The Last Days of 63

IN THE 42 YEARS SINCE TOM DEMPSEY KICKED THE LONGEST FIELD GOAL IN NFL HISTORY, HIS MARK HAS BEEN MATCHED THREE TIMES, BUT NEVER SURPASSED. NOW THE MOST MYSTERIOUSLY ENDURING RECORD IN SPORTS MAY FINALLY BE RIPE TO FALL (LEGATRON, ANYONE?)
October 29, 2012

He was just a kid of 23 on that early November afternoon more than four decades ago, unaware of the aging professional football record that he was about to challenge. Tom Dempsey, the Saints' second-year kicker, was still emerging from the hangover fog of a long night's heavy drinking with teammates, and he was thinking about a date he'd made with a young woman named Carlene Baker (whom he would marry seven months later). On the field at Tulane Stadium, the playoff-bound Lions had gone ahead of the woeful Saints 17--16 on an 18-yard field goal by Errol Mann with 11 seconds to play, and Al Dodd had just returned the kickoff to New Orleans's 28-yard line. On the sideline Dempsey heard the voice of special teams coach Don Heinrich. Tell Stumpy to get ready to kick a long one. That was Dempsey's nickname—he had been born without any full toes on his right foot and with a withered, fingerless sapling of a right arm. The Saints ran one play, quarterback Billy Kilmer completing a 17-yard pass to Dodd, who caught the ball falling out of bounds in front of New Orleans's bench. There were two seconds left.

Holder Joe Scarpati, a seventh-year defensive back who was playing in his final NFL season, knelt on his left knee at the Saints' 37-yard line, 63 yards from the goalposts, which back then were on the goal line, not at the back of the end zone. The daunting distance was seven yards farther than the record 56-yarder that the Colts' Bert Rechichar kicked in 1953. The turf was pale brown and dusty, worn from overuse and neglect, a poor kicking surface.

Dempsey took a stutter-step, then two long strides forward—he was an old school, straight-on kicker—and he swung his deformed right foot, which on game days was encased in a custom kicking shoe with a thick, horseshoe-shaped hunk of leather on the front. On CBS's regional broadcast of the game, play-by-play announcer Don Criqui was silent for the snap. Then, as the ball sailed through the autumn air: "I don't believe this...."

It can't be long now. We have surely reached the last days of 63, one of the most stubbornly and strangely enduring records in any sport. Dempsey's kick died in the air just inches past the crossbar and fell to earth like a buckshot mallard dropping into a flat-water pond. The stadium erupted. Stumpy was hoisted onto his teammates' shoulders and carried from the field to the locker room, where New Orleans police eventually brought him two cases of Dixie beer, sating his renewed thirst while the crowd dissipated. The record kick was stunning in the moment, a Beamon-esque performance that skipped a generation of steady progression.

Sixty-three should have fallen years ago, as kickers became deadeye snipers—more explosive, more accurate and better schooled from a younger age—but the record remains intact, shared by a logjam of four kickers across 42 years. It has been protected by circumstance, strategy, worship at the altar of field position and, in no small part, the inherent challenge in guiding a football 63 yards through an opening 10 feet off the ground and 18 feet, 6 inches wide—a task that has become far simpler but not yet simple. "Whatever you say," reasons Morten Andersen, who in 25 seasons with five NFL teams became the league's alltime leading scorer and made field goals from 60 and 59 yards, "it's still a hell of a long way."

Since Dempsey's kick, in a stadium long since razed, there have been at least 23 NFL field goals attempted from 64 yards or farther. ("At least" because there is no comprehensive statistical record of missed field goals.) Those 23 kicks represent one record attempt roughly every 415 games, or a little less than once every one- and-a-half seasons. The first potential record-breaker was a 71-yarder by the Giants' Joe Danelo in 1971; the most recent was a 64-yard try by the Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski on Sunday, the second record-threatening shot this season. Greg Zuerlein, the Rams' rookie sensation, sent a 66-yarder wide left on Oct. 14 in Miami. "I figured it would be long enough," says Zuerlein, whose 60- and 58-yarders in a 19--13 win over Seattle earned him the nickname Legatron. "But my kicks all day were going left."

