Looking Back at the First Great Play of the 1970s: Tom Dempsey’s Epic Field Goal

The decade of the 1970s had numerous great plays in the NFL. Now this is not an exact science. I won’t be trying to list every single great play of the decade, because there were so many of them, and because I didn’t want to leave any out if I could help it. But I will try to look at some of them. One of the first great plays during the 1970s involved a placekicker…and not just any place kicker, mind you.

Rather, it involved a handicapped placekicker. Tom Dempsey was kicking for the New Orleans Saints in 1970 when he had a chance to win a game with a field goal. No big deal you say? Well, when you consider that he would be trying to connect on a kick that would set a new league record, it would definitely be considered to be a great play.

November 8, 1970 (Record-Breaking Kick)

On November 8, 1970, Dempsey would try to make a 63-yard field goal against the Detroit Lions at old Tulane Stadium in downtown New Orleans. The Saints had only won one game up to that time in their season, while the Lions were 5-2 and in the midst of trying to make the playoffs.

Dempsey as I previously mentioned had a couple of handicaps. He was born with half of a right foot…his kicking foot. He wore a specially designed shoe all throughout his 11-year pro career. His kicking foot could best be described as a stump. He also was born with a deformed right hand which was missing a couple of fingers.

Indeed, every sentimental fan of the sport would be pulling for Dempsey to make the kick and set a new league record.

The drama was increased by the fact that Dempsey’s kick would occur with only seconds left in the game. Whether he made the kick or not, it would be the final play of the game.

Tom Dempsey football card with the New Orleans Saints
Photo Courtesy of Mark Morthier's personal collection of a Tom Dempsey football card with the New Orleans Saints

Detroit had a 17-16 lead as New Orleans set up for the kick.

Dempsey managed to kick his way into the record book. “I knew I could kick it 63 yards,” Dempsey said after the game, “but I wasn’t sure that I could kick it straight. I got a good snap and a perfect hold. But all I was thinking about was kicking it as hard as I could. I couldn’t follow it that far, but I did see the (officials’) arms go up and everybody start yelling and I knew it was good. It’s quite a thrill.”

Strategy was involved in Dempsey’s kick. Holder Joe Scarpati knelt down a yard deeper than usual, giving Dempsey an extra moment to kick the ball. Scarpati also told the Saints offensive linemen to “…hold them (the Lions) just a little longer than usual.” After the game, some of the Lions defensive players commented that they heard Dempsey’s foot “explode” into the ball and that the sound of that impact was “extremely loud.” It was indeed a special moment in the history of the game.

Honoring The First Great Play of the Decade

Today, the kicking shoe that Dempsey wore on that historic day is prominently displayed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Despite their 19-17 loss to the Saints on that historic day, the Lions still managed to make the playoffs in the NFC with an impressive 10-4 record. New Orleans, on the other hand, would only win twice in 1970 and finished that season with a 2-11-1 record. Dempsey’s 63-yard record kick that day against the Lions withstood a long test of time.

It stood as the longest field goal in NFL history for 28 years when it was tied by Jason Elam of the Denver Broncos in 1998. It is important to note that Dempsey was a straight-on kicker, however, `the kind of which are extinct in pro football today. You will only see soccer-style kickers performing their craft today, and that is due mainly because soccer-style kickers use more of their foot to make contact with the ball than straight-on kickers would.

A straight-on kicker like Dempsey would only hit the ball with his toes, whereas a soccer-style kicker will hit the ball with the entire side of his foot. This usually results in a kick that is launched higher and farther than if a kicker only hit the ball with his toes.

There was some complaint by some people across the league, most notably Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, that Dempsey’s special kicking show should be disallowed. Note that Schramm only made his complaint after Dempsey set the league record. Prior to his 63-yard kick, Dempsey never heard a word of complaint from Schramm or anyone else in the NFL.

Despite whatever issues that anyone had with Dempsey’s clubbed kicking foot, his 63-yard field goal stood, and it was the first truly great play in the NFL in the decade of the 1970s.

Trivia Question:

New Orleans had two head coaches in 1970, the year that Tom Dempsey set his new record for the longest field goal in NFL history. Name one of them.

Host of Pro Football in the 1970s - Joe Zagorski

Throughout his days, Joe spent some time as a sportswriter and has been a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association since the mid-1980s.  Joe is also a proud member of the Pro Football Writers of America.

Also, if you’re interested in picking one of Joe’s books up, all three are listed below.

Here, you can learn more about Joe and Pro Football in the 1970s.

Joe Zagorski
Joe Zagorski
We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
06/23/2024 10:33 pm GMT
We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
06/23/2024 10:35 pm GMT
We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
06/23/2024 10:33 pm GMT

Please Note – As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases

More Posts From Pro Football In The 1970s

Leave a Comment