Sunday, November 07, 2010

Dempsey Was the Unlikeliest of Sports Heroes

Did you hear the one about the guy with half a foot and no right hand who walked onto a football field?

The Detroit Lions are used to being the NFL’s punch line.

In recent years, a struggling comedian, if he feels the crowd getting ugly and turn on him, only has to say “the Detroit Lions” and the room will immediately be filled with guffaws and knees being slapped. Tears will start streaming down the faces of the patrons.

Only, this was in 1970 and the Lions were far from being the league’s laughing stock.

Time for another 40-year anniversary retrospective.

A couple weeks ago, I regaled you about the Tigers’ heist when they foisted Denny McLain onto the poor Washington Senators in October, 1970.

On November 8, 1970, Tom Dempsey trotted onto the field at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. There were just two seconds remaining and the Lions were leading the Saints, 17-16.

The football was on the Saints’ 45-yard line.

Dempsey was a football player. It said so on his contract. He wore a uniform, with his name on the back. You could do the DNA if you wanted, but that was him, alright.

But Dempsey was a football player the same way Henny Youngman was a violinist; the same way the Italians had armies.

Dempsey, the Saints kicker at the time, had half a right foot, a deformity since birth. He also had no hand at the end of his right arm.

You’re not supposed to be maimed until after your football career is finished. Dempsey didn’t get the memo, apparently.

It’ll be 40 years on Monday—40 years since the football gods used Dempsey as the purveyor of one of the game’s all-time great practical jokes. Forty years since Dempsey swung his half foot toward a football and blasted it 63 yards for a game-winning field goal.

The Lions, a very un-laughing stock-like 10-4 in 1970, had been defeated by the Hail Mary of kicks.

This wasn’t a field goal, this was theatre of the absurd.

But I don’t think Ionesco or Camus or even O. Henry could have thought of an ending like this.

Dempsey had a special shoe fitted to make his half a foot look like a hoof. The shoe was squared off, so that the surface which clubbed the football was like a golfer’s fairway wood.

Dempsey was the only kicker in NFL history who needed a good lie.

The late, great sports writer for the Detroit Free Press, George Puscas, had just arrived at Metro Airport from a European vacation on November 9, 1970. He asked someone at customs who won the Lions game of the day before.

“You’re not going to believe it,” the customs guy told George.

“Try me,” Puscas said.

Imagine telling this to someone who didn’t know anything about it.

“Yeah, a guy with half a foot and a stub for his right arm kicked a 63-yard field goal at the final gun and the Lions lost.”

OK, that’s the punch line—what’s the set-up?

Prior to Dempsey’s record-setting kick, the longest field goal in league history had been a mere 56 yards. Dempsey obliterated that by 21 feet.

It was like someone running a three-minute mile, or getting a hole in none.

A 63-yard field goal? Are you kidding me?

“(Dallas Cowboys President) Tex Schramm said I had an advantage because of my shoe,” Dempsey once related. “Heck, I didn’t ask to be born this way!”

The shoe is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There’s more to the joke of an ending that occurred on that November day in 1970.

Dempsey was an erratic kicker. Apparently he didn’t have an advantage after all, because of his deformity, as Tex Schramm whined.

“Before the game I saw this guy Dempsey missing short field goals, extra points, you name it,” Lions kicker Errol Mann told reporters after the game. “He was all over the place with his kicks.”

Yet on the game’s final play, Dempsey straightened things out enough to drive the football 63 yards between the uprights—and not one yard further.

Dempsey’s kick didn’t travel end-over-end like so many field goals do. Rather, his started end-over-end and then flattened out, like a football in suspended animation. After about 20 yards, it just kept going, on that flattened trajectory. Finally, just before it dropped over the crossbar (with barely a foot, no pun intended, to spare), it returned to an end-over-end journey.

If you want to see it for yourself, go to YouTube and search for it. It won’t take long to find.

The Saints were an awful football team in 1970, and won just two games the entire season. In fact, the week of the Lions game, the Saints had fired coach Tom Fears and replaced him with someone named J.D. Roberts.

What a way to win your first game as a coach, eh?

Dempsey, to this day, is in my mind the most unlikely record holder in all of professional sports. Heck, he’s also the most unlikely athlete in all of pro sports.

Yet you could also say that Tom Dempsey was made by God to be on that football field on November 8, 1970, standing at his own 37-yard line—his own 37-yard line—with two seconds left on the game clock, ready to swing his fairway wood hoof into the pigskin.

Every practical joke needs a plant from the audience. Every con needs a grifter.

The football gods got the Lions good on that day. They sent out a dumpy guy with half a foot and half an arm and by the time the Detroiters had stopped laughing, the football had flown over the crossbar and between the uprights and the Lions had lost.

Dempsey, of course, can recall many details of that moment. Perhaps this one is the, ahem, kicker.

"The goalposts," Dempsey said, "did look kind of far away."

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