Tom Dempsey, who died of COVID-19, was a unique NFL football player


Hearing Tom Dempsey’s name always made me think of bravery.

Not in the manner sports broadcasters refer to courage on the playing field, which is generally inappropriate. Courage is demonstrated on the battlefield in war. Bravery can symbolize day-to-day living.

Dempsey, who died in early April at 73 from COVID-19, was an NFL kicker mostly in the 1970s who set one enduring league record on paper and another as a unique human undaunted by obstacles.

Born without toes on his right foot and no fingers on his right hand, his was a fluke of a physical disability that never disabled Dempsey because his heart and spirit were extra large.

Dempsey played a practical joke right back on God, becoming a professional football placekicker.

One can only wonder how many times Dempsey was told, “You can’t do that” before he did it. Of course, he had to do more convincing than most. He was born in Wisconsin, attended high school in California and played college football at small-school Palomar. No NFL team bothered with him in the 1969 draft.

Children are perpetrators of harsh teasing if someone is in any way different; however, Dempsey also grew to 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, so he did have built-in physical intimidation stature as a reply.

So was his kicking. Dempsey hooked on with the New Orleans Saints, the team he was most closely identified with, though he spent just two of his 11 pro seasons with them.

Dempsey was in his second NFL season in 1970 when he astonished the football world with a 63-yard field goal. On Nov. 8, Dempsey’s boot gave New Orleans a 19-17 win over the Detroit Lions at Tulane Stadium, then the team’s home field, with just seconds to play. It actually seemed almost goofy the Saints even gave the kick a shot.

Speaking of Dempsey’s boot, he wore a modified shoe to make up for the absence of toes. Unlike other shoes with a pointy front, Dempsey’s was flat in front.

In comparative sports terms, Dempsey lapped the old field goal distance record of 56 yards belonging to Bert Rechichar of the Colts set in 1953. Dempsey employed the old straight-ahead style of kicking, the soccer style now universally used just coming into vogue.

Some sports reporters challenged Dempsey’s use of an individually tailored shoe, wondering if it was an “unfair” piece of equipment. Dempsey retorted, “Unfair, eh?” Listing the shape of the shoe as a disadvantage, being under pressure with two seconds to go, and, oh yeah, having no toes on his kicking foot.

Life had been unfair to Dempsey, and this was his greatest moment, yet some doubted him. That is what seemed unfair, as well as insulting, than anything else. It was an inspirational achievement. Enough so that the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, now has possession of the famous shoe.

The art of field goal kicking has matured since Dempsey retired in 1979. Dempsey faded from public consciousness, but his 63-yarder did not. It seemed permanently engraved in the league record book even as higher accuracy levels and longer distance three-pointers became routine.

Twenty-eight years passed before Dempsey’s record was tied by Jason Elam. Sebastian Janikowski and David Akers also hit 63-yard kicks in the early 2010s. A 64-yard field goal by Matt Prater of the Denver Broncos finally broke Dempsey’s mark in 2013 after standing for 43 years.

Dempsey bonded most closely with Louisiana and settled near New Orleans after he retired, though his family’s house was flooded during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Kickers are the small men of football, usually engaged in less combat than any of their 10 teammates on the field. However, in his era, Dempsey was tackle-sized, and the thing was he liked to tackle people. He practically considered it a wasted field appearance if he did not hit someone hard.

He paid for that enthusiasm, doctors telling him later in life his encroaching dementia probably stemmed from contact.

Physical deformities, dementia, flooding. This guy was owed a better break in life than the litany of bad luck he suffered. But then, living in a nursing home, Tom Dempsey contracted the coronavirus, and that is what killed him.

Lew Freedman is the Sports Editor for The Tribune. Send comments to lfreedman@

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