Tom Dempsey: A reluctant hero


METAIRIE, La. -- Tom Dempsey was the talk of the nation for an autumn week in 1970.

Despite a serious handicap, he kicked the longest field goal in NFL history, 63 yards, to give the New Orleans Saints a last-second victory over Detroit.


The sacks of mail he received included congratulations from President Nixon, who hailed him as an example to others who faced physical limitations.

But Dempsey saw himself as a hard worker who had earned his success, not a cripple who had overcome hardship. He was a reluctant hero who soon became upset at his own cockiness.

Thirteen seasons later, Dempsey still spends his fall afternoons on a football field. He now is a high school coach and he remains a hero despite his unpretentious attitude.

Even though he still holds the Saints' season scoring record, Dempsey would not take the freshman coaching job at Rummel High School until he had attended countless seminars and convinced himself he could teach football.

Oblivious to the accolades of players who say Dempsey's expertise has turned the young team around, he credits success to the other coaches.

He even downplays his role as a positive model for Tommy Hayden, a manager for the freshman team. Hayden suffered hydrocephalus as a youngster and the left side of his body has been seriously crippled.


'He's great, but he's tough,' said Hayden, who wants to be a quarterback. 'He'll really beat down on somebody, but at the same time he'll really care.'

Dempsey's handicap is vastly different from Hayden's -- physically and psychologically. A birth defect left Dempsey with a severely deformed right hand and a stub of a right foot, the one he used to kick the record field goal.

'I was born this way. I don't consider it a handicap. I've had it my whole life,' said the portly father of three, who punctuates his conversation by spitting tobacco juice.

'The ones I feel sorry for are the ones who went to Vietnam whole and came back half. Those are the ones I bleed for.'

Dempsey played in the offensive and defensive lines at Palomar Junior College in California, where he decided one day to try kicking. In a short time, he was handling kickoffs and long field goals for the team.

Dempsey said he 'got in trouble in school (because) I just never did like rules,' and went pro instead of jumping to a four-year college after finishing at Palomar. He was signed by Green Bay but failed to make the squad and was rejected in subsequent attempts as a free agent.


'I knew I could kick it longer, higher and farther than anybody, but someone had to give me a chance,' he said.

Dempsey later was told by a friend he had been turned away from the New York Jets by a coach who said, 'I can't have him on my team because I can't take a shower with him.'

He finally made it as a free agent with the lowly New Orleans Saints in 1969, and responded with a Pro Bowl season that included a field goal in each of the first 12 games that year and a team-record 99 points.

On Oct. 5, 1969, he kicked a 55-yard field goal at Los Angeles - one short of the then-NFL record. On Nov. 16, he nailed four against the New York Giants, including the winner with 11 seconds remaining. Two weeks later, he made four against the Philadelphia Eagles.

But Dempsey, who still is sixth on the Saints' all-time scoring list with 169 points, saved his biggest kick for the last play of a 19-17 victory over Detroit Nov. 8, 1970, in the old Sugar Bowl stadium.

'I knew it was long, but I didn't know it was 63 yards,' he said. 'I didn't count the yards.'


Within minutes, he was a national hero.

'And you do some things you wish you hadn't done, cockiness-wise,' he said. 'I started having problems when I took myself too seriously.'

A personality clash ended his New Orleans career, and he spent four years with Philadelphia before concluding his pro career with two seasons on the Rams.

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