The Philadelphia Eagles are preparing to play in another Super Bowl, making this a fitting time to recall one of the most memorable players in NFL history.
Tom Dempsey, who played in the NFL from 1969-1979, was ahead of his time, and not just because he was a record-setting placekicker whose 63-yard, game-winning field goal on the final play became one of the most legendary accomplishments the league has seen.
A congenital amputee, Dempsey was born without toes on his right foot, his kicking leg. He did not have fingers on his right hand either.
He credited his father for telling him to think of what he could do rather than what he couldn’t. And, although he played during a time when there was great stigma attached to what others perceived as disabilities, Dempsey made it as a kicker at Palomar College before signing with the New Orleans Saints.
His teammates called him Stumpy.
He spent only two seasons with the Saints, but on Nov. 8, 1970, he became the first NFL player to kick a field goal of 60 or more yards to lift New Orleans over the Detroit Lions 19-17.
“I was young, strong, and stupid in those days,” Dempsey was quoted as saying by sportswriter Ray Didinger. “The Lions players were laughing at me. They didn’t think there was any way I could make it.”
Forgive those Lions players. They had every reason to think that way.
The previous record for longest field goal was 56 yards. It took 28 years for another NFL kicker to match Dempsey’s mark and another 15 after that for someone to beat it.
But the players who equaled or surpassed him all entered the league after kicking had evolved. Dempsey was a so-called “straight-on” kicker who stood directly behind the ball with the placeholder between him and the center snapping the ball.
During his career, players began the switch to the “soccer style” of kicking. The kicker lines up by taking a couple of steps to either side of the ball to improve his angle on the kick.
So Dempsey forever will hold the record for longest field goal by a straight-on kicker.
And, though it is the play he is forever remembered for, he proved it was not a fluke. He joined the Eagles in 1971 and played four seasons, his most with any team. His 54-yarder that season meant that he kicked the longest field goal in the league for three years running.
In 1972, he set a team record with six field goals in one game. He scored all of the Eagles’ points in an 18-17 victory over the Houston Oilers.
“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,” Saints team owner Gayle Benson said after Dempsey died in 2020.