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Tom Dempsey, Record-Setting Kicker, Dies at 73 – The New York Times

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Tom Dempsey, who was born without toes on his right foot or fingers on his right hand but played for 11 N.F.L. seasons as a place-kicker and was remembered for his game-winning, 63-yard field goal for the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 8, 1970, a league record at the time, died on Saturday at an assisted living center in New Orleans. He was 73.

His wife, Carlene, said the cause was complications of the coronavirus, which he contracted on March 25 at the Lambeth House center, where he had been treated for dementia that was diagnosed in 2010.

At 6 feet 2 inches and 255 pounds, Dempsey relished running downfield to deliver hits to cover his kickoffs and had sustained several concussions, his family told The New York Times in 2013.

The Saints’ opponents on the day Dempsey set the record, the Detroit Lions, were laughing on the sidelines at Tulane Stadium at the absurd notion that he could connect as he prepared for what became his astonishing kick. Seconds later the Lions had been defeated, 19-17.

“I was more concerned about kicking it straight because I felt I could handle the distance,” Dempsey told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans afterward. He said he had received a perfect snap and hold and “I hit it sweet.”

Dempsey’s 63-yarder was later matched by three other kickers but wasn’t exceeded until the Denver Broncos’ Matt Prater kicked a 64-yarder in 2013 in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains, setting a mark that still stands.

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Credit…Lee Celano for The New York Times

Dempsey hit 22 field goals in 41 attempts as a rookie in 1969, when he was voted to the Pro Bowl, and succeeded on 18 of 34 tries in 1970. But he was cut before the 1971 season after faring poorly in exhibition games.

He went on to play with the Eagles, the Los Angeles Rams, the Houston Oilers and the Buffalo Bills, though he never regained the form he displayed with the Saints. He retired after the 1979 season with 159 field goals in 258 tries and 252 extra points on 282 attempts.

Thomas John Dempsey was born on Jan. 12, 1947, in Milwaukee and grew up in Southern California. His father, Huey, was a mechanic for a public utility company and joined with his mother, LaVerne (Sorce) Dempsey, in owning a jewelry store in Encinitas.

He was a defensive lineman and kicker in high school, played briefly at Palomar College in San Diego County and was signed by the Saints as an undrafted player.

After retiring from football, he worked as an oil field salesman in Louisiana until the late 1980s and ran a car dealership owned by the Saints’ owner, Tom Benson.

In addition to his wife, Dempsey is survived by his daughters Ashley Dempsey and Meghan Dempsey Crosby; his son, Toby; his sister Janice MacArthur and three grandchildren.

Dempsey loved New Orleans nightlife.

He and Carlene were dating at the time of the 63-yard kick. “He courted me mainly at the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street,” she told The Times in 2013, recalling that she did not hear from him for days after his stunning field goal.

“It was Thursday before he called me,” she said, adding that Tom explained that some New Orleans police officers had rewarded him with a couple of cases of cold Dixie beer in the locker room after the game, and it became a long night of celebrating. Carlene married him two months later.

Dempsey had a custom shoe that featured a flattened and enlarged toe surface. The shoe he was wearing for his epic kick is held by the Saints at their Hall of Fame; another of his special shoes is at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal came on a straight-on stance at a time when soccer-style kicking was arriving. At the time, Tex Schramm, then the president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, complained that Dempsey’s misshapen foot with his special shoe gave him an unfair advantage in making contact with the ball.

The N.F.L. added a rule in 1977 stating 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.”

In response, Dempsey, as quoted on the Saints’ website, once said: “Unfair, eh? How about you try kicking a 63-yard field goal to win it with two seconds left and you’re wearing a square shoe. Oh yeah, and no toes either.”

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