TOM DEMPSEY - Remembering an Inspired Life
In 1969, the 50th year of the National Football League, a very special man signed with the New Orleans Saints as a non-drafted player. Thomas John Dempsey -- born without toes on his right foot and fingers -- joined the Saints as a placekicker. In his rookie season, despite these physical challenges and playing for an expansion team (the Saints joined the league in 1967) in a very fast, violent sport, Tom Dempsey immediately showed he belonged with the NFL's best as he achieved both All-Pro and Pro-Bowl honors for the 1969 season. Such individual honors meant even more in yesteryear as such awards were often the difference makers in securing a spot on the active roster and earning a cash bonus that determined whether or not a player had to work in the off-season to make financial ends meet. ESPN and 24/7 cable TV sports coverage were more than a decade away, so a player like Tom Dempsey who was playing at the highest level in a physically demanding contact sport often toiled in relative obscurity. This was especially true with expansion teams like the Saints playing in comparatively small media markets and struggling to achieve respectability.
Tom Dempsey was born January 12, 1947 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin but raised in California where he attended San Dieguito High School (excelling in both wrestling and football) and then matriculating to nearby Palomar College. At Palomar College he started out playing collegiate football as a defensive lineman but then transitioned into a placekicker, thereby creating an opportunity to play in the NFL. In his second year with the NFL, Dempsey not only made history but became a legend of the game and an inspiration to people in all walks of life who were dealing with physical challenges. On Sunday, November 8, 1970, Dempsey kicked a record-setting 63-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the game to give the Saints a 19-17 victory over the Detroit Lions - a playoff bound team that same season. It was a home game for the Saints and instantly Dempsey was the toast of "The Big Easy." The very next day on ABC's Monday Night Football (airing in its inaugural season) a nationwide TV audience celebrated Dempsey's record setting field goal as his gridiron feat was the highlight of ABC's half-time recap of the Sunday NFL games narrated by the one-and-only Howard Cosell. Again, in those pre-ESPN days, such events on the highlight reel were often the only ones the TV viewing audience would ever see. With Cosell's powerful voice describing the action, the viewers were made to feel as if they were witnessing the uncovering of a secret treasure. In the case of Tom Dempsey, this moment in time and the man himself were treasures of inspiration for everyone. His record field goal stood for several decades and Dempsey became a legend of the game.
He played for a total of eleven seasons (1969-1979) starring with the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Oilers and Buffalo Bills. In a career that spanned 127 regular season games Dempsey scored 729 points with a field goal percentage of 61.6% and extra point percentage of 89.4%. But these are just numbers. To fully appreciate the magnitude of Dempsey's moment in time and his inspired life, one had to see him play in person. Yours truly, along with my father, saw Tom Dempsey in person less than a month after his record-setting field goal when the Saints played the Rams at the LA Memorial Coliseum on Sunday, December 6, 1970. While the hometown Rams prevailed 34-16, a capacity crowd roared its approval and admiration as Dempsey accounted for 10 of those 16 New Orleans points with three field goals (24, 50 and 54 yards) plus one point-after-touchdown. I vividly recall the murmur in the crowd as the 54 yard field goal easily cleared the goal post giving many who were there (including my father) good reason to claim that the kick could have gone another 10 to 15 yards! In other words, we had all witnessed what could have an even greater record setting gridiron event. But more importantly, the conversation about Dempsey (we sat with regular season ticket holders) continued throughout the entire game as people talked about his life's journey and overcoming obstacles that likely would render most people to the sidelines. He received a standing ovation following each of his field goals -- thereby showing that not all Southern California sports fans at major events are laid back or lackadaisical. Dempsey was inducted into the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame in 1989. In the context of sports, it is often said that heroes get remembered, but legends never die. Tom Dempsey was a legend whose gridiron presence was transcendent and inspiring to all who face enormous difficulties but aspire to accomplish great things in life. Earlier this year (April 4, 2020) Tom Dempsey passed away after having battled dementia in his final years.
This month, please join us in celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Tom Dempsey's record setting field goal as a reminder that dreams can come true for those who never give up and stay in the game! Please share your thoughts and memories via posting on to the Galaxy FACEBOOK page (and be sure to "like" us when doing so) or via e-mail to the GNN web site. Likewise, I am always receptive to hearing from our wonderful Galaxy audience and/or connecting via LinkedIn.