That ref. I always notice that ref. I never saw another ref do that. The ball dives from the New Orleans sky to clear the crossbar so narrowly, and the ref rises from a studious kneel to give the "good" signal, but as he rises, he leaves his feet. He sort of leaps for the signal. He sort of embodies the frenzied disbelief.
That sound. I've always wondered how it must have sounded when that birth-defected half-foot struck that football. Turns out it did sound different from all other field goals. "Like a loud . . . kind of like a cannon going off, kind of like a loud gunshot," holder Joe Scarpati said Monday from New Jersey. "Like a little, solid thud, pretty significant. He really hit the ball solidly."
Those calls. I once stood in the Pro Football Hall of Fame pressing the button for the videotape, and Al Wester's call for Saints radio made me cry. Can you imagine, blubbering in a football museum? There's Wester's inhale while the ball roams the air and the din starts to mount in Tulane Stadium -- "It's on the waaaay . . . It is . . . Good! It's good! It's good! The Saints have won! The Saints have won! The stadium is wild! Dempsey is being mobbed! The time has run out, the Saints have won!" And over in the CBS booth, Don Criqui finished his rational chortle over an absurd 63-yard field-goal attempt and turned prescient. With the ball still in fresh descent, he said measuredly, "I don't believe this," just before ratcheting up his volume, also rationally.
We got a new "longest" field goal in NFL history on Sunday; we just did not get a new "greatest" one. The greatest remains unchanged with a great chance to remain so indefinitely. Matt Prater's 64-yard field goal in Denver on Sunday exceeds Tom Dempsey's 63-yard field goal in New Orleans on Nov. 8, 1970, but Dempsey's retains at least three stark advantages. For one, it did not trade on the unobtrusive air of Denver where three of the five 63-plus field goals have happened. For another, it came on the final play to win a game -- from behind -- rather than on the last play of a first half, as have all four other 63-and-beyonds.
And for another, Dempsey's kick is probably the most enchanting play in NFL history. While Prater is a marvel who went underpraised when he propped up "Tebowmania" with humongous kicks during Denver's loud fall run of 2011, the utmost value of his 64-yarder would be that it evokes Dempsey's 63-yarder.
Any day can improve when re-watching Dempsey's 63-yarder.
Of course, the very idea of Dempsey in the NFL still seems storybook even as, at 72, he lives with Alzheimer's in a retirement community in New Orleans. He was born without toes on his right foot and without four fingers on his right hand, yet leapt to the NFL through a San Diego community college, Palomar. "That's what made the kick special when a guy like him breaks a record, because he's such an inspiring guy," Scarpati said. "He's got half a foot. He was born that way, but he was encouraged to always try, and in college he played defensive tackle as well. His attitude made it extra special. You can't be down when you have a guy like him on your team."
It would take Dempsey through 11 seasons in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Houston and Buffalo, but he had only just started by a gray day in November 1970. Kicking straight-on as people tended to do while dinosaurs roamed the earth in those days, and before kickers became so bloody precise, he made 22-of-41 field goals in his rookie year of 1969. In 1970, which started late after a labor dispute, he went 2-for-11 his first four games and 5-for-15 his first seven before the playoff-bound Detroit Lions reached town in Week 8, the Saints still a toddler franchise in a fourth season at a clunky 1-5-1.
The Lions, of course, got an 18-yard field goal from Errol Mann with 11 seconds left for a 17-16 lead, before the Saints' Al Dodd returned a kickoff to the 28-yard line, then got out of bounds at the New Orleans 45 after a desperate 17-yard catch from Billy Kilmer. Two seconds remained. On went the field-goal unit, right there in head coach J.D. Roberts' debut game replacing the fired Tom Fears. Scarpati, a safety and a holder, recommended receiving the snap eight yards back rather than the usual seven to allow more room for loft just in case the Lions weren't incredulous, which they were. "I know when they lined up, they certainly didn't put forth any effort," Scarpati said.
In the organized chaos of the moment, nobody lining up thought about the 63 yards. (Remember, in those days of pterodactyls and such, goal posts rested upon goal lines.) Nobody knew it could make a record. Nobody knew it could pulverize the previous NFL record by a whopping seven yards, at least not until the merry locker room afterward. Everybody knew it was a long field goal, but everybody simply took their places before Jackie Burkett snapped well and Scarpati gave that ball a quarter-turn at inches beyond the Saints' 37-yard line. In CBS footage, the enormous thud of Dempsey's half-foot meeting football does seem audible.
Well, that football soared such that it roamed the sky on some singular arc as if to redefine possible field-goal trajectory. When gravity got the best of it and it dived down so hard, it fell barely beyond the bar. A referee sort of leapt. A startled stadium made the goose-bump noise that helps make sports worth the time. Broadcasters emoted.
Dempsey stood 4-for-5 on the day, toward 18-for-34 on the year and 159-for-258 for a career, but one of the 159 would carry on maybe even forever, a slice of magic that wreaked one carousing New Orleans night, spent 43 years and a month as a durable record and just had to be one of the best things anybody ever saw.