By ALAN SMASON
Tom Dempsey, an unlikely hero with half a foot, but a full heart that made him a champion for legions of New Orleans Saints fans, died on Saturday from complications of COVID-19. He was 73.
The professional kicker, who established a 43-year-old record for the NFL’s longest field goal in history, succumbed to the physical ravages of respiratory failure brought on by the novel coronavirus and from the mental anguish of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Dempsey, who only played for the Saints for two seasons, established the record kick on November 8, 1970 at Tulane Stadium when his last-second boot went 63 yards and lifted the Saints in an unexpected 19-17 win over the Detroit Lions.
The record was eventually broken in the rarefied air of Denver in 2013 by a single yard and in 14-degree weather. Matt Prater still holds that record, although several others have tied Dempsey’s 63-yard strike.
Born without toes on his right foot and missing four fingers on his right hand due to a congenital defect, Dempsey was a native of Milwaukee, who later grew up in Encinitas, CA. He played football and was a wrestler at San Dieguito High School. The six-foot, two-inch star was a standout defensive end for Palomar Junior College, where he was called upon to kick field goals and extra points in his bare foot. His temper got him kicked off the team when he allegedly struck one of the coaches in anger.
In 1969, he tried out for the American Football League’s San Diego Chargers and Coach Sid Gillman took a liking to Dempsey. Gillman had an orthopedist outfit a specially modified right shoe that conformed to Dempsey’s foot. The shoe cost a very expensive $200 to fashion, but when he failed to make the final cut for the team, he used it to try out for a position in the NFL. Saints head coach J. D. Roberts decided to give him a shot and signed Dempsey to the Saints, where his teammates gave him the affectionate nickname of “Stumpy.”
Dempsey made 22 out of 41 field goals and received a Pro Bowl selection in his rookie year for the Saints, but was cut in 1971 after only two seasons. During those two seasons, he posted a 94% success for extra points, but hovered at just 53% for field goals. In kicks of 50 years or more, he was only good in one out of 11 attempts in 1969 and three out of nine attempts in the year when he established the NFL record.
CBS sportscaster Don Criqui was astounded when Dempsey’s boot with two seconds left on the clock soared from the Saints 37-yard line to cross over the goal post on the goal line with another foot to spare. “It’s good! I don’t believe it! The field goal that was good was 63 yards away!” he shouted, allowing the crowd noise from Saints fans to temporarily stop his commentary. “It’s incredible! Tulane Stadium has gone wild!”
Dempsey also played as a kicker for the Philadelphia Eagles, the Houston Oilers, the Los Angeles Rams and retired in 1979 from the Buffalo Bills.
Dempsey’s specially-fitted shoe is enshrined in the National Footbal League’s Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, although the NFL passed a specific rule following his successful kick which insists that all kickers use conventional footwear without modifications going forward.
He returned to New Orleans after his retirement and worked selling automobiles as a salesman and manager for one of Saints team owner Tom Benson’s car dealerships and was also a football coach at Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie. He was inducted into the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame in 1989.
Dempsey had been placed in Lambeth House by family members following the onset of dementia associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. Lambeth House was formerly described by Louisiana Department of Health officials as a cluster for COVID-19 patients.