Superior native Doug Sutherland fondly recalls his rookie year with the New Orleans Saints in 1970, when one of his duties was being a “wedge buster” on kickoffs, with the sole purpose of taking out as many blockers as possible.
The kick returner broke through the wedge and with Sutherland in hot pursuit, had one player left in front of him: Saints kicker Tom Dempsey.
“Dempsey took it right in the stomach, and I went over the guy’s back and hit Dempsey right underneath the chin, and his helmet flew off because he never wore a chinstrap,” Sutherland recalled, laughing. “Dempsey went to the sideline and said, ‘Wow, somebody just about killed me.’ I didn’t tell him it was me until he saw it (in the film session) on Monday, and then he chased me around the field.”
Dempsey, 73, who despite missing the toes on his right foot, kicked a 63-yard field goal that year, an NFL record that stood for more than four decades. He died Saturday, April 4, reportedly from coronavirus. He was diagnosed with dementia in 2012.
In a legendary photo displayed in newspapers across the country the next day, Sutherland, who resides in Duluth, was one of two players who carried Dempsey off the field that day.
“Tom was a friend of mine,” Sutherland said, recalling the good times they had. “He taught me how to eat raw oysters, and he even let me kick off one time. He said he had a sore leg. He was a great guy. It’s just too bad.”
New Orleans was only in its fourth NFL season in 1970 and was struggling.
Coach Tom Fears was fired after a 1-5-1 start and replaced by J.D. Roberts, whose first game was a 19-17 victory over the Detroit Lions in which Dempsey’s 63-yarder won it on the final play.
Dempsey’s kick, on Nov. 8, 1970, at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, shattered the previous record by seven yards, set seventeen years earlier by the Baltimore Colts’ Bert Rechichar. Dempsey's record was tied three times before being broken on Dec. 8, 2013, by Broncos kicker Matt Prater’s 64-yard field goal in the thin air of Denver just before the half.
“It wasn’t in the heat of the game,” Sutherland said. “Tom’s kick won the game for us.”
While Dempsey’s kick surprised the Lions, it wasn’t a shock to the Saints, who had seen him bomb kicks in practice.
“We knew he had the length to do it,” Sutherland recalled. “And it was the end of the game and we were behind, so what’s there to lose? It was a big win.”
Dempsey was born in Milwaukee with no toes on his right foot and no fingers on his right hand. He attended high school and college in Southern California. He went undrafted out of Palomar College in 1969 but earned first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors for the only time as a rookie that year.
Sutherland, 71, a former Wisconsin-Superior standout, was a defensive lineman, offensive guard, middle linebacker and also backup kicker for the Saints, so he got to know Dempsey well.
Sutherland said they hit it off right away. They were about the same age and single, occasionally hitting the French Quarter together.
“He was just a good guy and a heckuva kicker; he not only kicked it far but he kicked it high. He had an extremely strong leg,” Sutherland said. “When he kicked the football, it was like an explosion. It was kind of a square piece on the end of his partial foot, and it sounded like a sledgehammer when he hit the ball.”
Sutherland remembers the buildup to the kick well. Billy Kilmer was the quarterback, and he threw a pass to Al Dodd, who landed right in front of Sutherland standing on the sidelines.
“The only thing in bounds were his toenails,” Sutherland said. “It was probably a 15 or 20-yard pass, and he caught it to set up the field goal. (Lions defensive tackle) Alex Karras, I don’t even think he rushed the kick. He just stood back and laughed at him thinking there was no way he could kick it that far.”
Sutherland went on to become a member of the Minnesota Vikings’ legendary Purple People Eaters. He spent only one year in New Orleans but it was a memorable one, in large part because of that kick.
Sutherland looked at the celebration photo the other day. He’s No. 60 in the shot, but he couldn’t figure out who the teammate was who helped carry the 275-pound Dempsey off the field.
“I got my picture in the paper. All over the country,” Sutherland said, laughing. “The whole sideline emptied onto the field. We won the game, and it was (almost) the only game we won all year (laughed again). That was a big deal. I can’t remember what was said after, but it was a lot of fun, though.”