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Barry Hirstius

BLAST FROM THE PAST: The Day the Saints Shocked the Lions — and the World

As the New Orleans Saints prepare to face the Detroit Lions for the 26th time in the franchise's history tomorrow at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it's hard to be a Saints fan older than the age of 50 and not think back to the events of November 8th, 1970.

It was a day that the young New Orleans Saints franchise — then only in its 4th year of existence — shocked the heavily favored Detroit Lions and in the process, shocked the entire sports world.

But HOW they did it, is why it became such a "big deal".

The venue was the old Tulane Stadium in uptown New Orleans located then on the Tulane University campus, where the Saints played their games for the franchise's first 8 seasons in the League.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press Archives

The Lions at that particular point in time came into the game with a (5-2) record, and were considered Playoff contenders in the NFC Central Division, right behind the Minnesota Vikings and their famous "Purple People Eaters" defense.

The Saints on the other hand, were going NOWHERE.

They had just fired their first-ever head coach Tom Fears, who in his 4th season since taking the job when the team first began playing in the 1967 season, had an overall record of 13 wins, 34 losses, and 2 ties to his credit.

The Saints were (1-5-1) after losing to the Rams at home in Tulane Stadium the week before, and then-Saints owner John Mecom, Jr. decided that he had finally seen enough.

After firing Fears, the Saints head coaching job was given to offensive line coach John David "J.D." Roberts; who as a player had been an All-American offensive tackle at Oklahoma and had been hired to coach the Saints O-Line earlier that year by Fears.

But other than a gig as the head coach of the Richmond (Virginia) Roadrunners, a minor-league team; Roberts had ZERO coaching experience in the professional ranks.

Photo courtesy of Robert T. Steiner, The Associated Press

Mecom could have simply rode out that 1970 season and found himself another head coach like Los Angeles Rams head coach George Allen, who himself was fired later that year after failing to get the Rams to the Super Bowl after winning 4 straight division championships.

But instead, he followed his impulses (which was WHY the Saints sucked in those days) and ignored advice given to him by other knowledgeable front office personnel men from the NFL — and fired Fears anyway.

So as the team entered into Tulane Stadium on that fateful day of November 8th, 1970; they were HUGE "underdogs", mostly in part because they were a very BAD football team playing their in their first game under a new head coach.

But sometimes, history doesn't always "follow the script".

Late in the 4th Quarter, the Lions had just taken a 17-16 lead on then-kicker Errol Mann's 18-yard field goal with 14 seconds remaining. On the ensuing kickoff, Saints WR Al Dodd returned the ball up to the Saints 28 yard line; which still left them a good 35 to 40 yards away, from any sort of a field goal attempt.

On first down, then-Saints QB Billy Kilmer threw a 17-yard completion to Dodd, who made a fantastic catch and managed to keep his toes in on the field of play before falling out of bounds on the sidelines at the Saints' 45.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press Archives

That left ONLY two seconds remaining in the game.

Everyone in the entire building was expecting some type of a "Hail Mary" pass, except that the Saints brand new offensive line coach, the late Don Heinrich (who had just taken over that role from Roberts) surprisingly called for the field-goal team to go out on the field.

A hush came over the stadium and then a low murmur, as Saints fans in attendance began talking amongst themselves and wondering: "Are they REALLY going to try to kick it from there???"

Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Saints

"There" was the Saints 45, on THEIR OWN side of the field; which would make it a 63-yard attempt. But also remember: back in those days, the goal posts were still on the goal line itself and not right behind the end zone; where the NFL moved them to in 1974.

On came the Saints field goal unit and their kicker, Tom Dempsey.

Dempsey was born without toes on his right foot and no fingers on his right hand. To play in the NFL, he had to wear a special modified shoe with a flattened and enlarged toe surface.

This special shoe had generated controversy from people around the League at that time, as to whether or not such a shoe gave Dempsey an unfair advantage — since it essentially could be used like a club in golf.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press Archives

But the NFL made the judgement that it it did not; and it's debatable that back in those days, if whether or not the image-conscious League didn't want to be seen as discriminating against a physically-handicapped individual.

Nevertheless, on came Dempsey and the Saints field goal unit for the unbelievable field goal attempt.

