Readers often ask: In all the years of writing sports what is the most amazing single athletic feat you have seen?
Good question. I have seen some stuff.
I saw Ray Guy’s 93-yard punt that rolled through the opposite end zone and into a chainlink fence, more than 115 yards from where he had kicked it. I saw Walter Payton break about 10 tackles on one run. I saw Brett Favre throw a 40-yard bullet his receiver said he heard coming. I saw Jerry Rice run a crossing pattern and reach back behind him with one hand and snatch the ball, in stride, no more than a foot off the ground. He kept going. I don’t know how. I saw Pete Maravich score 69 points in a basketball game (and if there had been a 3-point line, it might have been 80).
I saw all that and a lot more. But: The most amazing?
Let’s go back to Nov. 8, 1970. I was a just-turned-18-year-old sports writer, working full-time and going to college freshman classes when I could. Earlier that fall, I had watched 50-point underdog Southern Miss, where I went to school, shock undefeated and No. 4 Ole Miss 30-14 at Oxford. So I thought I had seen my one miracle for that 1970. Little did I know . . .
The then-hapless New Orleans Saints were hosting the Detroit Lions at old Tulane Stadium. My father decided to go to the game with me. It was a humid, gray day in New Orleans, shirt-sleeve weather in November. We sat in that rickety, old, open-air Tulane Stadium press box, Dad to my right and to his right was the supervisor of NFL officials. Naturally, they argued about officiating calls the entire game.
J.D. Roberts, a friend of Dad’s and a semi-pro coach until that week, had become the Saints interim head coach five days earlier. His task was next-to-impossible: Make the Saints respectable. 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 miserable team. Fiddle-farting was the perfect term Dad used to describe the way the Saints played football. Most Sundays, in those days, the Saint fiddle-farted to the finish.
And so they did for that day, as well. Funny thing: The Lions were fiddle-farting, too. And so it was that with two seconds remaining, the Lions led the New Orleans Saints 17-16. This was also back when NFL goalposts were on the goal line. The Saints had the ball just shy of their own 45-yard line. Time for one play, almost surely a Hail Mary pass, as if the Saints had a quarterback who could throw the ball that far. I am fairly certain Billy Kilmer, the Saints quarterback at the time, could not.
Instead, Roberts sent out Tom Dempsey, a huge, heavyset man, who, due to a birth defect, had half a right foot and was missing four fingers of his right hand. “Stubby” was what his teammates called Tom Dempsey. Nobody in NFL history, to that point, had kicked a field goal of longer than 55 yards. Remember, this was at sea-level New Orleans, on a humid day. There was no wind. As the Saints lined up, my dad muttered, “You’ve got to be (kidding) me.”
The snap was perfect. Holder Joe Scarpatti placed the ball down on the Saints 37 and Dempsey, straight-on, approached the ball and swung that huge right leg with that half a right foot. The Lions didn’t even bother to rush. There was a brief silence in that old stadium as the ball kept going and going and going. And then, the place exploded, as somehow, the ball sailed over the crossbar with not more than an inch to spare. I turned to look at Dad and he was high-fiving the NFL officials supervisor.
Two nights later, when asked by Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” why he didn’t rush the kick, Alex Karras, the great Lions defensive lineman and, later, Mongo in “Blazing Saddles,” answered, “Hell, I was laughing too hard. The very idea of a 63-yard field goal.”
The crowd stayed and cheered long after the game then headed, seemingly en masse, to the French Quarter. So did Dempsey, who told me years later, “We partied all night, and I didn’t have to buy a single drink.”
Dad had work the next day. I had work and school. When we got to the car, he said, “Home or the French Quarter?”
We opted for the Quarter, figuring we’d never forgive ourselves if we didn’t. We left New Orleans after midnight, people still dancing in the streets.