The number 63 has a life of its own, a poor man's version of DiMaggio's 56 or Wilt's 100. When Zuerlein was a high school kicker in Lincoln, Neb., his coach instructed him to look up 63 online. Packers kicker Mason Crosby, a six-year veteran who has hit from 58 yards and in 2008 came up just short on a 69-yard free kick (which can be taken following a fair catch, though it's rarely used), says, "That number has been out there for so long, it almost defines strategy. Like coaches are thinking, Someone made a 63, so that's about as far as we should try."

Says Andersen, "It's the magic number, man."

Jason Hanson, who at age 42 has been the Lions' kicker for 21 seasons and who has made 51 field goals from 50 yards or farther, says, "It's like the four-minute mile—it's just been sitting out there. A few guys have gotten to it; nobody has gone beyond. But it's not insurmountable. That 63 is going to fall."

In the meantime, the number's longevity has turned two digits into a cult and made brothers in history of four kickers. In New Orleans, Dempsey, now 65, battles early dementia that might have been caused by concussions in his football career. His record kick is a rare vibrant spot in his fading memory. Thirty-five hundred miles northwest, deep on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, far from anyone's mainstream, Jason Elam, who kicked his 63 for the Broncos in 1998, raises five children and seldom accesses his football memories at all.

Two of the record holders are still playing. In Oakland, Janikowski, who made his 63 last season, lives an increasingly sedate life that's far from the miscreant adventures of his youth. His record-tying kick fulfilled a thunderfoot tag slapped on him as a teenager transplanted from Poland to Florida. And in San Francisco, David Akers, who made his 63 on the opening weekend of this season in Green Bay, prolongs a brilliant career, one that has already been rescued from deep wells of rejection and failure.

The digits connect them. For another week, at least, they are members of an exclusive club.

TULANE STADIUM, NEW ORLEANS

November 8, 1970

Dempsey's kick is the only one of the four 63s to win a game. His came five days after the Saints, a fourth-year franchise, had fired popular coach Tom Fears and replaced him with J.D. Roberts, whom New Orleans's players disliked. The Saints were 1-5-1 coming in; the Lions were 5--2, and their season would end in a bizarre 5--0 playoff loss to the Super Bowl--bound Cowboys. One historical footnote: Statistical rules enacted after Dempsey's kick would have deemed it a 62-yarder because, while the Saints had not reached the 38-yard line, they were fully beyond the 37. The NFL long ago chose not to recalibrate Dempsey's kick.

"We went out till about 3:30 the night before because they fired our coach. Then I kicked four field goals. I didn't know how far [the record breaker] was. I knew it was a long way. My holder moved us back a yard so I could kick it low. All my life I had great holders. I knew I hit it well. I saw one of the officials jump up and raise his hands. I didn't know it was the record until somebody told me. I was happy to hear it. The whole thing was fun."

The big man is anxiously walking up and down the sidewalk in front of his small New Orleans home, awaiting visitors. In 2005 he was flooded out of his old place in Metairie by Hurricane Katrina and lost a lot of his personal memorabilia. Now he lives here with his wife of 41 years; their daughter, Ashley (one of Tom and Carlene's three grown children); and Ashley's son, 13-year-old Dylan. Dempsey is wearing a black T-shirt honoring former Saints safety Steve Gleason, who has Lou Gehrig's disease, and a big, black felt hat. He played at 6'2", 255 pounds, and still looks all of it. Almost instantly he launches into a series of disconnected rants against various villains: NFL bureaucrats, Democrats, Junior Seau's doctors....

