DENVER -- Tom Dempsey is surprised his record 63-yard field goal has lasted 41 years without being broken. Jason Elam can't believe nobody's beaten it since he tied the mark way back in 1998, and Sebastian Janikowski is absolutely stunned no one's surpassed it since he joined the exclusive club a month ago.
The three record-holders said they feel the mark could be broken at any time by any number of kickers, but that it likely would have to happen before the trees lose all their leaves -- and it would help if it were to come in Denver's thin air, which gives Broncos strong-legged kicker Matt Prater the best shot.
Even thin air, they said, wouldn't tarnish the new record one bit.
Elam and Janikowski each tied Dempsey's mark in Denver's mile-high altitude under conditions that were perfect and devoid of the pressure that accompanied Dempsey's 63-yarder to beat Detroit 19-17 on Nov. 8, 1970, at the old Tulane Stadium in New Orleans.
Elam's came before halftime in a blowout over Jacksonville a week before Halloween 13 years ago, and Janikowski's cleared the crossbar as the first half ended, giving Oakland a 16-3 lead in its Sept. 12 opener.
"In 1970, Tom did it on a muddy field to win the game. My kick was in fun mode," Elam said. "I just had to sit back and whale away."
Because the other two 63-yarders came at altitude, some football aficionados consider Dempsey's kick the true mark.
"No, I don't think it diminishes the accomplishment. I never did," Dempsey said. "First thing you do is respect the effort. In both cases, they were good kicks."
To Dempsey and the rest of the fraternity of NFL kickers, there is no altitude asterisk.
"They all count the same," Minnesota kicker Ryan Longwell said. "I've hit what I thought were 63-yarders from 30 yards at Lambeau in the freezing cold in my career that felt just as good to me. So I think they all count, and they all should count."
While Elam and Janikowski had the benefit of kicking at Mile High, some might say Dempsey's famously clubbed right foot gave him a unique advantage -- maybe making the 62-yarder by Tampa Bay's Matt Bryant in 2006 the true mark?
"Whenever I missed a kick, nobody ever said I had a disadvantage," said Dempsey, who was accused by opponents during his playing career of putting a block of wood or a steel toe in his kicking shoe, something he vehemently denies to this day.
"I only had leather on my shoe," Dempsey said. "When they designed my shoe, I wanted it to be light because it's just like playing golf; it's the speed that you hit the ball with is what takes it the distance. If I had something heavy, I'm not going to get the distance with it that I wanted."
So, 63 is the gold standard whether it's at sea level, in the mountains, in good weather or bad.
"No matter what, it's still a good kick and you've got to keep it straight for the same amount of time," Prater said. "For me and some other guys, the hard part isn't getting it there, it's keeping it straight for that long of a distance. So, I'd say they're all good kicks."
"Stats all say the same thing -- 63 yards," said Titans kicker Rob Bironas, proud owner of one of just eight field goals in league history that were good from 60 yards or more.
Bironas and his contemporaries all know conditions have to be just right for a long kick to have a chance.
The situation must be ideal -- probably the closing seconds of the second or fourth quarter to eliminate the risk of handing the opponent superb field position if the kick is wide or short. The wind, the temperature, even the barometric pressure can make a difference. So can the snap, spin, hold, trajectory, protection.
If the ball is new, the leather laces aren't loose and the ball doesn't compress as much. The sheen of the ball can make a kick stray like an errant golf shot, only a smidgen of error at impact dooming a kick before it's even cleared defenders' outstretched hands.
And the longer the kick, the more important small mistakes at impact can be when the ball reaches the goal posts.
Dempsey and Elam became friends after Elam joined the record-holders club, and Dempsey said that, once he recuperates from a recent hospital stay, he's going to reach out to Janikowski, too.
"I had this surgery so I didn't get a chance to call him, but I'm going to send a letter to him and tell him that I was proud of him," Dempsey said from his home in New Orleans. "You respect the effort, because you know it will be broken someday."
Elam watched Janikowski's kick from his home in Soldotna, Alaska.
"I watched where he was lining up and I knew he had the leg to do it," Elam said.
The most impressive part about Janikowski's kick was that he didn't hit the ball square -- "To be honest, I didn't hit it that good," he said after the game.
Janikowski said he thought he could hit one from 74 or 75 yards in the thin air of Denver and probably from about 68 closer to sea level. He hit from 70 yards in warm-ups with plenty of room to spare. He has gone even longer in previous trips to Denver or on the training camp field in Napa, Calif., when he got a ball flush, according to holder Shane Lechler.
The record-tying boot might not have even been the most impressive for Janikowski in his career. In December 2009, Janikowski hit a 61-yarder that barely cleared the crossbar on a cold day in Cleveland, an accomplishment Elam considers just as noteworthy as any of the 63-yarders.
Like almost all kickers nowadays, Janikowski grew up playing soccer.
Janikowski, who packs 260 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame, sure doesn't miss the pitch, though.
"No," he said. "Too much running."A soccer background, combined with better nutrition, training and instruction that kickers bring to the field on Sundays make it a certainty that somebody will eclipse the record -- and soon, Dempsey said.
Dempsey didn't kick a football until his second season at Palomar College in the late 1960s. He was a two-way lineman when his coach decided his kicker didn't have a strong enough leg on kickoffs and lined up everybody else. Dempsey was the last one to kick and his ball sailed right out of the end zone.
He repeated the feat, and his coach made him his new kicker.
"He said, 'You're kicking Saturday,"' Dempsey recalled. "And then I started kicking field goals. No one ever showed me how."
Dempsey said he wasn't surprised when he kicked his 63-yarder because he regularly cleared the crossbar from that distance before games.
"In practice, I used to kick in the 70s," he said. "But it's easy to kick then. And it's easy to kick warming up. When it gets to be pressure is when it's a game-winner."
Prater's longest kick in Denver during warm-ups is 72 yards.
"He's the only guy I've got to worry about if he's going to break the record," Janikowski said.
Not so, Elam said.
"I think as many as 32 guys have the opportunity. They've got to hit it early on in the season, but it's not an unbreakable record by any stretch," Elam suggested.
"I wouldn't be surprised if anybody breaks it -- early in the year. The ball travels better in warmer weather."
Both Elam and Janikowski and their holders had the chance to line up a yard deeper and try a 64-yarder, but they didn't chance it.
"No, it disrupts the timing and rhythm of everything," Elam said. "I'm happy to share the record with those guys. But it will be broken soon, I'm sure."
Longwell said it'll probably come off the foot of Prater or Janikowski.
"The 63-yarder was awesome, but the 70-yarder they showed him do in pregame was more impressive," Longwell said of Janikowski's accomplishment. "He's just got a freaky-strong leg. There's no reason to think that Prater couldn't do it in Denver, either. He's got a pretty strong leg, so I think it's a matter of time. I think it's a record that will be broken."
Prater made sure to find Janikowski after the opener to offer him a mix of admiration and admonition.
"I just said, 'Congratulations. And I'll be looking for that record soon."'