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Tom Dempsey’s kick was beyond belief, but not his range

New Orleans loves to party.

If Tom Dempsey hadn’t already grasped that hoary truism, it became abundantly clear to him Nov. 8, 1970.

That’s the day that Dempsey, born with no toes on his right foot, kicked the longest field goal in NFL history.

The 63-yard boot, providing a rare highlight in an otherwise dismal New Orleans Saints season, gave the home team an improbable last-second victory over the visiting Detroit Lions and touched off an impromptu French Quarter frenzy.

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“If you’re going to set a record, this is the town to do it in,” Dempsey says from his home in Jefferson Parish. “I didn’t get home until about 7:30, 8 o’clock the next morning.”

Dempsey, 63, says he lost track of the woman who was his date even before he joined the celebration.

“They wouldn’t let me leave the locker room because there were so many people out there,” he says. “And she didn’t wait.”

Eventually reconnected, they later were married and settled in New Orleans, even though Dempsey spent the bulk of his 11 NFL seasons playing elsewhere.

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“We love this area,” Dempsey says.

Not even Hurricane Katrina could budge them. Dempsey and wife Carlene, a native Louisianan, stayed put despite being temporarily displaced because of flooding in their home.

They’ve since moved to higher ground — “Our house is four feet above the street,” Dempsey says — and resumed frequenting their favorite haunts, where the ex-kicker is often recognized.

“People come up to me all the time,” Dempsey says. “The older you get, the nicer it is to be remembered.”

His famous kick, of course, is not easily forgotten.

Jason Elam of the Denver Broncos matched the record in 1998, but in 40 years it has yet to be topped.

In 1970, goal posts were aligned with the goal line, so when the Saints lined up for Dempsey’s record attempt, the line of scrimmage was five yards short of Lions territory.

Holder Joe Scarpati put the ball down at the Saints’ 37.

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“I didn’t know how far it was,” Dempsey says. “I knew that we were going to try a long field goal, but I didn’t think the coaches meant 63 yards. Don Heinrich, our offensive coordinator, called one of our other coaches and said, ‘Tell Stumpy to get ready. We’re going to try a long field goal.’

“That’s what he used to call me: Stumpy.”

Asked whether the politically incorrect nickname offended him, Dempsey says, “I got called a lot worse.”

Not on this day.

“Tom Dempsey didn’t kick that field goal,” Lions linebacker Wayne Walker told reporters. “God kicked it.”

Says Scarpati, “It was like a cannon going off when you heard it. He really thumped it, really got into it.”

Dempsey says the windless conditions were ideal.

“I knew that I hit it good,” he says. “You’ve just got to wait and see: Is it going to stay straight that far?”

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Almost from the moment officials signaled that it was good, however, the kick stirred controversy, naysayers believing that Dempsey’s custom-designed square-front shoe gave him an advantage. Tex Schramm, a Dallas Cowboys executive and chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, likened the shoe to “the head of a golf club with a sledgehammer surface.”

In 1977, the NFL passed the so-called “Dempsey rule,” which states that kickers’ shoes “must have a kicking surface that conforms to that of a normal kicking shoe.”

This Dempsey finds offensive.

“The owners make the rules,” he says, “and my favorite saying about owners is, ‘If you threw them a jockstrap, they’d put it on as a nose guard.’ They don’t know a damn thing about football.”

Dempsey, a two-way lineman at San Dieguito High in Encinitas despite being born with half a right foot and no right hand, launched his kicking career barefooted at Palomar College.

“We had a good little kicker,” he says, “but he couldn’t kick off, so the coach lined up the whole team and said, ‘Kick,’ and we all went down the line. I kicked it out of the end zone and he said, ‘Do it again.’ It went out of the end zone again and he says, ‘You’re on for Saturday night.’”

Later, before joining the Saints, Dempsey spent a season on the San Diego Chargers’ taxi squad. Sid Gillman, the Chargers’ coach, worked with an orthopedist in San Diego to design the leather shoes that Dempsey wore to kick with the rest of his career.

“I always fought with Coach Gillman over the design,” Dempsey says, “because I wanted it lighter. You get a big ol’ heavy shoe, you don’t have a lot of control over it.”

Dempsey, who played with the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Oilers and Buffalo Bills after leaving the Saints, says he donated all but two of his shoes to charity.

He is semi-retired after a long post-NFL career in auto sales.

“I had more winning field goals than most people know,” he says, assessing his NFL career. “Like anybody else, I screwed up a couple times too. But I thought I had a pretty darn good career. I was proud of what I did.”

But his party-launching 63-yard field goal seemed to dwarf everything else, for better and worse.

“Everybody expected another one every time I stepped on the field,” Dempsey says. “That made it tough.”

To secure long-lasting fame, however, once was enough.

jerome.crowe@latimes.com


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