There had been a warning. "He's not doing well, health-wise," said Ken Trahan, G.M. of the Saints' Hall of Fame and a longtime friend. Despite Dempsey's physical limitations, he was a football player, not just a kicker. He played linebacker at Palomar College in Southern California, where he would occasionally poke his arm stump into an opponent's helmet or groin. In the NFL he covered kicks, often launching the crown of his helmet at opponents, and he says he sustained multiple concussions.

"He's got dementia," says Dr. Gregory Stewart, director of the Neurological Care Program at Tulane's Institute of Sports Medicine. "He's having memory problems ... some emotional instability. We can't make him better, but we can make him function better." Dempsey's doctors find that he works best with a schedule, so they help him set alarms on his phone and give him cognitive drills, like writing out his address five times every day.

But what seems to help Dempsey most is going back in time. "Memories are laid down and ingrained," says Stewart. "Tom is very comfortable going back to his kick. It helps him cover. If he didn't have that, he might be in a lot of trouble."

Sure enough, when Dempsey takes a seat in his narrow galley kitchen and begins talking football, his demeanor changes. No longer suspicious or excited, he falls into easy monologues and tales from years ago: how he first kicked barefoot, how he once played guard for a semipro team in Massachusetts, how the shoemakers wanted his boot heavy when he wanted it light. How in his last year in the league, with the Bills in 1979, he and assistant coach Elijah Pitts would soak Red Man leaf tobacco in whiskey, freeze it, and pop in a plug during bitter cold practices. He is alive in the telling.

Sixty-three? "I'm not mad that those other guys kicked it," he says. "Someday [a longer kick] will happen."

MILE HIGH STADIUM, DENVER

October 25, 1998

The Broncos were in the middle of an ungodly roll. They had beaten the Packers nine months earlier in Super Bowl XXXII, and now, in what would be John Elway's final season, they were 6--0 coming off a bye week and leading the Jaguars 24--10 just before the half. Facing fourth-and-three at the Jacksonville 40, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan sent out his punt team on the assumption that his opponents would call a timeout. But when the Jags did not, the clock ran down to four seconds. Shanahan took a delay-of-game penalty, moving the ball back to the 45, and sent out Jason Elam.

"I pulled a hamstring a couple weeks earlier, so Shanahan was testing me all week, pushing me back. I made 63s Wednesday and Thursday. Honestly, if I hadn't pulled that hamstring and Mike hadn't tested me, I don't know that I would have gotten the chance. But when the referee moved the ball back, the crowd got really loud. Right before the snap, my holder, Tom Rouen, looked back and said, 'You know this is for the record, right?' I swung as hard as I could. Elway ran out. Shannon Sharpe too. Pretty cool time."

It takes some work to reach Elam in 2012. The 42-year-old lives with his family—wife Tamy and their five children ranging from age 15 to two—in Soldotna, Alaska, 150 breathtaking miles southwest of Anchorage via the Seward and Sterling highways to the Kenai Peninsula. A September text message goes unreturned because Elam, a licensed pilot for two decades, has flown the smaller of his two planes, a tandem-seat 1966 Piper Super Cub, 200 miles west on a moose hunt in Mulchatna bush country that is inaccessible by car, truck, Internet or cellphone. There he kills and butchers a 1,500-pound bull moose, but he needs eight trips to pack out more than 700 pounds of meat.

Three weeks later Elam, like Dempsey (but only in this way), is waiting outside his house, on tiny Longmere Lake. There are two satellite dishes, but Elam doesn't watch NFL games. "I got my fill of football," he says. A Florida native, he first came to Alaska in the mid-1990s on a fishing trip, bought a house in 2008 intending to use it in the summer, but then moved the family there full time in January '10. Jason and Tamy homeschool their children and embrace a lifestyle that includes driving snowmobiles on the lake and hauling salmon out of the Kenai River in July, where the sockeye can run at 150,000 a day.

