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NFL Legend: Tom Dempsey

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Tom Dempsey kicking

Tom Dempsey kicking

Tom Dempsey's NFL Career

It was November 8, 1970, and the New Orleans Saints were down 17-16 to the Detroit Lions. Two seconds were left in the game. The Saints were on their own 37-yard line. There were 63 yards standing between them and the end zone. J.D. Roberts was the Saints' head coach. A job he had held for a week. As he was considering his options, Tom Dempsey walked up to him and told him he could kick a field goal. Roberts quickly realized he had no other viable option. He told Dempsey to get ready. When the ball was snapped, Dempsey took a step toward the ball and hit it with as much force as he could muster. The ball traveled 63 yards and just made it over the crossbar in the end zone. The Saints had won the game 19-17 with no time left on the clock. Dempsey had earned his status as an NFL legend.

Early Years

Thomas Dempsey was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 12, 1947. His family later moved to Encinitas, California. Dempsey attended San Dieguito High School. During this time, he refused to be bothered by his body's congenital defects. He had four missing fingers on his right hand and only a partial right foot. During his time in high school, he was heavily involved in sports. Dempsey ran track, wrestled, and also played football. He was known for his size; he weighed 255 pounds and was 6 feet 2 inches. He was an offensive lineman and known for sending opponents flying. When this happened, his team referred to it as doing the Dempsey.

Tom Dempsey high school picture

Tom Dempsey high school picture

College Kicker

Once he finished high school, Dempsey went to San Marcos, California, and became a student at Palomar Junior College. Initially, he played a defensive end for the school's football team. There came a time when the team needed a kicker. The coach had all the players on the team line up. They were then asked to do their best at kicking the ball. None of the other players could kick the ball harder or farther than Dempsey. He then became the team's kicker. Dempsey liked to kick barefoot with the end of his foot wrapped in athletic tape.

Professional Football

When he was at college, Dempsey played as a lineman and a kicker. His strength made him a formidable force on the field. Dempsey also had trouble controlling his temper. He was eventually kicked off his college team for hitting one of his coaches. Soon after this happened, Dempsey tried out for the Green Bay Packers. He discovered the professional players were too much for him. The on-field collisions that occurred with an offensive lineman didn't appeal to him. Dempsey then decided to focus all of his energy on kicking. In 1968, he was given a spot on the practice squad of the San Diego Chargers. The coach's name was Sid Gillman. He encouraged Dempsey to pursue his desire to be a kicker in the NFL.

Tom Dempsey's special kicking boot

Tom Dempsey's special kicking boot

Special Boot

Gillman contacted an orthopedist. He expressed his desire to have a special leather shoe created for Dempsey to wear for kicking during a game. A boot was then created that had a block of leather almost 2 inches thick on one end and was also mostly flat. Dempsey didn't have to kick soccer-style as many NFL kickers have done. Dempsey was now able to use his leg like a hammer hitting a blunt flat surface. The special boot cost $200 to fabricate. In 1969, Dempsey joined the New Orleans Saints. During his rookie year, he made 22 out of 41 field goals. His performance was enough to earn him a spot in the Pro Bowl.

Tom Dempsey Rule

Many people witnessed Dempsey's recording-setting kick. They were overwhelmed that someone born with such physical limitations was able to set a kicking record in the NFL. Others saw it differently. Some believed Dempsey's kicking boot gave him an unfair advantage. Tex Schramm was chairman of the NFL's competition committee as well as an executive with the Dallas Cowboys. He believed Dempsey's boot wasn't fair to other kickers. Schramm said Dempsey's boot enabled him to smash a football like a golf club hits a golf ball. This led to the creation of the “Tom Dempsey Rule.” This rule mandates all people without a normally shaped foot be required to wear a shoe that was shaped like a normal foot. Kickers would no longer be able to use special orthopedic shoes.

Kick Aftermath

After his recording-setting kick, Dempsey got a letter from President Richard Nixon congratulating him on his inspirational performance. Police officers in the stadium congratulated Dempsey by giving him a case of Dixie beer. His girlfriend named Carlene said Dempsey didn't come home for a few days because he was busy partying. Soon after this is when he settled down. Carlene and Dempsey then got married.

Tom Dempsey during his retirement

Tom Dempsey during his retirement

NFL Career

Tom Dempsey was in the NFL for a total of 11 years. He played for the New Orleans Saints, Houston Oilers, Los Angeles Rams, and Philadelphia Eagles, and ended his career with the Buffalo Bills. During his career, he attempted 258 field goals and made 159 of them. After leaving the NFL, Dempsey worked as a salesman in the oil industry. He also managed a car lot and retired in 2008. He then settled in New Orleans. Dempsey was popular for making appearances and giving autographs. He was usually asked questions about the one kick that defined his NFL career.

New York Times article about Tom Dempsey's death

New York Times article about Tom Dempsey's death


Tom Dempsey passed away on April 4, 2020, he was 73 years old. Dempsey has been fighting the effects of dementia and Alzheimer's disease since 2012. He also contracted the coronavirus in March 2020.


New York Times


Mental Floss

NBC News


Readmikenow (author) on January 02, 2021: as well.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on January 01, 2021:

It was and I love to watch sports. Have a great year!

Readmikenow (author) on January 01, 2021:

Fran, thanks. Being able to have seen Tom Dempsey play must be a real special memory.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on January 01, 2021:

Mike, love the story and I was lucky to see him play. Heart warming.