It is one of the most enduring records in the NFL — the 63-yard field goal kicked by Tom Dempsey to give the New Orleans Saints an improbable last-second victory over the Detroit Lions on this date in 1970. It was the longest field goal ever in the NFL, easily breaking the old record of 56 yards. Three other kickers have since equaled the mark, but the record still stands after nearly 45 years.
But while Dempsey’s name is forever etched in the history books, he couldn’t have done it without the help of a former NC State football player. Joe Scarpati, who played for the Wolfpack in the early 1960s, was the holder on the record-setting kick.
“Thank God, I held that ball,” Scarpati says. “Otherwise, they would have forgotten about me long ago.”
Scarpati is 70 years old now. He lives in Marlton, New Jersey, where he has a commercial real estate business. He has managed to stay in touch with Dempsey through the years, joining him a couple of years ago to sign autographs at a sports memorabilia show in Chicago. Dempsey, who lives in New Orleans, recently revealed that he has been diagnosed with dementia.
At NC State, Scarpati was part of the famous backfield, known as “The Mafia,” that led the Wolfpack to the ACC championship in 1964. He was joined in the backfield by fellow northerners Pete Falzarano, Jim Rossi and Tony Koszarsky. “Anytime you got more than two Italians in one group, they would say it was ‘The Syndicate,'” Scrapati says with a laugh.
There was a bit of culture shock that came with Scarpati’s move to the South. “We were made aware that they were still fighting the Civil War, but other than that it worked out fine,” he recalls.
Despite his success as a college player, Scarpati never had his heart set on a professional career, figuring he would be too small or too slow to play in the NFL. But he played in the NFL for eight seasons, the first seven of them with the Philadelphia Eagles. He was a safety, and led the NFL in 1966 by returning eight interceptions for 182 yards.
But he also was used as a holder on extra points and field goals, something he had not done at NC State. But the safety he replaced in Philadelphia had those duties, so they became one of Scarpati’s duties as well.
“It was difficult to develop the skills, to catch the ball, rotate the laces, get to the spot where the kicker wants it,” he says. “It’s a thankless job. You don’t get any extra money for it.”
But Scarpati was clearly good at it, for he was the holder throughout his years with the Eagles. When he was traded to the Saints, the position of holder was open again. And so Scarpati found himself working with Dempsey, who kicked with a modified, flattened shoe because he was born without toes on his right foot. Some questioned whether the special shoe gave Dempsey an unfair advantage, but Scarpati said it was remarkable that Dempsey was able to achieve so much with his disability.
Like other kickers, Dempsey let Scarpati know exactly how he wanted the ball placed for each kick. He wanted it tilted ever so slightly back with the laces in front. Scarpati would try to find a piece of lint or blade of grass that he could furtively use to mark the spot where he would place the ball. (The rules did not allow holders to mark the spot). “He was easy to work with as long as you put it on the spot where you said you were going to put it,” Scarpati says. “His whole kicking rhythm was based on you putting it on that spot.”
The record-setting kick against Detroit was a desperate attempt to get a win. The Saints were 1-5-1 coming into the game, and the team’s head coach had been fired the week before.
Detroit kicked a late field goal to go ahead 17-16, and it looked like the Saints would lose yet another game. But after returning the kickoff, the Saints had time to throw one pass and get out of bounds to stop the clock with two seconds remaining in the game. The ball was on the Saints’ 45-yard-line when Dempsey came in to attempt the field goal that would win the game.
Holders typically set up seven yards behind the ball for field goal attempts. But Scarpati set up eight yards back, figuring Dempsey would need to kick the ball at a lower trajectory to cover the distance. “I wanted to give it more time to get over the line of scrimmage,” Scarpati says. “If he drove it at seven yards, it may have hit someone in the back of the helmet.”
As Dempsey set up for the kick, CBS broadcaster Don Criqui told the television audience that the kick would set an NFL record if it was good. But Scarpati says it never occurred to him that they were attempting to set an NFL record.
“With two seconds go to in the game, we didn’t really have time to think about it,” he says. “We just needed to get on the field.”
As Dempsey lined up for the kick, Criqui told the viewers that he had a very slight wind at his back. But it was obvious, as soon as Dempsey kicked it, that the ball had a chance.
“I don’t believe this,” Criqui said as the ball sailed down the field. The referees signaled it was good as it barely cleared the crossbar on the goal post.
“IT’S GOOD!” Criqui shouted. “I don’t believe it. The field-goal attempt was good, from 63 yards away. It’s incredible! Tulane Stadium has gone wild. A 63-yard field goal!”
Scarpati says the initial excitement on the field was because the Saints had won, not because Dempsey had set a record. It was only when they got to the locker room that the players realized that Dempsey had made NFL history.
“The record, it was so special for him,” Scarpati says. “He was a handicapped fellow, so for him to reach that goal, to get that record, that was what made it great.”
Dempsey and some teammates apparently celebrated late into the night after the game, but Scarpati says he didn’t join them because he had family in town for the game.
Given the advances in kicking since Dempsey played, Scarpati says it is a little surprising that no one has broken the record after all these years. But, he notes, there aren’t many circumstances when an NFL coach would be willing to attempt such a long kick.
“You don’t try it that often,” he says. “That’s why it’s lasted this long.”