New Orleans Saints kicker Tom Dempsey (19) kicks a field goal on the hold of safety Joe Scarpati (21) during an NFL game in New Orleans, 1970. (AP Photo/NFL Photos)

So much of what happens these days seems to happen in an endless fog. That includes so many news conferences, with so much said, about so many COVID-19 statistics. We lose count of who said what and when. Weeks ago, I heard a TV commentator say that, sadly, some people won’t get serious about this disease until it has victims they recognize.

We are there. We have been there for days. Sadly, there will be more.

Rick Cleveland

Late Saturday night, we lost Tom Dempsey, the half-footed football placekicker who provided one of the greatest athletic feats of the 20th century. Dempsey died 10 days after contracting the virus. He was 73. For Saints fans of a certain age – and at least one sports writer – Dempsey’s death hits hard.

I know well of Dempsey’s heroic feat. I was there. Seeing was believing – though, at a distance now of nearly 50 years Dempsey’s achievement is still difficult to fathom. For those who don’t know, Dempsey was born without toes on his right foot – the one he used to kick – and without fingers on his right hand. “Stubby,” his teammates called him. Dempsey was a fun-loving single guy at the time. He loved his beer. His belly showed it.

This was Nov. 8, 1970, at 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. The Saints were playing the Detroit Lions that day. The home team was a huge underdog, a role they knew all too well.

My father, a former sports writer himself, rode shotgun that day. It was a gray afternoon, unseasonably warm and humid, as New Orleans so often is. We were perched in the open-air press box. Dad was sitting just to my right, and, to his right, sat the supervisor of NFL officials. Naturally, my dad disagreed with most officiating calls and let the supervisor know it. They carried on a running argument. I wish I had a tape.

The Saints were breaking in a new head coach. J.D. Roberts, the new coach, was a former Oklahoma football star and a former Marine lieutenant. John Mecom, the Saints original owner, thought the team needed more discipline. He wanted Roberts to demand it. Never mind that five days earlier Roberts had been coaching a semi-pro team in Virginia.

The Saints, you should know, needed a lot more than discipline. They needed direction. They needed talent. This was their fourth season, and they had never won more than five games in a season. They had won just one of their first seven games in 1970. They were a bad, bad football team. My Dad, who loved them anyway, had a description for the way the Saints played in those days. Instead of playing football, he said, the Saints fiddle-farted. It was a perfect description. The Saints fiddle-farted often. They fumbled a lot, too.

The Saints fiddle-farted that day. Funny thing: The Lions, playing as if they had spent the night before and most of Sunday morning on Bourbon Street, fiddle-farted, as well. Still, it seemed the Lions would leave New Orleans with a victory. They led the Saints 17 to 16 with two seconds remaining. New Orleans had the ball at its own 44, time for one play.

Dad and I figured it would be a Hail Mary, although we weren’t at all sure that Billy Kilmer, the Saints quarterback, could throw the ball 56 yards. Roberts apparently didn’t think so either. Later, we learned that it was a manager who suggested that Dempsey, the beer-bellied, half-footed kicker, could kick the ball that far. “Stubby can do it!” the manager told the coach. Remember, this was 1970, four years before the NFL would move goal posts off the goal line. Dempsey’s kick would have to travel 63 yards from the Saints own 37-yard line and go between the posts.

Again, this was a humid day at sea level. There was no altitude and there was little, if any wind. This would be all leg, all foot – or, in Dempsey’s case – all one-half of a foot. Roberts sent Dempsey in.

Dempsey already had kicked three field goals that day, but the longest had been 29 yards. This one seemed scarcely possible. The longest previous NFL field goal had been 56 yards.

But Jackie Burkett’s snap was perfect. So was Joe Scarpatti’s hold. Dempsey approached straight-on, swung his thick right leg, slammed his half-foot into the ball and sent it into the record books. The ball cleared the crossbar by an inch, if that.

Underneath the goal post, an official leaped into the air when he threw his hands up to signal the kick good. There was a brief silence in the great stadium, as everyone seemed to grasp what had just happened, and then there was an explosion of sound and a New Orleans celebration to rival any Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve. Strangers hugged strangers. I turned around to look at Dad, and he was high-fiving the NFL officiating chief.

A couple nights later Alex Karras, the Lions’ star defensive lineman and four years “Mongo” in the movie “Blazing Saddles,” was on The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson asked him why the Lions didn’t appear to rush the kick very hard. Replied Karras, “We were too busy laughing at the very idea of a 63-yard field goal.”

Many, many years later, Dempsey came to Jackson to speak, and I introduced him. I told Dempsey my memory of the kick and told him how Dad and I had gone to the French Quarter later to join the celebration.

Turns out, Dempsey had done the same. “Til’ daylight,” he said. “Didn’t have to buy a single beer.”

Hopefully, Tom Dempsey never had to pay for a beer again in a New Orleans bar. He shouldn’t have. Not after that kick.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.