For better or worse, NFL kickers a similar space to goalies and baseball closers. All three roles are incredibly specialized; your entire career depends on your ability to do one, seemingly simple job under incredible pressure. On the gridiron, though, New Orleans Saints kicker Tom Dempsey still made a name for himself.
The Saints legend, however, unfortunately, died on Saturday night, due to complications from the novel coronavirus. With that in mind, let’s remember the man who nailed one of the NFL’s most famous kicks, even though he was born without any toes on his right foot.
Tom Dempsey’s NFL kicking career
Tom Dempsey was born without any fingers on his right hand or toes on his right foot. Despite those challenges, however, he still found a home on the gridiron.
In college, Dempsey actually played as a defensive lineman. When he made it to the NFL, however, he made a name for himself in a much different position: kicker.
Donning a special shoe on his right foot, which came to a flat front, not unlike a hammer, Dempsey started out his career with the New Orleans Saints. He spent two seasons in the Big Easy, before heading north to Philadelphia; after four campaigns in Philly, he joined the Rams, Oilers, and Bills before calling it a career.
When everything was said and done, Dempsey played 11 professional seasons, converting 127 of 159 field goals and 252 of 282 extra points. He earned a spot in the Pro Bowl and was named an All-Pro during that same season.
Kicking a historic field goal
During Tom Dempsey’s years with the Saints, the club was a far cry from the powerhouse they are now. In 1970, however, the kicker gave the crowd at Tulane Stadium something to cheer about.
With the clock winding down, Dempsey trotted onto the field to attempt a game-winning field goal. There was a catch, however; he would be kicking from his own 37-yard line. That distance, though, turned out to be a mere number, as Dempsey booted the ball 63-yards to win the game.
That kick would stand as the league’s longest field goal for over 40 years. While several kickers tied Dempsey’s mark, no one eclipsed it until 2013; Matt Prater broke the record by a single yard, although he had the advantage of kicking in Denver.
Beyond that kick, Dempsey also earned a place in NFL history due to his distinctive kicking boot. While it doesn’t seem like the flattened surface gave him any advantage, the league wasn’t taking any chances. In 1977, the “Tom Dempsey Rule” hit the books, saying that “any shoe that is worn by a player with an artificial limb on his kicking leg must have a kicking surface that conforms to that of a normal kicking shoe.”
Remembering the late Tom Dempsey
Unfortunately, Tom Dempsey’s playing career took its toll. During his time on the field, kickers weren’t protected specialists; they took and dished out hits just like anyone else. In later years, he struggled with dementia and was found to have several holes in his brain.
Dempsey, who was living at a retirement home in New Orleans, recently contracted the coronavirus. According to his family, he died late Saturday night due to complications from the disease.
“Our thoughts and prayers are extended to Carlene and the entire Dempsey family on the passing of their dear Tom,” Saints owner Gayle Benson said in a statement. “The New Orleans Saints family is deeply saddened and heartbroken at this most difficult time. 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. 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. He holds a special place in the hearts and minds of the Saints family.”