Commentary

Tom Dempsey: One kick does wonders

Forty years later, his magical 63-yard FG still opens doors, excites memories

Originally Published: November 4, 2010
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

JEFFERSON, La.-- Consider, for a second, the former athletes who've had one spectacular feat that is forever burned in our memory.

Think Don Larsen, or Buster Douglas, or David Tyree. For us, the moment is simple: It immortalizes those athletes. But for the athletes, it's not so simple.

They often have a strange and uneasy relationship with those moments, for those moments are their legacies, whether they like it or not. At best, they have the satisfaction of accomplishing something transcendent. At worst, the irritation of feeling like a jockstrapped one-hit wonder who had an entire other career that nobody cares about.

So you don't know what you're going to get on a thick August morning in Jefferson, La., just outside of New Orleans, when you enter the house of Tom Dempsey.

The legendary Saints kicker is more than happy to talk about the only thing anybody ever wants to discuss: his NFL-record 63-yard field goal on Nov. 8 40 years ago. Thanks to the kick, Dempsey is a famous name, but because the moment was captured only on grainy footage, shot from a distance, he is not a famous face.

In person, he's bigger than you'd expect, at least for a kicker, until he reminds you that he was a defensive end-turned-kicker. His beard is thin and white, under neatly combed hair. He's wearing a black shirt and khaki pants -- New Orleans Saints colors.

He's sitting on his couch, tying his one shoe. His left foot, his good one, is in a walking cast, recovering from recent surgery. His right foot, of course, is more like a club, without toes for all of Dempsey's 63 years. It fills only the back of his shoe; the front is stuffed with cloth.

Dempsey, who also was born without fingers on his right hand, doesn't make small talk about the kick. Other things matter more than another commemoration of a moment that's been long commemorated. He'd rather boast about his three kids, or his three grandkids, or lament about the oil spill in the Gulf, or shake his head at general political frustrations.

The only time football comes up, without being prompted, is when his anger over how former players have been treated spills over.

"Most of the owners hope the old guys die out before it costs 'em a bunch of money," he says.

Still, he knows why you're here. So before he goes on too long, he knows it's time to recount his story about Nov. 8, 1970, a routine he has down pat.

Tom DempseyAP PhotosTom Dempsey hit 4 of his 5 field goal attempts that day against the Lions; his last conversion, with just two seconds remaining, was the greatest.

Follow the advice of 'The Toe'

He says it was cool that day but also humid. Says he didn't sleep at the team hotel the night before because, for the first time all year, there was no team hotel: The Saints were 1-5-1 and had fired coach Tom Fears the week before, so this was J.D. Roberts' first game. Unlike his predecessor, Roberts let players sleep at home before home games.

The Saints trailed the Detroit Lions 17-16. With 11 seconds left to play, the Lions seemed to have ensured victory when Errol Mann kicked an 18-yard field goal. But after the ensuing kickoff, Saints quarterback Billy Kilmer connected with receiver Al Dodd for a 17-yard connection to the sideline. That play stopped the clock with two seconds left to play.

"I had called timeout, and I asked our offensive coordinator [Don Heinrich], 'Have we got anything set for this?'" Roberts, a former star Oklahoma University football player, recalled recently in The Oklahoman.

"He said, 'Not really. We could go trips and throw it up for grabs.' Dempsey was standing there with us, and he said 'I can kick it.'

To his recollection, Dempsey, who had converted on 3 of 4 previous field goals that day, heard one of the coaches say, "Tell Stumpy to get ready."

Of course, Stumpy was Dempsey -- gotta love the tact of locker rooms. He knew the attempt was long but didn't know how long.

"If I'd known it was 63 yards, I might have messed it up," he says.

He tried to remember what kicking great Lou (The Toe) Groza had once told him: "Keep your head down and follow through."

He did, in that straight, head-on way, unlike all the soccer-style kickers of today.

