Monday April 06, 2020
Tom Dempsey (1947-2020)
It feels like I‘ve always known Tom Dempsey’s name. I became a football fan in 1972, at age 9, when his 63-yard field goal for the New Orleans Saints to beat the Detroit Lions 19-17 two years earlier was already the stuff of legend. As was he. He had half a foot. That's what we were always told. Some part of me thought it was chopped off, like Kunta Kinte‘s, but he’d been born that way, without toes or fingers on his right side.
It was particularly the stuff of legend because I never got the chance to see it. You'd watch highlights on “NFL Films” Saturday afternoons, but it was recent stuff, not two-year-old stuff—at least not when I was watching. Or it'd be about winning teams, not the New Orleans Saints, for god's sake. I actually didn't see the kick until about two years ago when someone posted a video on Twitter. Check it out—it's astonishing. Like the Minnesota Vikings' Fred Cox, Dempsey was one of the last of the straight-on kickers, so it was just a couple steps back, head down, boom. Look at the distance traveled. The athletic way that field-goal kickers kick today, using their entire body, was known as “soccer-style” back then. It was the new wave. Cox and Dempsey were the old guys.
Back then, a 45-yard field goal was a nail-biter and anything over 50 was a big ask. Even Dempsey. In his first season, 1969, he tried 11 field goals from 50+ yards and made one. The year he did it, 1970, he was 3 for 9 from that distance. Career: 12 of 39. Even for Dempsey it was basically a 30% shot.
So 63 yards? Add on his handicap and it was a great story.
Some complained his half foot, and the special shoe that went with it, wasn't a handicap so much as a cheat. It gave him an unfair advantage. From the Washington Post's obit:
Tex Schramm, a Dallas Cowboys executive and chairman of the NFL's competition committee, compared Dempsey's shoe to “the head of a golf club with a sledgehammer surface,” and in 1977 the NFL passed “the Dempsey rule,” which required kickers' shoes to have a kicking surface that conforms to that of a normal kicking shoe. It was a rule that offended Dempsey.
“The owners make the rules,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2010, “and my favorite saying about owners is, ‘If you threw them a jockstrap, they’d put it on as a nose guard.' They don't know a damn thing about football.”
The Post adds that recently “ESPN Sport Science analyzed the kick and determined that the shoe, now on display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, actually was a disadvantage for Dempsey.”
Effin' Cowboys. Always screw shit up.
But this is how big and legendary that kick was. Dempsey broke the previous record (Bert Rechichar, Colts, 1953, 56 yards) by seven yards, which is like a Bob Beamon leap in excellence. No one even tied Dempsey's mark until 1998 (Jason Elam) and no one broke it until 2013 (Matt Prater). It took nearly a half-century—and they did it by just one yard. Is Prater legendary now? I don't know. I'm not a football fan or a kid anymore. I just know the place Dempsey had for us.
He had the longest NFL field goal three years in a row (1969-1971), and in 1971, now with Philadelphia, he led the league in field goal percentage (70.6%), but he was an All-Pro only once (1969) and he isn't in the Hall. The soccer-style guys took over. His last year in the NFL was in 1979, with Buffalo.
He retired with his wife, a school teacher, to a suburb of New Orleans, but the 21st century wasn't kind. First, came Hurricane Katrina, which flooded their home. Wiki has a quote from Dempsey, saying it “flooded me out of a lot of memorabilia, but it can't flood out the memories.” Then life took the memories: Alzheimer's and dementia. He was moved to a nursing home. This year, COVID-19 swept through the nursing home and he contracted it. He died this weekend.
The moment before the moment.