"It's not for everybody up here," says Elam. "We like the outdoors. We like the lifestyle. The kids love it. We fell in love with Alaska."

Elam also wrote four spy novels with Steve Yohn. (A description on Amazon of Monday Night Jihad, part of the Riley Covington series: "He thought his deadliest enemy knelt across the line of scrimmage. He was wrong!") He has made several visits to the Middle East as strategic coordinator for E3 Partners, a Christian missionary program. And he's flown to the distant corners of Alaska on winter relief missions. Elam could scarcely be further from NFL Sundays.

Sixty-three? "I told people after my kick that it might be gone in a week," he says. "I'm shocked that it's still there."

SPORTS AUTHORITY FIELD AT MILE HIGH, DENVER

September 12, 2011

The Raiders were leading 13--3 and had moved to the Broncos' 45 with five seconds left in the first half. Sebastian Janikowski, who in 2007 had banged a 64-yard attempt halfway up the right upright, had made a 61 and a 59 in the previous two seasons. (He had also been trotted out in '08 to try a 76-yarder, which failed to reach the goal line. Coach Lane Kiffin was canned two days later, though not specifically for that decision.) Like Elam, Janikowski benefited from the Denver altitude, which allows long kicks to travel slightly farther than at sea level. "I have a hard time saying those 63s in Denver are equal to Dempsey's and Akers's," says Andersen. "I've played there and put kickoffs in the stands."

"I was in college when Elam kicked his 63-yarder. Saw it on TV. Definitely impressed. You always know that 63 is out there. I went out to kick that one, and at first I didn't realize it was 63. I didn't really hit it that good, but the ball goes extra good in Denver. I watched the film; I was the only one celebrating at first. Made it by a yard or so. I wish I told [holder] Shane Lechler to go back an extra yard for the record. It would be cool to be the one guy holding that record."

Janikowski, 34, sits in a conference room at the Raiders' facility adjacent to Oakland Airport. This is the second meeting between writer and kicker. The first was 13 years earlier. Janikowski was a 21-year-old senior at Florida State and answered his door shirtless, in nothing but boxer shorts, barely having slept after a routine, nightlong vodka binge. Back then the young Seabass was the baddest man in Tallahassee, with multiple arrests (though no convictions) accrued during late-night carousing. There were two more incidents early in his Oakland career, a DUI and a bar fight. In 2010 he was accused of shoving a woman at a Bay Area nightclub and ordered to undergo anger-management counseling.

Yet he seems to be a gentler Seabass, a former wild man slowly finding repose. On Sept. 3, Janikowski's wife, Lori, gave birth to twin girls, Mila and Vi. His mother, Halina, who had cried when her only son left Poland as a teenager, moved to the U.S. permanently in 1999 and came to Oakland to help with the babies. "I lived with him as a rookie," says Lechler, who was in the same Raiders draft class as Janikowski, in 2000. "I've watched him grow up in front of my eyes. At some point he figured out that stuff he did in the past just wasn't cool."

Yet he offers no apology. "It's all part of life," he says. "You get older, you slow down. It happens. I'm happy with the way I grew up. No regrets." He was raised a soccer player and a fan of A.C. Milan; now his allegiance has switched to Arsenal. He no longer plays soccer, and he no longer tries to bench-press the entire gym in the weight room. "I don't want to get hurt," he says. "I'd love to play 10 more years."

Sixty-three?, "I know that's the number," he says. "But I believe somebody is going to kick a longer one soon."

LAMBEAU FIELD, GREEN BAY

September 9, 2012

Before 2012, David Akers was already on the short list of the best kickers in NFL history, a 14-year veteran and two-time All-Pro with a solid pressure résumé. His career long was 57 yards, in 2003, and he had made a 55-yarder in '11, his first season with the 49ers after 12 in Philadelphia. Clinging to a 13--7 lead against the Packers with two seconds left in the first half, coach Jim Harbaugh sent Akers out to try the first record attempt of his career.

