Tom Dempsey: Life Story of Former New Orleans Saints Kicker

As of last night, April 4th, 2020, we have lost an NFL legend. Tom Dempsey. Tom was regarded as one of the best kickers ever, and he has one of the most amazing life stories regarding an NFL player. Today, the day after we lost Tom, I will be going over both his life on and off the field and why he is one of the most amazing and inspiring people to have ever graced this country.  

Early Life

Thomas John Dempsey was born on January 12th, 1947 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When he was born, he had some major defects to his right hand and right foot that would ultimately only shape who he was as a person. He was born missing a large majority of the fingers on his right hand, but the part that most people regarded was how he was born missing all of his toes on his kicking foot. It is said that these changes to his body only shaped him more as a person however, especially in high school and college.

Tom went to San Dieguito high school in Encinitas California. There, he played football as a standout lineman (which most people wouldn’t have expected now considering how proficient of a kicker he was). He was also a part of the wrestling team in high school, and he was a part of the school track team. This was likely where he started to notice his ability in leg strength and ability, as he was regarded as one of the best track runners at the school.  

College

After high school, Tom went on to Palomar Junior College in San Marcos, California. This is where he decided to focus on becoming a football player and to show his ability as a member of the team. In college, he played as a defensive end, using his height and strength to his advantage he was regarded as one of the major defensive players on the team. After a few years in college, he got a chance as a kicker for the team. 

Tom was fitted with a shoe that was specially designed for his disability and allowed him to still kick in the way he wanted. He kicked what was considered normal at the time, the “straight on” approach. This was when kickers kicked the ball with the front of their foot, rather than the insole, which was seen as the most powerful way to kick at the time.  

NFL Career

Dempsey went undrafted in the 1969 draft class (many kickers do unless they are guaranteed stars).  He was given a huge chance by the New Orleans Saints, being signed onto the team as a placekicker. This gave Dempsey his first real shot at kicking, and he would be able to do it at a national level. His short 2-year tenure with the Saints (1969 and 1970 seasons) was likely his most impressive due to his longest kick ever being recorded there. This kick was so special, I will regard it after going over his career stats and teams.  

After his playing time with the Saints, Dempsey went on to play for 9 more years as a kicker for various teams. These teams included the Philadelphia Eagles (1971-1974), the St. Louis Rams (1975-1976), the Houston Oilers (1977) and finally the Buffalo Bills (1978-1979). In his career, he went 252/282 (89.4%) for point-after tries and went 159/258 (61.6%) for field goals. During a time period where kickers were used from a very long range and considering the factors he had kicking, this was wildly impressive for someone who did not kick during all of high school and most of college.  

The “kick heard ’round the world”

This kick was by far the most notorious moment of Tom Dempsey’s career. This happened on November 8th, 1970 while Dempsey was still with the New Orleans Saints. The Saints were home that game (Tulane Stadium at the time) and were down 17-16 to the Detroit Lions. At the time, the field goal post was on the goal line, which made this a kick from the Saints 47-yard line. Tom Dempsey came in after only one play from the Saints to get him to almost midfield, with the game on his shoulders, almost no one expected him to make it. This kick would be 7 yards longer than any kick ever performed up to that date. The words heard from the announcers are as follows…

“He’s trying a 63-yard field goal.  Not only if Tom Dempsey hits this one (he’s got a very slight wind at his back)  he’ll set a National Football League record, in addition to winning the game. I don’t believe this,  OHHH, IT’S GOOD, I CAN’T BELIEVE IT, THE FIELD GOAL ATTEMPT WAS GOOD, FROM 63 YARDS AWAY. It’s incredible, Tulane stadium has gone wild!”

This is still one of the most revered moments in Saints history, and easily the most in Dempsey’s career. This is still the longest game-winning field goal in NFL history, as all others came prior to halftime or midgame.  

Dempsey’s shoe “advantage”

During a postgame interview later that day, reporters asked if the flat front of his shoe gave him an unfair advantage in kicking. Dempsey responded with, “Unfair, eh? How ’bout you try kickin’ a 63-yard field goal to win it with 2 seconds left an’ yer wearin’ a square shoe, oh yeah, and no toes either.”  

As of recently, ESPN Sport Science carried out an analysis of Dempsey’s 63-yard kick, and if the shoe modification gave him an advantage. The conclusion that was found was the shoe offered no kicking advantage whatsoever. It also found that the smaller surface contact area actually may have made his accuracy harder, not easier.  

ESPN also conducted an interview with Dempsey some years later on the kick and how it felt. These next few quotes are directly from this interview…

“If I’d known it was 63 yards, I might have messed it up,” he says.

He also said it felt, “Like golf when you hit a good driver.”

The teammates stayed out the next night according to Dempsey at Dixie Beer and drank until 7 A.M. which he said was, “pretty typical.”

There are quite a few more quotes from ESPN, however, these I find to be the most relevant to the situation.  

Post-career

After Dempsey’s illustrious career, he mainly lived in New Orleans or nearby. There has recently been a movement called the Dempsey Project, which is currently on hold until further notice. This project would place a 2,000-pound statue (similar to that of the Steve Gleason punt block statue) outside the Mercedes Benz Superdome of the 63-yard kick.   

In 2005, Tom and his wife’s house was totaled by Hurricane Katrina. Their house formerly in Metairie, Louisiana was engulfed by roughly four feet of water. He used the money he had made over his career to build a new home. He also used it to help out the city wherever he could.

This shows his character. He was a very subtle person who even when kicking the longest field goal in NFL history just thought of it as another kick.  

His unfortunate passing this year leaves a scar on the Saints fans that won’t ever heal. The man he was off the field surpassed that of the records he broke and the kicks he made, he was human as the rest of us are. That is how he wanted to be known it seems, just one of us.  

He is enshrined forever in the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame. This is where the ball and shoe from that fateful day lay in peace for future generations to see. I personally have had the chance to see these pieces of history. They are extremely impressive, especially knowing they came from that day and from Tom Dempsey.  

I would like to leave this off with a quote that I feel is relevant to this day. This quote was said by all-time great baseball player Babe Ruth.  

“Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.”

Babe Ruth

What are your memories of Tom Dempsey? Leave a comment below

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