Saints Pivotal Moments
1970 Lions: A Record Kick That Barely Happened
Any record-setting play completes a chain of events. If any event in the chain goes differ­ently, the record remains intact. Tom Dempsey's 63-yard field goal for the New Orleans Saints at Tulane Stadium against the Detroit Lions November 8, 1970, would not have occurred but for two officiating mistakes, poor use of timeouts by the Saints, and the oppo­sing quarterback's miscue.
After the 30-17 loss to the Los Angeles Rams the week before lowered their record to 1-5-1, the Saints fired Tom Fears, their head coach since the franchise began in 1967. Assistant J. D. Roberts took over for the game against the 5-2 Lions, who were nine-point road favorites.
As so often happens after a coaching change, the underdogs played inspired ball. With just under seven minutes to play, the Saints took a 16-14 lead on Tom Barrington's three-yard run and Dempsey's PAT. It was the home team's first touchdown of the day after three Dempsey field goals, which made this contest Tom's best game of the season. He had connected on only five of 15 field goal tries in the first seven contests. Before the afternoon ended, the game would become the highlight of his career and make him a nationwide sensation.
It was remarkable that Dempsey was playing NFL football in any capacity but especially as a kicker. He was big at 6'1", 265 lbs. but had to overcome birth defects–only two fingers on his right hand and only half a right foot. He played defensive end in high school and junior college - he's the only player in NFL history from Palomar Junior College in San Marcos CA. He didn't start place-kicking until college. He used the traditional "straight on" kicking style with the toes despite the recent popularity of the soccer style approach by the Gogolak brothers. At first, Tom kicked barefooted with a piece of tape protecting his stub. Later, he wore a special half-shoe made by an orthopedic company in California. It had a 1 3/4-inch-thick leather plate on the front end to provide the solid surface for kicking the ball.
Dempsey joined the Saints in 1969 as a free agent. He not only made the team but earned Associated Press All-NFL honors his very first season when he kicked 22 of 41 field goals, including seven of 11 from 40+ yards and one of 11 from beyond midfield. His 55-yarder against the Los Angeles Rams was one shy of the NFL record set by Bert Rechi­char of the Baltimore Colts in 1953. Dempsey's 99 points in 1969 would stand as a Saints record for 16 years.
Tom Dempsey, Saints
L-R: J.D. Roberts, Tom Dempsey, Joe Schmidt, Greg Landry
Back at Tulane Stadium, Lions' veteran quarterback Bill Munson threw his third inter­ception. That caused coach Joe Schmidt to insert Greg Landry with 6:45 left. The second-year backup led a march that started on his own 14. Early in the drive, the officials made a mistake that gave the Lions an extra down. As Jack Saylor explained in The Detroit Free Press, "A Greg Landry-to-Earl McCullouch pass from the Detroit 25 on second down was ruled incomplete because the ball hit another offensive player before McCullouch caught it. The officials left it at second down, however, and one play later, on what should have been the fourth down – the kicking down, Landry completed a pass to keep the drive alive." Shortly afterwards, a personal foul penalty against running back Altie Taylor for a midfield altercation set the Lions back. But a pass interference call against strong safety Hugo Hollas on the next play gave Detroit a first down at their 49. Landry then hit tight end Charlie Sanders with a 17-yard completion to move within Errol Mann's field-goal range at the 34 as the officials called the two-minute warning. With the Saints not using any of their three timeouts (Roberts's inexperience as head coach?), the Lions kept the ball on the ground, but after the third down run, the inexperienced Landry made a mistake that ultimately cost his team the game. He called timeout immediately instead of letting the clock run down to just a few seconds. (We'll never know if Roberts would have called time at that point.)
As a result, when Erroll Mann booted an 18-yard field goal to give the visitors a 17-16 lead, 11 seconds remained. Many in the crowd of 66,910 headed for the exits at that point. They were proud of their boys for an outstanding effort that had fallen short. Another per­son who left his seat was Dan Tehan, the representative of the commissioner's office who was overseeing the game. Aware of the downs foul up that looked like it gave Detroit an apparent victory, he boarded the press box elevator to meet with the officiating crew after the game.

L-R: Errol Mann, Al Dodd, Billy Kilmer
Wide receiver Al Dodd took the kickoff and hustled out of bounds at the 28 with six seconds remaining. With time for one quick pass, Billy Kilmer connected with Dodd on the left sideline at the New Orleans 45 with just two ticks left. But Dodd may not have gotten both feet in bounds. A YouTube video of the last plays from the CBS telecast shows Dodd jumping to make the catch with his arms extended in front of him. His right foot clearly comes down in bounds, but a split second later his drag foot kicks up chalk. An official running down the sideline signals catch.
