The tragedy of Tom Dempsey’s life was never that he was born without toes on his right foot or fingers on a misshapen right arm and hand. He didn’t feel sorry for himself and didn’t let his disability stop him from pursuing anything he wanted.
The tragedy was that the one truly golden moment of his 11-year career as a placekicker in the NFL was marred by those whose prejudice led them to diminish it.
Dempsey, who played four seasons with the Eagles in the 1970s, died last weekend at the age of 73 in a New Orleans nursing home after contracting the coronavirus. He suffered from dementia for the last seven years, and brain damage linked to playing football was suspected as the cause.
It was a sad end to his story, just as many sad endings are being written in this terrible time, but Dempsey’s life and how he lived it is still a model for anyone facing challenges.
Dempsey taught himself to throw with his left arm and he played baseball. He wrestled. He threw shot put. He was an offensive lineman in high school, and when the coach was looking for a kicker, he had everyone on the team line up and hit a ball off the kicking tee. Dempsey kicked barefooted with his truncated right foot and outdistanced them all.
He kicked through high school and at Palomar College near San Diego, and continued to play on the line as well. After college, Sid Gillman, the Chargers coach, signed him to the team’s practice squad for a year.
He enlisted a San Diego orthopedic specialist to design a short, square-faced kicking shoe for Dempsey. A year later, the Saints signed Dempsey off the Chargers’ practice squad and the kicker was headed to New Orleans and his eventual date with destiny.
Dempsey, who was 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, didn’t play line any longer, but he still liked the contact. He prided himself on busting the wedge of kickoff returns and recorded six solo tackles in one season alone.
You know the rest of the story, by heart, probably. On Nov. 8, 1970, in Dempsey’s second season with the Saints, on the final play of a game between Detroit and New Orleans in Tulane Stadium, Dempsey was sent out for a field goal attempt that would be spotted at the Saints’ own 37-yard line.
The uprights were still placed at the goal line then, but it was a 63-yard attempt that, if successful, would break the standing NFL record by seven yards. The Lions were laughing as the Saints lined up for the snap.
And, yeah, he made it.
The Saints didn’t have a lot to celebrate that season. In fact, they finished 2-11-1, and that record field goal and the resulting 19-17 win gave the first pick in the 1971 draft to the soon-to-be-renamed 2-12 Boston Patriots. They celebrated with Dempsey, however, deep into the New Orleans night, which can be deep indeed.
Everyone who had struggled to overcome a disability, and who took hope and strength from Dempsey’s journey to the top of his profession, celebrated, too.
Tex Schramm, the president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys didn’t celebrate. Flying home from New York, where the Cowboys had lost to the Giants in Yankee Stadium that day, Schramm told writers that Dempsey, one of the last of the straight-ahead kickers, had an “advantage” because of the shape of his foot and the shape of his kicking shoe.
Schramm wasn’t alone, but he was the most outspoken in tearing down Dempsey’s moment, likening the striking surface of the shoe to the “head of a golf club.” As head of the league’s competition committee, he lobbied for the 63-yarder to be marked by an asterisk in the record book. He never said what he thought asterisk should stand for (* - aided by disability?), but he was serious.
“When I miss them, how come I don’t have a disadvantage?” Dempsey said.
All straight-ahead kickers wore shoes with a squared-off toe. Dempsey wasn’t alone there. Years later, a sports science study commissioned by ESPN determined that having a larger striking area actually meant there was more room for error, not less. Nothing was easier for Tom Dempsey, in other words.
With the coming of soccer-style kickers – Pete Gogolak was the first of the tide in 1964 – the controversy should have just died away, but Schramm pushed through a rule change before the 1977 season that said a kicker, regardless of whether his foot is standard, must wear a standard shoe. Dempsey played three seasons after the rule change, because commissioner Pete Rozelle chose to ignore it.
Dempsey’s kick did change the game, and probably would have no matter who made the field goal. The league wanted touchdowns, not field goals, deciding things, and kickers were getting a lot better. The goalposts were moved to the back of the end zone. The rule regarding the spot of the ball after missed field goals has been changed twice, making long attempts riskier.
It took 33 years for Matt Prater to break the record with a 64-yard field goal in 2013. That kick, like two of the four field goals that have equaled Dempsey’s mark, came in mile-high Denver. Dempsey’s field goal in Tulane Stadium was below sea level. As with everything in his life, there was a degree of difficulty factor there that is undeniable.
Dempsey played with the Eagles the following season and until 1974, before finishing his career with the Rams, Houston, and Buffalo. For his career, he made 61.6% of his field goal attempts, which would be abysmal today but was not far from the norm of the time.
The top draft pick that Dempsey’s record kick gave the Patriots, turned into Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett. The Saints took Archie Manning with the second pick, although there is some belief they would have taken the Southern boy in any case.
It didn’t work all that well. The Saints wouldn’t win a playoff game until Archie Manning was 51 years old and his son already had three seasons in the league. Some things you can’t figure.
The legend of Tom Dempsey survived all of that, and it survives to this day, a week after the kicker’s passing. The legend is that nothing is impossible, even if others are laughing, even if others doubt you and denigrate you when you prove them wrong.