Tom Dempsey, who played in the National Football League despite being born without toes on his kicking foot and made a record 63-yard field goal for the New Orleans Saints, died April 4. He was 73.
Mr. Dempsey’s game-winning field goal against Detroit on Nov. 8, 1970, stood as an NFL record for 43 years until the Broncos’ Matt Prater broke it with a 64-yarder in Denver in 2013.
Mr. Dempsey spent 11 years in the NFL. His first two seasons were with New Orleans (1969-70), the next four with Philadelphia, then two with the Los Angeles Rams, one with the Houston Oilers and the final two with Buffalo. He retired after the 1979 season.
Mr. Dempsey was born in Milwaukee without four fingers on his right hand and without toes on his right foot. He kicked straight on with a flat-front shoe that drew protests from some who saw the specially-made kicking shoe as an unfair advantage. Former Dallas Cowboys president Tex Schramm compared the shoe to “the head of a golf club.”
But Mr. Dempsey would counter that by saying he was merely doing the best he could to use the foot with which he was born. For the most part, NFL officials — including then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle — agreed.
Still, in 1977, the NFL passed what is widely known as the Dempsey Rule, mandating that shoes worn by players with “an artificial limb on his kicking leg must have a kicking surface that conforms to that of a normal kicking shoe.”
Mr. Dempsey returned to New Orleans after retiring from the league. His kick has remained part of Saints lore, standing as one of the greatest moments in the history of a franchise that didn’t make the playoffs until 1987, its 21st season, and didn’t win a playoff game until the 2000 season.
At the time of the kick, the Superdome had yet to be built, and the Saints played home games in the old Tulane Stadium, which was demolished in 1979.
The Lions led 17-16 after a short field goal with 11 seconds left.
With no timeouts, the Saints moved the ball to their own 45 with 2 seconds left after Billy Kilmer completed a pass to Al Dodd along the sideline.
According to media reports, special teams coach Don Heinrich was heard barking, “Tell Stumpy to get ready to go in and kick a long one.”
At that time, goal posts were on the goal line, not behind the end zone. The spot of the kick was the Saints’ 37.
“I was more concerned about kicking it straight because I felt I could handle the distance,” Mr. Dempsey told the Times-Picayune newspaper. “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.”
Kilmer told the Times-Picayune he remembers standing on the sideline seeing Lions players across the field laughing as Mr. Dempsey lined up for the momentous kick.
“They thought Tom had no chance,” Kilmer said.
But Mr. Dempsey was carried off the field on the shoulders of teammates and recalled spending all night celebrating at a Bourbon Street bar.
“We were there, with all the guys, until the wee hours,” he said. “From what I can recall, I had a great time.”
Both the shoe with which Mr. Dempsey kicked the 63-yarder and the ball are in the Saints Hall of Fame in New Orleans, into which Mr. Dempsey was inducted in 1989. The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, has another of Mr. Dempsey’s specially-made kicking shoes, but Mr. Dempsey wanted the mementos of the record-breaking kick to remain in New Orleans.
He is survived by his wife, Carlene; three children; a sister; and a number of grandchildren.
Read more Washington Post obituaries