In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
The New Orleans Saints stun the Detroit Lions 19-17 at Tulane Stadium, winning on a record 63-yard field goal by Tom Dempsey. It was one of just two games the Saints would win all season on the way to posting a record of 2-11-1. The achievement was even more remarkable because Dempsey was born without toes on his right foot and more a specially modified shoe, with a flattened and enlarged toe surface.
On January 12, 1947, Tom Dempsey was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and raised in Southern California. After attending Palomar College in suburban San Diego, Dempsey was signed by the New Orleans Saints in 1969. He showed promise right away as he was selected as an NFL All-Pro in his first season. At the time, the Saints were still suffering the expansion blues and were one of the worst teams in the NFL.
Tom Dempsey’s career-defining moment came in the middle of the 1970 season; the Saints were the worst team in the NFC, playing the Detroit Lions, who were one of the top teams on the way to making the playoffs with a record of 10-4. At the time, goal posts were still at the front of the end zone, and a missed field goal would be handled like a punt, with the ball coming out to the 20-yard line like a touchback. Trailing 17-16 in the waning seconds at home, the Saints coached by J.D. Roberts rolled the dice in his own territory with two seconds left on the clock. Previously the longest field goal in NFL history was 56 yards by Bert Rechichar of the Baltimore Colts in a game against the Chicago Bears on September 27, 1953. As holder Joe Scarpati set up at the Saints' own 37-yard line, nobody thought Dempsey could make the kick, but the ball was struck well and made it just over the crossbar to give New Orleans a remarkable 19-17 win.
After the kick, some scoffed that Tom Dempsey’s special shoe gave him an unfair advantage to make the kick. However, Dempsey was no better than any other kicker in the NFL over the rest of his career. His straight-on kicking style would soon be replaced by soccer-style kicking, which later proved to help kickers get more distance and accuracy. Tom Dempsey would play in the NFL for a decade on five different teams, later playing with the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Oilers, and Buffalo Bills.
Tom Dempsey’s record would stand for 43 years. The record was initially equaled by Jason Elam of the Denver Broncos in 1998, Sebastian Janikowski of the Oakland Raiders in 2011, and David Akers of the San Francisco 49ers in 2012. The record finally fell on December 8, 2013, when Matt Prater of the Broncos nailed a 64-yard field goal against the Tennessee Titans at the end of the first half. All of the three tying field goals were also at the end of the first half making, as Tom Dempsey’s 63-yarder remains the longest game-winning field goal in NFL history. Also of note, two of the four field goals that matched or topped Dempsey were at altitude. In addition, Matt Prater was suspended shortly after breaking the record for using performance-enhancing drugs. The record was extended again in 2021, with Justin Tucker kicking a 66-yard field goal against the Lions to give the Baltimore Ravens a 19-17 win, in a case of deja vu.