The coronavirus has caused widespread sickness and heartache. Now, it is stealing memories. Those who made the memories.
When Tom Dempsey recently died, taken by complications from COVID-19, passing at age 73, it rattled my sports soul. A hundred records have been set and broken and re-set in football over the past 50 years, and I only paid slight attention to many of them. But Dempsey’s record 63-yard field goal, kicked for the New Orleans Saints against the Detroit Lions to win a game in the final seconds, stands out. Why?
It just does. There’s no explaining these things. They are what they are.
And Dempsey’s kick was absolutely memorable.
It happened on Nov. 8, 1970, a time in my young life when the NFL, for me, was king. I didn’t live in New Orleans, wasn’t at the game, nor was I a Saints or Lions fan. But watching that game-winner drop through the uprights, back when the goalposts were supported smack dab in the middle of the end zone, the crossbar at the goal line, all as the Lions’ players were laughing from their sideline at the ridiculous attempt, was remarkable, amazing, unforgettable.
I saw it on a grainy TV set, watching from my family’s home on the East Coast. And when it happened, my mind took a picture of the whole thing. Maybe you’ve experienced something similar, inside or out of sports. But for whatever reason, sports seems to stir, sharpen and enhance those kinds of snapshots. In fact, a lot of us mark the paths of our lives with such mileposts.
In 1970, I was a young teenager, trying to figure out not just the world, but my place in it, stuck between important events of the day — the war in Vietnam was still raging, and so were the protests, including the demonstration that ended in tragedy at Kent State — and silly ones, wondering, for instance, whether Karen, a friend, wanted to be more than just a friend, whatever that meant. The Concorde had made its first supersonic flight that year, and the Boeing 747 jumbo jet completed its initial commercial trip. The Beatles had broken up. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin had died. The voting age in the United States was lowered to 18, and I got an NHL table hockey game as a birthday gift. Oh, and Brazil, led by Pele, won the World Cup.
And I remember Dempsey, the dude who made his way to the NFL in spite of missing fingers on his right hand and toes on his right foot from birth, wearing that sawed-off shoe that some people thought was a disadvantage and others an advantage, booting a field goal that didn’t seem possible.
Dempsey — who carried the nickname “Stumpy” among members of the team — later called the feeling in the moments immediately after the make, as he was being mobbed by his teammates, “glorious.”
Funny thing about that, I discovered later, was that Dempsey and the Saints finished the season with six straight losses. And the record-setting kicker, whose image was placed on the cover of the team’s media guide the next season, was cut during the preseason. He went on to play for a bunch of other teams, including the Eagles and Rams, the Oilers and Bills.
But the picture of him stutter-stepping before unloading on the ball, kicking from directly behind it, has stayed with me, and probably a whole lot of other people who saw it.
It’s a milepost, a life marker. A cool, happy one.
The current sad-and-sorry pandemic will mark many people’s lives, too.
It took Dempsey’s. It is said he had been suffering from dementia and Alzheimers and was in a care facility in New Orleans when he died on Saturday, having contracted the virus about a week before.
Dempsey’s record was broken in 2013 by the Broncos’ Matt Prater, who hit a 64-yarder in the thin Rocky Mountain air. I can barely remember that. But the image of the man who overcame his defects and difficulties to win a game for his team and set a memory for thousands of others with a single kick a half-century ago is now a memory himself.
May he rest in peace.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.