The man with half a foot and a stump for an arm trotted onto the field at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans on Nov. 8, 1970. The least likely pro football record holder was a pudgy, roly-poly man with what looked like a block of wood for a right foot.
As Tom Dempsey strode onto the field, with two seconds remaining and the ball on his Saints’ 44-yard line, his team trailing the Lions, 17-16, chortles began in the Lions defensive huddle.
Alex Karras has confirmed it, on many occasions. He and his teammates openly mocked the Saints and Dempsey for attempting a 63-yard field goal, when the current record was merely 56 yards.
But the Saints only needed three points for the win, and new coach J.D. Roberts (he took over for the fired Tom Fears that week) figured the chances were just as good, if not better, of Dempsey getting a good “foot” into one, rather than tossing a Hail Mary pass.
So the Saints lined up for the kick. In Dempsey’s own words, as told to the Detroit Free Press’s George Puscas back in 1992, “The goalposts looked far away.”
Dempsey’s kick was square and true. His club foot made a sound like a cannon going off, according to those who were there that day, when it made contact with the football.
The pigskin traveled like a missile instead of a kicked football. It didn’t really go end-over-end, like a normal kick. Rather, Dempsey’s shot kind of sailed with the ends of the ball parallel to the field. Only at the very end did it return to end-over-end status, and plopped just over the crossbar.
The Saints beat the Lions, 19-17. Karras, who moments earlier was among the mockers, had actually tried his damndest to block the kick but barely missed it with his outstretched hand.
It was impossible for old goats like yours truly to not flash back to that November day in 1970 when Sebastian Janikowski jogged onto the field in Oakland on Sunday, preparing to swing his left foot into a 65-yard field goal attempt.
The CBS announcer in New Orleans was Don Criqui.
“Dempsey will set a new National Football League record,” Criqui said into the microphone, which can be relived courtesy of YouTube. “In addition to winning the game.”
Janikowski would have set a new National Football League record with his kick. In addition to winning the game.
Could the Detroit Lions fall victim to such crapola twice?
If any franchise could, it would be the Lions, right?
Not this time.
Ndamukong Suh, compared by myself earlier this season to the great DT Karras, succeeded where old no. 71 failed. Suh blocked Janikowski’s kick, causing it to flutter harmlessly away from the goalposts.
And the Lions had sealed an improbable 28-27 win.
In the euphoria of such a win, i.e. the 24 hours or so after it happens, it’s easy to overstate its importance, and its place in history.
It’s so easy for those who rap on keyboards and who blab into sports talk radio microphones to get overly giddy about a win like Sunday’s, in which the Lions trailed by 13 points with 7:47 remaining.
Go ahead. Get giddy. Everyone has my permission.
This wasn’t just a win, after all. The bloggers and radio hosts are right this time.
The Lions franchise has turned the corner, I tell you. Four comeback wins of 13-plus points in the same season—never before done in the 90-plus year history of the NFL.
It’s a team that can look maddeningly undisciplined and neutralized on the one hand, but then look like a juggernaut on the other.
But the NFL is perhaps the most “bottom line” of all the four major pro sports leagues. There are only 16 regular season games, and every one of them is the most important game of the year, starting with opening day.
So the only thing that matters in the NFL is this: did you win, or did you lose?
The Lions have been able to say they won nine times this season. Which, after 14 games, puts them on the precipice of their first playoff appearance since the 20th century (1999).
The Lions are winning games this season like they’ve never won before. And the best part is that they haven’t really lost like they used to lose, i.e., games they shouldn’t have lost.
Look at who’s beaten the Lions this season.
The 49ers, who are 10-3.
The Falcons, who are 9-5.
The Bears, who were riding a hot streak at the time.
The Packers. Enough said.
The Saints, who are 11-3.
So it’s not like the Lions are losing to chopped liver.
You win for a reason in the NFL, and, more telling, you lose for a reason, too.
No team can look at its record after 16 games and say that luck or flukes played a factor.
You’re 3-13 for a reason. And, conversely, you’re 13-3 for a reason as well.
The Lions are 9-5 and that’s that. They are a 9-5 team for a reason.
And they are tantalizingly close to that elusive playoff appearance. A winning record is already secured, their first since 2000.
Also in the 20th century, by the way.
The Lions are, like so many teams in the NFL, a flawed, imperfect platoon. They are capable of so much greatness, and so much exasperating play, too.
Just like every other team in the league, even the Packers.
A win like Sunday’s in Oakland can do so much for the psyche of a football team, just like the crazy comeback wins engineered over the Vikings and Cowboys earlier this season, on successive weeks, both on the road.
Matthew Stafford leading a 99-yard drive with just over two minutes to play, sans timeouts, brazenly throwing the football to the man who everyone in the stadium knows shouldn’t beat you (Calvin Johnson), was like Justin Verlander striking out three straight All-Stars with first base open to seal a win.
It shouldn’t happen. But it did.
Stafford is the best quarterback not named Bobby Layne in Lions history. Already.
He’s just getting started, and when you look at the Lions’ young talent and developing depth, it’s hard not to say the same thing about this team.
Go ahead, get giddy. It’s about damn time.