Former NFL kicker Tom Dempsey became a household name when he kicked a 63-yard field goal on November 8, 1970. The 63-yarder broke the then-NFL record of 56 yards set by Bert Rechichar in 1953 and gave his team, the New Orleans Saints, a 19–17 victory over the Detroit Lions. Dempsey’s record stood for 43 years.
But there is much more to the Tom Dempsey story than 63-yard field goals. Tom was born without any toes on his right foot and fingers on his right hand. For those who have any disability, Dempsey is an inspiration. At a young age, Dempsey’s father encouraged his son to pursue his dreams and not allow disabilities to stop him. Dempsey played football, wrestled, and threw the shot put at San Dieguito High School and Palomar College in San Diego.
Dempsey Enters the NFL
The San Diego Chargers signed Dempsey to a contract in 1968, but he only got to play on the practice squad, losing the job to Dennis Partee, another rookie kicker. The New Orleans Saints picked up his contract in 1969, and he made first-team All-Pro. After another Pro-Bowl season with the Saints in 1970, Dempsey struggled during the 1971 pre-season, and the team released him.
For the next four seasons, Dempsey played for the Philadelphia Eagles. In 1971 he made three field goals that were longer than 50 yards and led the league with a .706 percentage. In a 1972 victory over the Houston Oilers, he scored all of the Eagles’ 18 points with six field goals–a team record that still stands.
The 6–1, 260-pound Dempsey never liked to be called “a kicker.” “I’m a football player that kicks,” he said. He didn’t want people to think of him as just a kicking specialist, so he looked for contact on special teams. Dempsey, a defensive lineman in high school, is credited with making six unassisted tackles during the 1974 season.
On one tackle, Giants return man Leon McQuay ran down the field for what appeared to be a sure touchdown until Dempsey nailed him and knocked him out. “He liked to hit people,” said his wife Charlene in a 2013 interview. “He didn’t care if he got his bell rung.”
Tom Dempsey's Later Career
After leaving the Eagles, he played two seasons with the LA Rams, one with the Houston Oilers and two with the Buffalo Bills, some questioned whether Dempsey had an unfair advantage because of his custom-made shoe. When asked if he thought it was unfair, he said, “Unfair? How about you try kicking a 63-yard field goal wearing a square shoe and no toes either.”
Tom Dempsey overcame a disability he had to deal with from birth to become an elite NFL kicker. In this writer’s opinion, trying to diminish this man’s accomplishments is a terrible injustice.
After a successful 11-year career as an NFL kicker, Dempsey retired, went into the automobile sales business, and did some coaching. Dempsey also did work for charitable organizations such as Muscular Dystrophy events.
Dempsey was a devoted family man. He married his wife Charlene in 1971, and they had three children together. They also had three grandchildren. Sadly, the couple’s home in Louisiana was flooded in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina. But always the positive thinker, Dempsey said: “The hurricane flooded me out of a lot of my memorabilia, but it can’t flood out the memories.”
But those memories began fading away about eight years later when Dempsey was diagnosed with dementia. He died on April 4, 2020, of complications from COVID-19 and other ongoing health issues. Dempsey was 73 yrs old.
Tom Dempsey was a true inspiration, not only to those who have disabilities but to anyone who fights to overcome everyday obstacles.
Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond. He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area.
He is also an author of No Nonsense, Old School Weight Training (Second Edition): A Guide for People with Limited Time and Running Wild: (Growing Up in the 1970s)
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