied Dempsey’s field-goal attempts sounds like an entire stadium full of Americans having fun at the expense of the handicapped. But nobody thought of it that way. Even one of Dempsey’s coaches called him Stumpy, and he claimed not to mind in the slightest.

Stump! Stump! Stump!

But on this afternoon in 1970 there was hardly a peep. The bleachers were empty. The Saints had been around for only three years, but already their fans expected them to lose. They still showed up in huge numbers, full of enthusiasm, and hollered at the top of their lungs right till the moment when they saw, once again, that the cause was lost, whereupon they fled. Just a few hours earlier, Tulane Stadium held more than 60,000 supposedly committed fanatics, but as the Saints called a timeout and Dempsey trotted onto the field, I could have thrown a baseball in any direction from our seats under the overhang at the 40-yard line and hit no one but my father and his pal Charles, with whom we went to every Saints home game. Charles’s beak-like face — he suffered from anorexia nervosa — was never anything but grim; he seldom actually cheered. Entire sections below us had been vacated, so my father and Charles allowed me to pull us a few rows down, to what struck me as better seats. Along the way, Charles insisted, with total certainty, that Tom Dempsey had no chance of making a 63-yard field goal. He tried, and failed, to distract my father with some boring business topic. Like me, my dad harbored a secret hope.

We weren’t the only ones moving closer to the action: everyone who hadn’t left was rapidly upgrading to a better view. Somewhere in the stadium another boy about my age, Mike Whitsell, was sitting with his father, Dave, who, as it happened, used to play for the Saints. His dad retired at the end of the 1969 season, and in his final year he was Tom Dempsey’s holder. When he saw Dempsey walking onto the field to attempt a 63-yard field goal, he turned to his son and said: “Stumpy can make this! I’ve seen him make this in practice!” Then he hopped out of his seat and down the rows of benches and over the short fence onto the field — where he raced to a spot right behind the refs at the goal posts. Mike knew his dad adored Dempsey, with reason. When they had him over to the house once, Mike’s little brother, age 3, stared for about three seconds at Dempsey’s truncated hand and foot, before asking, in a loud voice, “What happened to your feet and your hands?” Dempsey pulled him up onto his lap and said: “Well, when I was standing in line in heaven to get hands and feet, I was last in line. And by the time I got to the front they only had one and a half pairs left.” The little boy, completely satisfied with the explanation, said, “O.K.!” and ran off and jumped into the swimming pool.

Now Dave Whitsell was running out to be a part of one last kick by Tom Dempsey. The ball was snapped, Dempsey took his steps and his stump collided with the ball. To me, from my place in the stands, which was closer to the field than I had ever been, the longest field goal ever kicked in the National Football League looked like a wobbly line drive. But just as Mike Whitsell saw his dad hollering at the refs to get their arms up because the kick was good, I heard my father shout:

“Holy shit!”

It was the first time I ever heard my father swear.

The kick, fluttering its way just over the crossbar, was easily the most exciting thing that had ever happened to the Saints, and it would remain the most exciting thing that happened to the Saints for the next three decades.

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