"I really felt like I underswung. I thought it was maybe good from 56 or 57 yards. But then it hits the crossbar, and I'm pretty good at having it hit the crossbar and shoot right back at me after it makes that awful noise. Having it hit the bar and bounce [over]—one of the funniest, most surprising moments I've ever been a part of. Afterward I got calls from [Titans kicker] Rob Bironas, [the Cardinals'] Jay Feely, [the Giants'] Lawrence Tynes, [free agent] Olindo Mare and a bunch of other guys. Everybody knew."

It's easy to imagine that Akers's career was a given because it's been so long and so successful. But it nearly ended multiple times before he made his first field goal. As a rookie free agent out of Louisville in 1997 he was cut by the Panthers and spent a year teaching middle school science back in Kentucky. In '98 he was signed and activated by the Redskins, but cut after a single game. Afterward he took a job waiting tables at a Longhorn Steakhouse outside Atlanta, where he had also tried out.

That December he worked out for the Eagles on a windy, 17° morning on a makeshift field on the roof of a parking garage next to Veterans Stadium. "Waste of time," he told his wife, Erika (with whom he would have three children, daughter Halley and sons Luke and Sawyer). But the Eagles—special teams coach John Harbaugh and head coach Andy Reid—saw something more. They signed him and allocated him to the Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe. In June 1999 he contracted food poisoning and lay in a Berlin hospital with a 105° fever, unable to understand his doctors, talking to his wife on a landline phone dragged into his room by a nurse. "Honey, all I want to do is get home and start a life," he remembers saying. "Football is over."

The Eagles had other ideas. They kept Akers in that 1999 season as a kickoff and long-field-goal specialist. His first points came on a 53-yarder at Pro Player Stadium in Miami during a 16--13 loss to the Dolphins. By 2000 he was Philadelphia's regular kicker, and in Week 11 that season against the Steelers, he executed an onside kick that the Eagles recovered. They tied the game and won it in overtime. In fickle Philly, heroes have been made for doing less.

"Blessed," says Akers, now 37, "to have had the opportunities I've had...."

And 63? "I truly believe that a lot of guys can make this kick," he says, "and that the record will be shattered."

In 1970, the year of Dempsey's 63-yarder, NFL kickers made 59.4% of their field goal attempts. From 50 yards and beyond they were less than half as efficient, just 23.3%. A long kick was a long shot. This has changed dramatically. Through seven weeks of the 2012 season (excluding Monday night), kickers have made 87.5% of all attempts and are hitting 66.1% from 50 yards and beyond. This evolution has occurred as kicking style transformed from Dempsey's toe-first, straight-on technique to the sidewinding, instep-driven approach that was initially called "soccer style." (The last straight-on NFL kicker, Mark Moseley, who once attempted a 74-yard field goal on a free kick, retired in 1986.)

"Kickers are bigger, faster and better trained than when I came into the league," says Hanson. "We are certainly not football players in the sense that we still don't run around and get hit, but it's become something that young athletes aspire to. The expectation now is different, too. If they send you out there, anywhere, you're expected to make the kick."

Gary Zauner, 61, who coached kickers in the NFL for three teams from 1994 to 2006, says, "There's been a transformation in the athletic ability of kickers and punters, and I credit the growth of soccer for a lot of that. You get better athletes learning to kick the football."

Zuerlein fits this model. He was a midfielder on a select youth soccer team in Lincoln when he tried out for the school's football squad and became the varsity kicker as a freshman. There he booted a 54-yarder, the degree of impressiveness of which is debatable. Since Dempsey's kick there have been at least 33 field goals longer than 63 yards by high school and college players, including a 67-yarder last week that made Central Valley (Washington) High senior Austin Rehkow a national celebrity. High school kickers often use tees to elevate the ball while it's held (Rehkow did not), but there are numerous other mitigating factors, most notably softer footballs. Since 1999, NFL kickers have used designated kicking balls (or K-balls), which equipment managers can knead only minimally before they are put into play. Additionally, NFL and college goalposts are 18'6" wide; high school's are 23'4" apart. (On the flip side, high school hash marks are 53'4" apart; college hashes are 40 feet apart; and the NFL's are the same 18'6" as the goalposts. "Actually, from a pure kicking standpoint, it's a little easier in the NFL than college," says Zuerlein, "because if you kick it straight, it's going through.")