Special Teams Coach Don Heinrich told Roberts, "He can kick it." In his first NFL game as head coach, J. D. made the decision to send out the field goal unit. Dempsey admitted later that he didn't calculate the distance of the kick as he trotted onto the field. He just knew he had to boom it as far as he could. In fact, he was kicking from the Saints 37, which made it a 63-yarder since the goal posts were on the goal line. Some of the Lions laughed in disbelief. On their sideline, Schmidt congratulated Landry for leading the winning drive. Convinced the Saints would fake the field goal, the Detroit coach sent CB Lem Barney back deep to protect against a Hail Mary. In the stands, former Saints CB Dave Whitsell, who had retired at the end of the 1969 season, told his son, "Stumpy can make this! I've seen him make this in practice!" With that, Dave jumped out of his seat, ran down the aisle, and hopped over the short fence onto the field, ending up just beyond the Detroit end zone.
L: Tom Dempsey; R: Dempsey kicks his record-setter against the Lions
As the Saints set up for the kick, CBS announcer Don Criqui told the TV audience that Dempsey would not only win the game if successful but also set a new NFL record. Jackie Burkett's snap was perfect, as was Joe Scarpatti's placement. Not wanting to be offsides and give Dempsey five extra yards, the Lions didn't make a serious effort at blocking the kick. "It sounded like some kind of explosion," said Burkett. "It was almost like the ball grunted." The thump of special shoe meeting ball can be heard on the CBS video. As the ball rockets through the humid New Orleans air, Criqui says, "I don't believe this." Then, "It's good! I don't believe it! The field goal attempt was good from 63 yards away! It's incredible! Tulane Stadium has gone wild!"
The ball cleared the crossbar by less than two feet and hit the turf three yards beyond the post. Dempsey broke Rechichar's 17-year-old record by an amazing seven yards. Teammates mobbed Tom and carried him and Roberts off the field as those left in the stands roared loudly enough to be heard blocks away by fans who had departed early. Some Lion defenders were stunned while others threw down their helmets in disgust.
Dempsey reached the locker room 15 minutes after the game. "I knew when I hit it, that I hit it good enough to carry," he told reporters. "Whether or not it'd stay straight – that was the question. ... What happens with field goals is, it's like hitting a golf ball, and I hit that one as sweet as you could hit it. ... I tried to do it like I do on a kickoff. I started my left foot six inches back of where it is on a regular kick to get more leg swing." Tom added, "When Coach Roberts told me to go in, I wasn't the least bit nervous. I told the team that I needed at least one second more than usual so I could hit it hard. Joe Scarpatti placed it exactly right, and I laid the leather to it. ... It seemed an eternity before the official signaled it was good. Then the guys swarmed all over me, and it's a wonder I didn't get hurt. But I was so stunned, it wouldn't have mattered."
When reporters were let into the Detroit locker room, they discovered a jagged gash in the blackboard. It wasn't until many years later that Schmidt admitted he had thrown his clipboard when he reached the dressing room. Who could blame him? Joe told the press, "You'll never see it again. It's like winning the Masters with a 390-yard hole-in-one on the last shot."
By coincidence, almost-hero Mann had predicted a few days earlier that someday condi­tions would be right for an NFL kicker to boot a field goal of more than 60 yards. Someday came sooner than he expected. "Unbelievable. He could stand there and kick it 200 times and not hit it that sweet again. There was a wind up high in the stadium that helped him out, but I still didn't think he would make it." Errol sensed what his fellow kicker experi­enced. "It all happened so quickly I suppose he didn't have time to realize the pressure he was under and the exact distance. I bet if he pondered the situation too long, he probably wouldn't have made one from 30 yards out."
Dempsey lingered in the locker room afterward to avoid being mobbed by the throng that was gathered outside. After killing time with friends and stadium security, Tom told them he was getting thirsty. "I could use some Dixie beer. Next thing I know, a police car pulls up with three cases of Dixie. Where else but New Orleans?"
Within a week, the excitement over Dempsey's kick had barely subsided when Tex Schramm, president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys and chairman of the NFL competition committee, protested Tom's use of a special shoe. "I have great admira­tion for Dempsey in overcoming his physical disability, but I believe he should use the same surface to meet the ball that other kickers use. A year ago the league took action that kicking shoes must be of stock manufacture for retail sale. But a member of the league office inspected various shoes, and someone had the rule changed to approve Dempsey's shoe. I told them as chairman of the competition committee I didn't feel they had authority to approve Dempsey's shoe."
But the man who inspected the shoe, Mark Duncan, the league's director of personnel, explained his approval. "It was really an easy decision. It's lighter than the regular shoe, and there's no metal in it." Aware of the negative impact Schramm's remarks had on the league's image, NFL director of public relations Don Weiss issued a statement. "This is the only type of shoe Dempsey could wear because of his foot. The shoe is not weighted – and this is one consideration which made the NFL adopt rules calling for a standard manufactured shoe – and we don't feel that a 63-yard field goal alters the fact that the shoe was approved."