Monday, November 8, 2010

Longest Field Goal Still on Record Books

If you follow football, you know that field goals can be very important.

But, unless somebody kicks a game–winner in the last seconds, field goals don't get the same attention as touchdown runs and passes. That's understandable. They aren't worth as much — although there have been proposals that would add to the value for especially long field goals in recognition of their increased difficulty.

That's something I can support — kind of like the three–point shot in basketball. Reward kickers for doing something special. I guess I have a little recent personal motivation to say that. The kicker for my alma mater, the University of Arkansas, nailed a 51–yard field goal on Saturday.

That's the longest field goal that has been kicked at Arkansas in nearly 20 years. But it wasn't the game–winner. It came in the middle of a game that turned into something of a rout for the Razorbacks so it didn't get a lot of attention.

That, in turn, reminded me of when I worked on the sports desk at the Arkansas Gazette.

The Gazette is no longer in business, but, when I was there, we took a lot of high school football game accounts over the phone from stringers and such on Friday nights.

The newspaper served the whole state, and we didn't have enough reporters on the entire staff — let alone the sports side — to physically attend every high school game.

And we sure didn't have enough space for extensive articles on every game. Most of the time, we had to settle for a couple of paragraphs that mentioned the score, a couple of the outstanding players or the game–winning play and the teams' records.

That was about it.

I guess it goes without saying that the phone calls we took on those very busy Friday nights didn't last too long.

Anyway, one of the fellows on the staff used to love to come up with nicknames for players in game accounts he took over the phone — and sometimes he would try to sneak one into print. Typically, the nicknames he thought of were ones that were given, originally, to the gridiron legends of the 1940s and 1950s.

Those of us on the copy desk learned to be particularly alert for these nicknames, and we caught a lot of them. We didn't catch them all, but we tried. It helped if you were familiar with football history.

You know the kind of stuff I mean. If a kid kicked a game–winning field goal on the last play of the game, this guy wanted to nickname him "The Toe." If a guy ran for a lot of yards, he wanted to nickname him "Crazy Legs."

If I think about it, I can see him in my mind's eye, chuckling as he read the first paragraph in such a blurb he had written when he saw it on a page proof: "Joe (The Toe) Smith kicked a 31–yard field goal as time ran out to lift Little Rock Catholic to a victory over Little Rock Central ..."

The nickname was his inside joke. If it was a somewhat obscure nickname, he knew he had a good chance of getting away with it because the copy desk might not know that the nickname wasn't legitimate, that a coach or a teacher or whoever called in the score hadn't said it was the player's real nickname, that it was actually an homage.

Kim, you rascal.

He particularly loved that nickname "The Toe." I worked on the Gazette sports staff for four football seasons, and I think that is the nickname he mentioned more often than any other.

If you're a fan of football, you may know that the original "The Toe" was Lou Groza, an NFL kicker in the 1950s and 1960s who also played offensive tackle. He spent his whole professional career with the Cleveland Browns, and a writer for the Cleveland Press gave him that nickname.

Groza was a prolific kicker. He kicked game–winning field goals in pressure situations. He led the NFL in field goals five times. But today is the anniversary of something that even he, as successful as he was, never achieved.

Forty years ago today, Tom Dempsey kicked a 63–yard field goal for the New Orleans Saints against the Detroit Lions, setting an NFL record that has not been exceeded, only matched.

There were a few things about this field goal that made it unique.

For one thing, the right–footed Dempsey was born without any toes on his right foot. He wore a special shoe that was believed by some to give him an unfair advantage.

(Some might argue that going through life with half the toes one is supposed to have qualifies as a disadvantage.)

The shoe Dempsey wore on that day, incidentally, can be seen at the New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame.

For another, the Saints and the Lions were nothing like their modern incarnations. The Saints of 1970 were a young, struggling expansion squad while the Lions were on their way to the playoffs as the NFC's first wild–card team.

It was to be — at least, when compared to the next four decades — a rare postseason appearance for Detroit. At the time, though, the Lions were considered a competitive franchise that was usually included in any conversation about Super Bowl contenders.

Nevertheless, Dempsey's kick handed the win to New Orleans.

Ironically, Dempsey's record–setting field goal came eight days before the first anniversary of another team field goal record he set. On Nov. 16, 1969, against the New York Giants, Dempsey kicked six field goals in a single game, more than any other kicker in New Orleans history, as the Saints won by a single point.

In these days of political correctness, some people seem to believe that the way to handle an unpleasant truth is to change the language used to describe that truth — or ignore it completely.

I won't dispute the importance of language, but I think what is really needed is more role models who have overcome the barriers they faced — physical disabilities, prejudices of any kind, etc. — and achieved great things.

We need more people who will inspire us with their accomplishments.

More Tom (The Toe) Dempseys.

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