There's no doubt, though, that most NFL kickers could make a 64-yard field goal. Not only have kickers improved, but so has what Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff calls the "operation" of snap-hold-kick, which he says is "more efficient than ever."

Still, such chances remain rare because coaches are loath to risk giving an opponent the ball on the plus side of midfield. "Field position and strategy" are the major impediments to 64, says Westhoff. "You can't [afford to] miss from that far." Hence, almost all kicks from 63 and beyond will come at the end of the first half or in a game-winning or game-tying situation, of which there are only so many.

After Akers's 63, Niners coach Jim Harbaugh was asked whether he would be more willing to kick long during the run of the game. He looked as if he'd been fed straight lemon juice. "I'd have to see a lot more good data on that," he said. (It's noteworthy that Rams coach Jeff Fisher allowed Zuerlein to kick both his 60- and his 58-yarder during the run of play, though there is no indication that other coaches will follow suit.)

Andersen is thinking back on a 60-yarder he connected on at the Superdome in 1991. "It went halfway up the net, would have been good from 68 or 70," he says. "It sounded like a cannon." But in his long career, he never got to try from even 64. "At most," guesses Andersen, "any kicker might get a couple of chances in his entire career."

They all kick from longer than 63 in warmups, teasing fate. They all assume that soon the number will fall.

Still the record stands, endangered but alive.

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"Whatever you say, 63 yards is a hell of a long way," says the NFL's alltime leading scorer.

"I told people I thought [my record] might be gone in a week," says Elam. "I'm shocked it's still there."

Coaches are loath to risk 64 in the run of the game. Says Westhoff, "You can't [afford to] miss from that far."

63 VIDEO

Tim Layden and photographer Bill Frakes talk 63 with all four record-holders (including Akers, center) in a companion video journal, and SI.com's Chris Burke argues that the road to 64 (and beyond) starts in the draft room—all at SI.com/mag

PHOTOPhotograph by APTOM DEMPSEY Kicking with a specialized boot off a weathered patch at old Tulane Stadium, he still set the bar for all future three-pointers. PHOTOMICHAEL ZAGARIS/SF 49ERS (AKERS KICK)DAVID AKERS His pre-halftime Hail Mary against Green Bay in September was the closest call of the four 63s—so close that the Packers' Randall Cobb leaped up to block the attempt before it thunked the crossbar and went over. PHOTOBILL FRAKES (AKERS WITH FAMILY)[See caption above] PHOTOJEFFREY PHELPS/AP (SI.COM) PHOTOBILL FRAKES (ELAM)JASON ELAM After his record-tying boot he put on his traveling shoes, moving with his family to the woods of Alaska, where he hunts moose, fishes for salmon, pilots his own bush plane and has penned spy thrillers. PHOTOBRYAN KELSEN/AP (ELAM KICKING)[See caption above] PHOTOBILL FRAKES (JANIKOWSKI)SEBASTIAN JANIKOWSKI Thirteen years after Elam's sure-footed feat, Denver's thin air once again aided in a record-tying shot, this time off the thundering left leg of Seabass, who has mellowed in his later Raiders years. PHOTODOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES (JANIKOWSKI KICKING)[See caption above] PHOTODILIP VISHWANAT/GETTY IMAGESHE'S GOING THE DISTANCE If the record falls, it may be to Zuerlein, who's already hit from 58 and 60, and missed—wide left, not short—from 66.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)