Dempsey had actually made kicks before from as far away as 65 yards, but only during practice. He wasn't exactly the most accurate kicker in the world, but the Saints kept him around in those days because his leg was unbelievably strong.

But yet, this kick was still from 63 yards out; and no one in the stadium realistically thought that he was ever going to make it.

NFL legend has it that as Dempsey and the Saints field goal unit trotted out onto the field, Lions All-Pro defensive tackle Alex Karras turned to the head referee in that game, Jim Tunney; and said:  "You've got to be sh*tting me!

Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated

In an interview article written by New York Daily News writer Wayne Coffey back in 1995, Dempsey told Coffey: "If I'd known it was 63 yards, I might have messed it up." 

Saints wide receiver Danny Abramowicz was disgusted. "I thought we were nuts," Abramowicz said.

Lions head coach Joe Schmidt told his offensive line coach (and future NFL head coach) Chuck Knox that "If they kick this field goal, I'll kiss your ass in Hudson's window". (Hudson's at that time was a famous department store in the state of Michigan, sort of a Midwest version of the now nationally-famous Macy's department stores).

As a precaution, Schmidt had Lem Barney, the Lions' All-Pro defensive back at that time, drop back to play "centerfield", anticipating a fake.

Dempsey went and stood at his designated spot, as Saints safety (and designated holder on place kicks) Joe Scarpati kneeled down to take the snap of the ball.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press Archives

As the ball was snapped, Dempsey almost hesitated a bit — as if he was trying to give himself a bit more of a head start so that he could put more power into the kick, as he swung his right foot to make contact with the football.

Then what happened is what everyone that was there that day remembers vividly: the SOUND of Dempsey's foot, hitting the ball.

"There was a big boom, like a really loud thud," Scarpati said. "I don't think I'll ever forget it."

Over on the opposing sideline, Schmidt and the Lions heard the same thing. "It sounded almost like an explosion when he hit it," Schmidt said. "That ball just kept going and going."

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Dempsey told Coffey that he didn't recall having any type of a revelation of his own, prior to the kick. He simply just kicked the ball the same way that he had always done, during practice or in any other game situation. 

"It just had the feeling you get when everything is right," he said. "You feel it the second you hit it."

As the ball BARELY cleared the cross bar by the slimmest of margins (maybe a half an inch), a sold-out Tulane Stadium crowd full of 80,000 plus screaming Saints fans EXPLODED in unison.

The Saints had won the game 19-17, giving J.D. Roberts his first-ever win as an NFL head coach on his first try. For Dempsey, it was an NFL record; which stood for 43 years until it was broken in 2013 by then-Denver Broncos kicker Matt Prater  — who ironically is now the Lions current kicker, and will face the Saints tomorrow in the Superdome.

Unfortunately as fate would have it, the Saints' success did not carry over following Dempsey's miracle kick.

A 21-10 loss the next week to the Miami Dolphins started a six-game losing streak; and the Saints finished their otherwise forgettable season at (2-11-1).

Meanwhile, the Lions would finish (10-4) and in 2nd place (behind Minnesota) in the NFC Central Division for the 1970 campaign. They went on to qualify for the Playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons (since their only NFL championship season in 1957), as the Wild Card team and were eliminated by the Dallas Cowboys. 

Photo courtesy of Sara Essex Bradley, The New York Times

Eventually in 1977, the NFL added a rule, informally known as the “Tom Dempsey Rule" — which stated that “any shoe that is worn by a player with an artificial limb on his kicking leg must have a kicking surface that conforms to that of a normal kicking shoe.”

Dempsey retired after the 1979 season, and although he originally grew up in Southern California; now at age 70 lives in the New Orleans area (where he has lived since retiring) and currently resides in the suburb known as "Old Jefferson"; not far from Riverdale High School in Jefferson Parish. He leads a quiet life with his wife of over 40 years, and their adult daughter and Grandson.

But for Saints fans, especially the ones who were either in attendance at Tulane Stadium or just remember where they were that day, the events of November 8th, 1970, will NEVER be forgotten.

It was the day that the Saints shocked the Detroit Lions — and the entire world.......

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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