By Sean Haspel and Sam Shannon
Tom Dempsey, who overcame being born without toes on his right foot and fingers on his right hand to earn a place in NFL record books and the hearts of New Orleans Saints fans, died on Saturday, April 4 at the age of 73. Dempsey, who had been battling Alzheimer's disease and dementia since 2012, contracted the coronavirus on March 25, according to NOLA.com, which first reported the news of his death.
Saints Owner Gayle Benson released a statement Sunday morning:
"Our thoughts and prayers are extended to Carlene and the entire Dempsey family on the passing of their dear Tom. The New Orleans Saints family is deeply saddened and heartbroken at this most difficult time. Tom's life spoke directly to the power of the human spirit and exemplified his resolute determination to not allow setbacks to impede following his dreams and aspirations. He exemplified the same fight and fortitude in recent years as he battled valiantly against illnesses but never wavered and kept his trademark sense of humor. He holds a special place in the hearts and minds of the Saints family."
Signed by the Saints in 1969 as an undrafted kicker out of Palomar College, the Milwaukee, Wis., native quickly proved he belonged in the NFL, being named to the Pro Bowl and first team All-Pro his rookie year. The following season saw Dempsey make the most memorable kick of his career.
On Nov. 8, 1970, the Saints trailed the Detroit Lions 17-16 at Tulane Stadium. With time expiring, Dempsey made a 63-yard field goal with room to spare, setting an NFL record for the longest field goal and giving the Saints a breathtaking 19-17 walk-off victory. "It was one of those games, where, I think people had lost hope," said current Saints stadium public address announcer Mark Romig. "Dempsey lines up for this world record-setting field goal, and everyone is just scratching their heads, 'Sure, why not?'"
"There were so many people who had left the stadium that missed it," said Mark's father Jerry Romig, who was in his second season as the Saints PA announcer in 1970. "I made certain that they heard me say, 'It's good!' And I kept screaming into that microphone, 'It's good! It's good!'"
Dempsey's 63-yarder was the NFL's longest made field goal until 1998, when it was equaled by Jason Elam. It was again tied by Sebastian Janikowski in 2011, and David Akers in 2012, before finally being broken by a yard in 2013 by Matt Prater.
Dempsey was an underdog success story with whom Saints fans quickly connected with and felt affection for during his short tenure with the club (1969-70). Listed at 6 feet 2, 255 pounds, Dempsey saw action in 28 games for New Orleans, notching 40 field goals made while going 49-for-52 (94.2 percent) on extra-point attempts.
Named to the All-Pro team as a rookie, Dempsey seemed destined to play his entire career for the Saints. But, as he later told the Associated Press, his record-breaking kick made him a regular guest of honor on the banquet circuit.
"Instead of lifting weights, I was lifting too many forks and spoons and knives," Dempsey was quoted as saying.
Dempsey wore a custom shoe that featured a flattened and enlarged toe surface. His unique shoe coupled with his straight-toe style of kicking led some critics to suggest that his disability actually provided an unfair advantage over his competition. In response, Dempsey 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."
Though Dempsey would play for four other NFL teams after leaving the Saints, he and his family made the New Orleans area their home. Like many in the Gulf Coast, the Dempsey's Metairie home was severely damaged during Hurricane Katrina. When Dempsey returned to the family's two-story town house to assess the damage, the first floor was flooded. Dempsey said: "I called up my wife and said, 'Remember that new furniture you wanted? You're going to get it sooner than you thought.'"
Many tokens from Dempsey's playing days were also wiped out in the flood. Word spread of Dempsey's loss, and fans mailed him football cards to replace the ones that had been destroyed. "It was really nice," he told The New York Times in a 2010 interview. "It really made me feel good…The hurricane flooded me out of a lot of memorabilia, but it can't flood out the memories."
Dempsey remained a Saints fan long after his playing days concluded. The extroverted Dempsey would turn into a loner on game days, tuning out distractions much as he did on Sundays when he was playing. He preferred to watch the Saints' games in his den, shooing out everybody except his wife who would watch by his side.
Few in the city were more delighted than Dempsey when fellow kicker Garrett Hartley sent the Saints to Super Bowl XLIV on a 40-yard game-winning kick in the 2009 NFC championship game. Dempsey said, "After what this area's been through, it means a lot to have a team like this to celebrate." He added: "This team has the same mentality as the people recovering from Katrina. There's no quit in them."
Dempsey is survived by his wife Carlene, a teacher and New Orleans native, and their children Ashley and Toby and Meghan. According to NOLA.com's report, funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.