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Tom Dempsey, former NFL kicker and Saints hero, dies at 73

New Orleans Saints' Tom Dempsey prepares to kick a 63-yard field goal on Nov. 8, 1970.
New Orleans Saints’ Tom Dempsey prepares to kick a 63-yard field goal on Nov. 8, 1970. Teammate Joe Scarpati holds the ball and Detroit Lions’ Alex Karras (71) rushes in.
(Associated Press)

Tom Dempsey, who held the NFL record for longest field goal for more than 40 years, died late Saturday of complications from the novel coronavirus, his daughter said. He was 73.

The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate first reported Dempsey’s death. The paper said Dempsey contracted the virus in March during an outbreak at the Lambeth House retirement home in Uptown New Orleans, where he lived for several years after being diagnosed with dementia. He is one of at least 15 residents there to die after being stricken with the disease.

Dempsey, who was born in Milwaukee with half a right foot and just a thumb and pinkie on his right hand, is remembered for one monster kick.

On Nov. 8, 1970, in Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, he kicked an NFL-record 63-yard field goal on the final play to give the Saints a 19-17 win over the Detroit Lions.

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“Tell Stumpy (Dempsey’s nickname) to get ready to kick a long one,” Saints special teams coach Don Heinrich said at the time, according to media reports.

The 22-year-old Dempsey had no idea “long” was 63 yards — seven yards farther than the NFL record at the time.

“I thought I could handle the distance, whatever it was,” Dempsey, who had already kicked three field goals in the game, told the North County Times in 2012. “I was more concerned with kicking it straight.”

The ball sneaked over the crossbar by about a foot, setting off a wild celebration with Dempsey being carried off the field by his teammates.

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By that time, Dempsey was wearing a specially fitted square-toed kicking shoe that some claim helped his record boot. But an ESPN “Sports Science” report proved the shoe was a disadvantage because he had less kicking surface on the ball than a straight-on or soccer-style kicker.

Dempsey’s kick stood as an NFL record for 43 years until the Broncos’ Matt Prater broke it with a 64-yarder in Denver in 2013. Three other NFL players have kicked a 63-yarder outside of Denver, where the mile-high altitude helps carry the ball farther than at sea level.

“Tom’s life spoke directly to the power of the human spirit and exemplified his resolute determination to not allow setbacks to impede following his dreams and aspirations,” Saints owner Gayle Benson said in a statement. “He exemplified the same fight and fortitude in recent years as he battled valiantly against illnesses but never wavered and kept his trademark sense of humor.”

Dempsey — who played 11 seasons in the NFL — was a multi-sport athlete at San Dieguito High in San Diego and Palomar Community College in San Marcos. He was a two-way starter for Palomar and an all-conference defensive tackle. He was also an outstanding wrestler and shot putter.

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In August 2012 he was honored along with 14 others in Palomar’s inaugural Athletic Hall of Fame.

“Tom was one hell of an athlete,” former Palomar teammate Junior Morton said then. “He was a great lineman — both on offense and defense. He wrestled, and he threw the shot. He never let the hand or foot stop him.

“Really, the guy could do anything.”

And while he gained fame as a kicker, he had never kicked before attending Palomar.

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“He used to boot what I called ‘wormburners,’ ” said Bill Sullivan, Dempsey’s teammate at San Dieguito and Palomar. “He kicked with a regular shoe, so he couldn’t get the ball in the air.”

All that changed at Palomar.

“We had a pretty good kicker, but he had trouble on kickoffs,” Dempsey said. “One day, a bunch of us were standing around and a coach said ‘Which one of you [guys] can kick?’ I took off my shoe and kicked one out of the end zone. He asked me to do it again, and I did.”

Those kicks earned Dempsey the job and a star was born.

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Dempsey played two seasons with the Saints, four with the Eagles, two with the Rams, one with the Oilers and two with the Bills. He was first-team All-NFL in 1969 and finished his career making 159 of 258 field-goal attempts and 281 PATs.

“Nothing could hold Tom back,” Sullivan said. “He was fearless. He was a great all-around athlete, who never made excuses.

“Once he took his shoe off and started kicking with a sock, his career took off.”

Dempsey’s nomadic career had its share of peaks and valleys. He said he liked playing in L.A. “when the Rams really were the Rams,” hated Buffalo and settled in New Orleans.

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“I married a Louisiana girl,” said Dempsey, whose home was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“After the hurricane, I told my wife there was good news and bad news. She asked me for the good news and I told her she was getting the new furniture she wanted a lot sooner than she thought.

“The bad news was that we didn’t have a house to put it in.”

Dempsey said he had six concussions in his 11-year career. Until his illness, he worked with concussion patients at Tulane University.

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“I had a good, long career, and had a lot of fun,” Dempsey said.

He is survived by wife Carlene, three children, a sister and grandchildren.

Information from a 2012 story in the North County Times was used in this report. The Associated Press also contributed.


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