Dempsey remembers how it felt: "Like golf, when you hit a good driver."

What it sounded like: "A loud bang."

What he saw: "The officials raise their arms."

Said Roberts of Dempsey, who entered the game having converted just 5 of 15 field goal attempts: "He had the leg. He could kick it a long way. It was just a matter of where it was going."

Dempsey didn't learn it was a record until after the game, when a TV reporter told him that he'd bested the previous mark by 7 yards (56 yards by Baltimore Colts kicker Bert Rechichar in 1953).

That night, he and some teammates went to Dempsey's favorite bar, the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street, and downed Dixie beer until 7 a.m.

"We stayed out all night," he says. "Pretty typical."

Honoring 'The Kick'

Tom Dempsey MarquetteCourtesy of Dave GiammarinoThis is the rough draft of the 2,000-pound bronze statue a group of Encinitas, Calif., residents hopes to commission to honor native son Dempsey's 63-yard kick.

He's sincere and gracious talking about the kick; it's not canned. It's his "Born to Run" or "Margaritaville" -- the hit everyone wants to hear. He has told it hundreds of times, mostly at autograph shows around the country. The fact that it happened 40 years ago doesn't faze him. He's been called to memorialize the kick so many times -- 10, 20 years after the fact, during the Saints' run to the Super Bowl last season -- that it runs together.

And if he's ever eager to remind the world that his life has been more than a kick -- How many people with his disabilities play football, much less for about a decade in the pros? -- he doesn't. "If people want to talk to me," about the kick, he says, "it doesn't bother me."

But in truth, he doesn't think about it too often. His home office, the only room with any football memorabilia, has a painting of him booting a game-winner -- a different one, against the Rams.

Atop his bookshelf are many of the game balls he received throughout his career. He's proudest of a ball he received after the Saints beat Dallas.

"I always hated the Cowboys," he says.

Oh sure, he has a few items from the record: Two framed newspapers, a letter from President Richard Nixon. But that's it.

The shoe and ball are in the Saints' Hall of Fame. His jersey? In a showcase at San Dieguito High in Encinitas, Calif. His pants? He has no idea where they are. His helmet? Gave it to a friend.

Some athletes -- Dan Marino, for example -- have been protective of their records, worried that their legacy will disappear when the record does. Dempsey, meanwhile, was thrilled in 1998 when Denver Broncos kicker Jason Elam tied it, in the mile-high air.

A little more than a year ago, a small group of people in Encinitas, began a movement to immortalize the kick.

They want to erect a 2,000-pound statue of Dempsey swinging for the record books in a future park. The movement -- called the Dempsey Project -- is on hold, waiting for the 44-acre park to be commissioned. But if locals sign off on the park, the statue will go up in about a year.

"It's not just about a record that's held for 40 years," says Encinitas mayor Dan Dalager, a childhood friend of Dempsey's. "It's also about the person that he is."

Dempsey doesn't seem to care that, one day, his name won't be at the top. "Records are made to be broken," he says with a shrug.

Of course, no matter how odd it is to have people think that your life peaked at age 23, he knows that the moment has helped him through life.

After all, this August week is the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, Dempsey and his wife, Carlene, lived in Metairie, La. Their home was totaled by at least four feet of water.

If he was ever uneasy about the attention he has received thanks to one moment, it was cleared up really quick. Dempsey was able to rebuild his life in part because of money made from the kick, doing card shows and making appearances, sometimes eight a year.

He knows that nobody would call if not for the 63-yarder. He has met a lot of people because of it and made some decent money, enough to help him live in this modest, one-floor house in a time when so many New Orleanians are still wondering how they'll get back on their feet.

"I was lucky," he says.

And if it's thanks to one kick? He'll take it with a smile, knowing its place.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.

For more on the Dempsey Statue project, visit the Patrons of Encinitas Parks Web site.

Seth Wickersham

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs. Email him and follow him on Twitter at @sethwickersham.