Tom Dempsey was born without all the fingers on his right hand and no toes on his right foot.
For most people, such an impairment would mean giving up on dreams typically reserved for able-bodied people.
That wasn’t Dempsey’s mindset, however.
Even without digits on the right side of his body, Dempsey played football in high school, college and in the NFL.
In 1970 as a member of the New Orleans Saints, Dempsey kicked a 63-yard field goal to help the Saints beat the Detroit Lions.
46 years ago today, Tom Dempsey kicked a then-NFL record 63-yard field goal to give the Saints a win over the Lions pic.twitter.com/RMzrAW9ZZb
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 8, 2016
That set an NFL record for longest field goal in a season that wasn’t broken until 2013.
Although he played for five different teams during his pro career, Dempsey will always be remembered for overcoming physical obstacles to become one of the most memorable specialists in league history.
This is the story of Tom Dempsey.
Thomas John Dempsey was born on January 12, 1947, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Not long after his birth, the Dempsey family moved to Southern California.
Since he was born with no toes on his right foot and most of the fingers on his right hand, young Tom tried to make excuses for his disability.
His father wouldn’t have it.
“I was very fortunate and my dad had a lot to do with it,” said Dempsey. “I remember one day I was building something and I said, ‛Dammit, I can’t get this done.’ And he said, ‛Boy, you never say can’t. You may have to do something differently, but you can do it.’”
In elementary school, Dempsey was known to baffle classmates when he sidled up to the playground bars and knocked out one-handed chin-ups.
By the time he was in middle school, Dempsey was more than holding his own as a burgeoning athlete.
“I think his parents deserved the primary credit for that,” said a longtime family associate. “They never let him use his disability as an excuse for not doing something.”
Dempsey began playing baseball shortly after and became an all-star.
“I was fascinated by this guy who would catch the ball, throw the glove off, flip it to his hand and throw it back to the pitcher,” high school and college teammate Bill Sullivan said.
Rarely idle, Dempsey then took up wrestling, track, and football at San Dieguito High School in Encinitas, California.
Tom Dempsey, former San Dieguito High School (now LCC), owned the record for longest FG–with a half foot, mind youhttps://t.co/Lsq69irEGF
— Keith Demolder (@KeithDemolder) October 16, 2017
In track, he was a superb shot putter and was a conference heavyweight champion in wrestling.
Dempsey also set a Mustang record for most heavyweight division victories.
What really revved Dempsey’s engine was playing football.
He played on both sides of the ball as a lineman for San Dieguito and Dempsey knew how to bring the thunder.
“You had to be really tough to play on the line on that team and Tom really was,” Sullivan said.
After high school, Dempsey didn’t have any interest from major universities, so he and Sullivan enrolled at Palomar College in San Marcos, California.
Now playing at the junior college level, Dempsey used his wrestling background to chuck opponents out of the way while continuing to play as a lineman.
“He never used that [his disability] for an excuse,” said Sullivan. “He would just get in there and play and do whatever we were doing well. Even with half of a foot, he was able to outrun some players on our Palomar team. He always gave 110 percent.”
In fact, Dempsey was skilled enough that he was selected as an All-Conference player at defensive tackle.
Then one day, just for the fun of it, Dempsey tried kicking off to the side after practice.
“He used to boot what I called ‘wormburners,’” said Sullivan. “He kicked with a regular shoe, so he couldn’t get the ball in the air.”
That changed when a Palomar coach asked for someone to handle kickoffs.
Happy Birthday to the late Tom Dempsey, out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Palomar College; 11 year @NFL career; best known for his 63 yard field goal in 1970 a record which stood for over 40 years; Pro Bowl 1969, 1st Team All Pro 1969, @Saints Hall of Fame; 1-12-1947 to 4-4-2020.. pic.twitter.com/Y4atjlulqC
— Larry in Missouri (@LarryInMissouri) January 12, 2021
Not one to back down from a challenge, Dempsey stepped up.
“We had a pretty good kicker, but he had trouble on kickoffs,” Dempsey said in 2012. “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.”
Dempsey, the kicker, was born.
It wasn’t long before Dempsey was starring as a every-down lineman and also blasting kicks for the Comets.
“I thought some of his kicks would go into orbit,” said Sullivan. “Once he took his shoe off and started kicking with a sock, his career took off.”
Dempsey Becomes a Professional Athlete
While at Palomar, then-San Diego Chargers head coach Sid Gillman happened by and spotted Dempsey kicking the football.
Although he wasn’t selected in the 1968 NFL Draft, Dempsey was signed as a free agent by Gillman and the Chargers.
He then spent the season on San Diego’s taxi squad.
Now that he was in the NFL as a bona fide kicker, Gillman and Dempsey had a special shoe constructed that was made from leather and included a nearly two inch block at the toe.
