The 1970 Lions were sunk by 63-yard field goal

Saints’ kicker Tom Dempsey kicks an NFL-record 63-yard field goal against the Lions in 1970.

With a record of 10-4, the 1970 Detroit Lions finished in second place in the NFC Central for the 1970 campaign. They qualified for the postseason for the first time in 13 seasons, since their championship season in 1957, as the NFC Central Division Wild Card playoff team, and matched up against the Dallas Cowboys. Both defenses were able to stop and frustrate each other all day long.

The Lions fell to the Cowboys, 5-0, in the lowest scoring game in NFL playoff history.

But the story for the Lions that year took place a few weeks earlier, on November 8, at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. The Saints were in their fourth year of existence; their record coming into the game was 1-5-1, while the Lions came in at 5-2, having lost the week before to their NFC rivals, the Minnesota Vikings.

With two seconds to go in the game and the Lions holding onto a slim 17-16 lead, Tom Dempsey came in to attempt a game-winning field goal. Dempsey was born without toes on his right foot and no fingers on his right hand. He wore a modified shoe with a flattened and enlarged toe surface.

Holder Joe Scarpati spotted the ball on the Saints’ 37 yard line (prior to 1974 the goal posts in the NFL were on the goal lines instead of the end lines), which would make the kick 63 yards. He was kicking from a dirt surface churned up like a battlefield. The snap from center Jackie Burkett was a good one, Dempsey stepped to the ball and swung his leg. The ball cut through the thick, humid New Orleans air toward the closed end of Tulane Stadium, into an unpredictable swirling wind … to split the uprights with a couple feet to spare. The kick, which shattered the old mark of 56 yards, set in 1953 by Colts’ place kicker, Bert Rechichar, has since been equaled several times, but surpassed only once, in 2002, when Ola Kimrin, then playing for the Denver Broncos, kicked a 65-yard field goal in a preseason game.

The Saints finished their otherwise forgettable season at 2-11-1, while the Lions would make the playoffs.

Controversy ensued over whether Dempsey’s shoe had given him an unfair advantage. When asked about it, Dempsey replied, “Unfair, eh? How ’bout you try kickin’ a sixty-three-yard field goal to win it with two seconds left an’ yer wearin’ a square shoe. Oh, yeah, and no toes either.”

Defensive tackle, Alex Karras, glib about the loss, quipped, “We thought they were going to kick it the other way.”

Analysis of Dempsey’s shoe was later carried out by ESPN Sport Science, which reported that his modified shoe gave him no advantage, going so far as to claim that the smaller contact area could in fact have increased the margin of error.

The NFL was unconvinced. In 1977, they added a rule, informally known as the “Tom Dempsey Rule,” which states that “any shoe that is worn by a player with an artificial limb on his kicking leg must have a kicking surface that conforms to that of a normal kicking shoe.”

Dempsey retired after the 1979 season and his 63-yard field goal has never been surpassed, though it has been matched on two occasions, most recently by David Akers of the San Francisco 49ers earlier this year.

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About J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest is the author of The Cobb Legacy, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, and other novels. He resides in Northville. Visit him at www.jconradguest.com.