Tom Dempsey, 73, a burly, fun-loving football player who made NFL history in 1970 by kicking a 63-yard field goal – a record that stood for 43 years – despite playing with no toes on his kicking foot, died Saturday night in New Orleans from what his family said was complications from coronavirus.
The Times-Picayune reported that Mr. Dempsey had contracted COVID-19 last month at the Lambeth House retirement home. His daughter, Ashley Dempsey, said he had resided in an assisted-living home for several years after being diagnosed with dementia.
The Orleans Parish coroner has yet to release an official cause of death.
Mr. Dempsey, who played four of his 11 NFL seasons with the Eagles, stunned the football world on Nov. 18, 1970 at Tulane Stadium, the first home of the New Orleans Saints. With the Saints on their own 45-yard line and two seconds remaining, he launched a kick from the 37 that just cleared the crossbar of the goal post, which was on the goal line in those days, for a 19-17 win over Detroit.
The kick broke the record for the longest field goal in the NFL by 7 yards. It took 28 years before another kicker would hit from 63 yards and two others would match the mark, including former Eagle David Akers with San Francisco in 2012. Finally, the Broncos’ Matt Prater connected on a record 64-yard kick in 2013 in Denver.
“I was his holder for two years with the Rams, and when he hit that ball, he just compressed it, flattened it,” former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski, who played with Mr. Dempsey in 1975 and 1976, said Sunday. “He would make 65- and 67-yarders in practice. If he was ever given the opportunity to hit one longer than that, I think if he hit it right, he could make it.”
A straight-on kicker, Mr. Dempsey wore a flat-front shoe that drew protests from opponents who saw it as an unfair advantage. In 1977, the NFL passed what was known as “The Dempsey Rule,” requiring a player “with an artificial limb on his kicking leg (to) have a kicking surface that conforms to that of a normal kicking shoe.”
Mr. Dempsey, who also was born without four fingers on his right hand, began his pro career with the Saints in 1969 but the team released him after he struggled in the 1971 preseason. The Eagles acquired him later that season and he remained in Philadelphia through 1974. He set what was then a single-season team record for most field goals, 24, in 1973, a year after kicking six in an 18-17 win over Houston, still a club mark for most in one game.
Mr. Dempsey was cut after the 1974 season, a year in which he was the Eagles’ player representative during a bitter strike in training camp. In addition to his two seasons with the Rams, he also kicked for one season in Houston and two with the Buffalo Bills. He retired after the 1979 season.
“I enjoyed the years I had in Philadelphia,” Mr. Dempsey told the Daily News in 2007. “The fans appreciated you if you worked hard. I only wish I could have finished my career up there.”
Jaworski called Mr. Dempsey “a character, a fun guy to be around.
“Most placekickers are kind of aloof, distant, and march to the beat of their own drum,” he said. “Demps was one of the guys, man. He just wanted to fit right in as a football player, not a placekicker. He was a big beer drinker, we used to have a whole lot of fun celebrating victories.”
Pro Football Hall of Fame writer Ray Didinger, who covered the Eagles for the Philadelphia Bulletin during Mr. Dempsey’s time there, said he was “really a good guy, a blue-collar, rough-hewn sort of guy.
“His father was tough,” Didinger said. “He told Tom, ‘I’m not going to treat you any different than any other child. I don’t want you to look at yourself as being any different. There’s no reason why you can’t go out and do what every other kid can do.’”
Born in Milwaukee and raised in Encinitas, Calif., Mr. Dempsey played defensive line for San Dieguito High School, where he later became the team’s kicker. He attended Palomar College and played semipro football before making the Saints in a tryout.
Didinger said Mr. Dempsey, who was 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, still thought of himself as a defensive tackle in the pros.
“He never thought of himself as a quote-unquote ‘kicker,’” he said. “The Giants had a kick-return guy named Leon McQuay and one game he caught the kickoff, started running up the field and thought he saw some daylight. But Demps was on the other side of the hole and hit him and knocked him cold.
“I asked him what he was more proud of, the field goal or the tackle. After he thought about it, he finally decided it was the field goal because that was in the record book. But it was close.”