Funny how your brain connects dots.
One of my sports writing heroes, George Puscas, passed away last weekend at age 81 after a bout with diabetes. The official cause of death was congestive heart failure, but that’s what happens when you’re too sick to sleep in a bed and have to spend nights propped up on a reclining chair. So says his widow, Delphine, to whom I spoke briefly at George’s viewing. George had been in and out of the hospital often in the last couple of years, and though Del was hoping he could make it through another season of Tigers baseball, this last hospital stay lasted just four days before he passed away.
So many thoughts occurred to me as I thought of Puscas and his influence on my wanting to write about sports. Not the least of which was a marvelous fall afternoon I spent at his home in 2005 along with another of my favs, Jerry Green. George and Jerry regaled me with memories of the last Super Bowl played in Detroit before the XLth. It was Super Bowl XVI, in 1982 in Pontiac. I was working on a magazine piece, and the three of us spent several hours together in George’s kitchen; me mainly listening. Which was fine; gave me more time to sip the cold ones Del brought me as my tape recorder whirred.
Puscas was tight with a lot of the Lions. He became particularly close to Alex Karras, the old defensive tackle – and who is, for my money, the best lineman NOT enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Several months after Karras was forced into retirement by the Lions after being cut at the end of training camp in 1971, he collaborated with Puscas on a two-part memoir that ran in the Free Press. Both parts were preserved for history in Puscas’s book, Dandies, Eh?, which was a compendium of his favorite columns.
In the memoir, Karras covered a variety of subjects, from his rookie year of 1958 (when he served as QB Bobby Layne’s designated driver and drinking partner throughout camp) to the heartbreaking loss in Green Bay in ’62 which torpedoed the Lions’ title chances, to his relationship with Lions coach George Wilson (whom Karras called one of the finest men he’s ever known).
But there was another Karras moment that I thought of, and it wasn’t covered in the Free Press two-parter. Still, George’s account of it made it into the book. Maybe it wasn’t really Alex’s moment, per se, but Karras played a key role.
I’m talking about Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal that beat the Lions at the final gun in November, 1970.
First, I’ll never forget how George began his article – seeing as how he wasn’t even in the country when it happened. The excerpt is in italics, and is only slightly paraphrased. It was written in 1992.
I was coming through customs at the airport in Detroit, after a vacation in Europe.
“Who won the Lions game yesterday?” I asked.
“You’ll never believe it,” the customs guy said.
“Try me,” I replied.
“Well, a kicker with half a foot kicked a 63-yard field goal on the final play of the game. And the Saints beat the Lions, 19-17.”
George’s account is remarkable, as it includes quotes from Dempsey, who was recalling the kick some 22 years later – as well as those culled from men like Joe Schmidt (Lions head coach at the time) and athletic trainer Kent Falb, among others.
Dempsey said something in that 16-year-old article that came back to roost in my brain – that dot-connecting to which I referred – as I thought about George Puscas.
“There’s a photo I have framed of the kick, which shows Alex (Karras) stretching, almost blocking it,” Dempsey told Puscas.
I know the photo of which Dempsey spoke. It’s taken from Dempsey’s left, and clearly shows Karras, who played left tackle, breaking through the blocking and extending his right arm, a look of determination on his face. They called Karras “Tippy Toes” for the odd footwork he used on the line, trying to rush the passer. And Tippy Toes was perhaps a fingertip away from blocking Dempsey’s kick, which still stands as the NFL record (though Denver’s Jason Elam tied it in the late-1990s).
If you choose to use that video version of Google called YouTube, simply type in “Tom Dempsey” in the search field and you can see a clip of the kick. And if you watch closely, you’ll see Karras bursting through the line as if unblocked, and barely missing getting his paw on the football.
The image is also interesting because when Karras used to do the talk show circuit back in the 1970s, he liked to chat about how his teammates were supposedly laughing and taunting the Saints and their half-footed kicker (Dempsey was born with half a right foot and wore a special shoe. He also didn’t possess a full left arm) as they lined up before the snap. That may be so, but Karras, at least, gave it a full effort. Yet he just missed it, and the ball traveled end-over-end on a low trajectory before dropping over the crossbar with inches to spare.
“IT’S GOOD! IT’S GOOD! THE SAINTS HAVE WON! THE SAINTS HAVE WON! TOM DEMPSEY HAS JUST KICKED A 63-YARD FIELD GOAL!,” the Saints’ announcer is heard on the clip as the Lions players wandered around midfield in disbelief. Karras is seen simply walking back toward the sideline.
Another inch or two on Karras’s reach, and nobody would have heard of Tom Dempsey.
“What can you do after something like that?” said Schmidt in the article. “You take a left turn and go home.”
I left a message for Karras at his home in California, notifying him of Puscas’s death. I just thought he should know.
Here’s Dempsey’s kick. Watch Karras, no. 71, busting through and nearly blocking it.