The shoe Tom Dempsey kicked his 63-yard field goal with in 1970. pic.twitter.com/kWRblptFNx
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) November 19, 2015
If one examined the boot closely, it looked like a mini sledgehammer.
“I always fought with Coach Gillman over the design,” Dempsey said in 2010, “because I wanted it lighter. You get a big ol’ heavy shoe, you don’t have a lot of control over it.”
After the ‘68 season, Dempsey was claimed by the New Orleans Saints, a franchise about to embark on its third season in 1969.
That year, Dempsey attempted an NFL-high 41 field goals and made just 22 (53% success rate) although he nailed a league-best 55-yard try.
Dempsey was much better on extra points, making 33 of 35 attempts (94%) for the 5-9 Saints.
Even with his low field goal percentage, Dempsey was selected as a first-team All-Pro and chosen for the Pro Bowl.
It was the first week of November during the 1970 season and the Saints were not happy.
After a 1-5-1 start, head coach Tom Fears, a former LA Rams receiver, was fired by Saints’ management.
J.D. Roberts was then hired by team owner John Mecom to take over.
Roberts was not well received by the players and they were angered at the release of Fears.
Roberts’ first game with New Orleans happened to be a Week 8 home game against the 5-2 Detroit Lions.
Although the Lions were supposed to be the far superior team, they only held a 17-16 lead with 11 seconds left.
The Saints had the ball and were trying to get within field goal position.
Veteran quarterback Billy Kilmer found receiver Al Dodd for a quick completion by the sidelines and Dodd stepped out of bounds with two seconds left.
That’s when Saints special teams coach Don Heinrich called for “Stumpy,” as Dempsey was affectionately called by his teammates.
“Tell Stumpy to get ready to go in and kick a long one,” said Heinrich.
New Orleans was perched on the Lions’ 45-yard line, meaning Dempsey’s kick would be from 63 yards.
It just so happened that the longest field goal in NFL history had been from 56 yards.
Our thoughts are with the family of legendary @Saints kicker Tom Dempsey, who passed away after contracting coronavirus.
His 63-yard field goal was an NFL record for 43 years. pic.twitter.com/6kgNefLzAe
— NFL (@NFL) April 5, 2020
When it came time to kick, Dempsey wasn’t too worried about the distance.
“I was more concerned about kicking it straight because I felt like I could handle the distance,” Dempsey said years later. “I knew I was going to get a perfect snap from Jackie Burkett and a perfect hold from Joe Scarpati. It was all up to me. I hit it sweet.”
By then, many fans in attendance had left and ended up missing the longest made field goal in league history.
“I don’t believe this,” CBS analyst Don Criqui said out loud to the television audience. “It’s GOOD! I don’t believe it!”
Inexplicably, the kicker with the sledgehammer toe nailed the 63-yarder and won the game, 19-17.
When interviewed after the game, the Lions still couldn’t believe Dempsey’s half foot had beaten them.
“Before the game I saw this guy Dempsey missing short field goals, extra points, you name it,” Lions kicker Errol Mann told reporters. “He was all over the place with his kicks.”
When asked, Dempsey told the media he was sure he would make the attempt.
“The Lions’ players were laughing at me,” Dempsey said. “They didn’t think there was any way I could make it, but I had kicked a couple from 69 (yards) in practice, so I knew I could do it.”
When the Saints players left the stadium, they immediately took Dempsey out for a night on the town.
“We were there, with all the guys, until the wee hours,” Dempsey said. “From what I recall, I had a great time.”
In the weeks after his famous kick, a number of NFL players, coaches, and team owners were upset.
According to them, Dempsey’s square boot gave him an unfair advantage over specialists who kicked with a regular shoe.
In the aftermath of Justin Tucker's 66-yard FG vs. the #Lions, let's revisit #Cowboys GM Tex Schramm saying in 1970 that Tom Dempsey should get "an asterisk" for his record 63-yarder because his "physical disability" gave him "an advantage" over other kickers. #Ravens #Saints pic.twitter.com/WdmvPAG327
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) September 27, 2021
Dallas Cowboys president and general manager Tex Schramm was one of the more vocal critics and Dempsey fired back.
“(Dallas Cowboys President) Tex Schramm said I had an advantage because of my shoe,” Dempsey once said. “Heck, I didn’t ask to be born this way!”
Dempsey was still fired up about Schramm’s comments later and fired off another memorable quote.
“Unfair eh,” Dempsey snorted. “How ’bout you try kickin’ a 63-yard field goal to win it with 2 seconds left — an’ yer wearin’ a square shoe. Oh, yeah, and no toes, either.”
For the record, Dempsey set the NFL record with his kick against the Lions in 1970, but he also made only 18 of his 34 field goal attempts for a 52% success rate that year.
He was 16 of 17 in extra point tries.
Dempsey Becomes an Eagle
Dempsey’s kick heard round the world made him instantly famous.
However, his erratic kicking and low conversion percentage in the 1971 preseason led the Saints to release him.
