Tom Dempsey, whose 63-yard-field goal in 1970 set the NFL record and gave New Orleans Saints fans a rare raucous moment in the franchise’s lean early years, died late Saturday of complications from the novel coronavirus, his family said. He was 73.
Dempsey — who overcame astronomical odds to establish what was then considered a virtually unbeatable record — contracted the virus in March during an outbreak at the Lambeth House retirement home in Uptown New Orleans. He is one of at least 15 residents there to die after being stricken with the disease.
Before long-distance place-kicking became a staple of the sport, Dempsey’s thunderous boot not only beat the Detroit Lions 19-17 on the last play of the game at Tulane Stadium on Nov. 8, 1970, but also stood as the NFL record for more than four decades. It beat the previous record by a full 7 yards.
The Denver Broncos’ Matt Prater bested Dempsey with a 64-yarder in 2013 — 43 years after Dempsey unleashed his cannon-shot opposite Lions’ defenders who had been laughing at what they believed to be an impossible attempt.
Before Prater’s kick, three others had also hit 63-yarders over the years.
Prater’s kick came in the thin air of Denver, 5,000-feet above sea level, as had those by two of the players who tied Dempsey’s mark.
When his daughter, Ashley, told Dempsey that his record had finally been eclipsed, he quipped, “Must have been a heckuva kick.”
Nicknamed “Stumpy’’ by teammates, Dempsey seemed an unlikely football hero. He was born without fingers on his right hand or toes on his right foot. He wore a small, flat shoe on his kicking foot that is now on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As a rookie in 1969, Dempsey delivered an All-Pro season but was cut by the Saints in 1971 after missing seven of eight kicks during preseason, which he attributed to falling out of shape while being treated to countless drinks and meals after his historic kick. But he rebounded and played for several other teams — the Eagles, Rams, Oilers and Bills — before retiring following the 1979 season.
Dempsey’s right hand and right foot never deterred him from athletics growing up in Encinitas, California. He was a defensive lineman and kicker for San Dieguito High School, then briefly at Palomar College, where a clash with a coach cut his tenure short. Dempsey continued plying his trade by playing semi-pro ball in Massachusetts and caught on with the Saints after a couple of failed NFL tryouts.
His 63-yarder was one of the few highlights of the Saints’ two-win season that year.
The broadcast of the play, along with the playcall from NBC commentator Don Criqui, still makes Saints fans misty-eyed.
“I don’t believe it …,” Criqui said as the ball sailed nearly two-thirds of the field, then added as the ball cleared the bar by a yard, “It’s GOOD!”
The miraculous moment so moved powerful Louisiana Congressman F. Edward Hebert that he had an account of “The Kick” by Dempsey inserted into the Congressional Record.
After his retirement, Dempsey returned to New Orleans with his wife, Carlene. He helped her raise a family and — over the years — worked as an oilfield salesman, coached football at Archbishop Rummel High School and managed a car dealership for Tom Benson, who bought the Saints in 1985.
In 2012, Dempsey publicly disclosed that he had been diagnosed with dementia and detailed the treatment he was receiving for the condition. He spent the final years of his life at Lambeth House.
Dempsey was diagnosed with COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory disease, on March 25, Ashley Dempsey said.
She said her father’s fight against the virus started promisingly, but his condition gradually worsened.
Record-setting New Orleans Saints placekicker Tom Dempsey began receiving hospice care on Wednesday, several days after testing positive for c…
Doubling his family’s pain is that they could not be with him during his final days because Lambeth House residents were quarantined. However, they spoke to him via video chat daily, Ashley Dempsey said.
“We didn’t want him to think we had abandoned him,” she said. “We wanted him to know we still loved him — always.”
In addition to his wife Carlene and daughter Ashley, Dempsey’s is survived by children Toby Dempsey (Pamela) and Meghan Dempsey Crosby (Lee), as well as his sister, Janice Dempsey.
He also had three grandchildren: Dylan Dempsey, Logan Dempsey and Quinn Dempsey. Ashley Dempsey said her father always told his family they were his proudest accomplishment — not anything on the gridiron.
Funeral arrangements weren’t immediately announced.
Information from Marty Mule was used in this report.
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In the years he has been battling Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, Tom Dempsey — the legendary New Orleans Saints placekicker who set an NFL …