Going through some old cards. Just came across this 1971 one of Saints kicker Tom Dempsey, who passed away last week. Kicked in Lowell prior to NFL career. pic.twitter.com/pQg0xJBXNJ
— Barry Scanlon (@Scanlon65) April 13, 2020
It also didn’t help that the kicker had spent many months glad-handing well wishers who wanted to fete Dempsey with copious amounts of food and drink.
“Instead of lifting weights, I was lifting too many forks and spoons and knives,” Dempsey joked.
The Philadelphia Eagles were only too happy to sign Dempsey before the ‘71 regular season.
After arriving in the City of Brotherly Love, Dempsey was quick to point out he wasn’t just a kicker.
“Kickers,” he said, “are weird. I’m a football player that kicks.”
While Philly went 6-7-1 that year, Dempsey’s kicking improved after connecting on 12 of 17 attempts for a league-high 70.6% success rate.
Philadelphia Eagles (1971-1974) pic.twitter.com/HULseroaVX
— Random Philly Athletes (@philly_athletes) June 12, 2022
He also missed only one extra point.
During a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Dempsey booted a 54-yard try, setting a team record.
For the next three years, Dempsey continued to kick for the Eagles and his conversion rate hovered around 60%.
In 1972, he set another Eagles record by making six field goals in a contest against the Houston Oilers.
In fact, he single-handedly won the game for Philly, 18-17.
“Usually it’s a thump,” said teammate Bill Bradley in describing Dempsey’s kicks, “but with Tom, it’s a boom.”
Dempsey connected on all of his extra points in 1973, the only time in his career he was perfect in PATs.
At the conclusion of the 1974 season, Dempsey was released by the Eagles and signed by the LA Rams.
Playing near home was a god-send and he was also fortunate (at long last) to play for an organization that won football games.
In 1975, the Rams went 12-2 and advanced to play in the NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys before losing 37-7.
Dempsey had by far the best year of his career by netting 21 of 26 kicks for a nearly 81% success rate.
As a kid, a friend had a Tom Dempsey football card. The Rams kicker had no toes on his right foot, but he was able to kick field goals with a stubby shoe like a golf-club head. I was fascinated and heartened by his heroic, Marvel-like ability to turn his defect into a superpower. pic.twitter.com/b0HTZnqbs5
— L.A. Dork (@la_dorkout) February 15, 2021
The following year, 10-3-1 LA returned to the NFC Championship game before losing to the Minnesota Vikings.
Dempsey wasn’t as accurate in 1976, converting on 17 of his 26 attempts (65%).
In 1977, Dempsey was sent packing by the Rams and he signed on with the Houston Oilers for five games before he was released again.
That same year, the NFL adopted “The Tom Dempsey Rule.”
It stipulated that “a shoe on an artificial limb must have a kicking surface that conforms to that of a normal kicking shoe.”
Although Dempsey didn’t have an artificial limb, the rule still applied to him.
Following his brief stay in Houston, Dempsey signed with the Buffalo Bills in 1978 and made all but three of his field goal tries for 77% as the Bills went 5-11.
Buffalo kept Dempsey for three games in 1979 before releasing him after he made just one of four attempts.
With the conclusion of the 1979 season, Dempsey retired.
Tom Dempsey pic.twitter.com/9mh1y0pGmJ
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) June 4, 2023
In his career, he made 159 of 258 field goal attempts for an overall percentage of 61.6%.
Dempsey went 252 of 282 in PATs for an 89.4% success rate.
He was a one-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro and received the George Halas Award in 1971 for overcoming adversity to succeed in the NFL.
Additionally, Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal in 1970 set a league record.
A replica of his kicking shoe is on display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Dempsey’s record was tied by Denver’s Jason Elam in 1998, Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski in 2011 and David Akers of San Francisco in 2012.
Then, in 2013, Broncos kicker Matt Prater broke the record with a 64-yard boot before the Baltimore Ravens’ Justin Tucker hit a 66-yard try in 2021 to set a new record.
Coincidentally, Tucker’s kick came against the Detroit Lions.
Retirement and Death
After leaving the NFL, Dempsey made sure to tell anyone who would listen that his big kick against Detroit wasn’t the only meaningful kick of his career.
“People think of my career as a one-kick career,” Dempsey said, “but I had a lot of game-winners.”
Dempsey and his wife, Carlene, had three children and the family returned to the New Orleans area upon his retirement.
When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, the Dempsey’s home was lost due to flooding.
Instead of grieving the loss, Dempsey did his best to laugh in the face of devastation.
“After the hurricane, I told my wife there was good news and bad news,” said Dempsey. “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.”
In early 2013, Dempsey announced that he was in the early stages of dementia.
By 2020, he was in an assisted living facility that was hit hard by the coronavirus.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) April 5, 2020
Dempsey contracted the virus and died due to its complications on March 30, 2020.
He was 73.
“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. “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.”