By Brian Hoffman, sports editor
It’s now day 29 AG of the coronavirus pandemic. That’s 29 days “After Gobert” tested positive, putting a hold on the sports world as we know it.
Thankfully, I don’t know anyone personally who has contacted the virus, much less died. Hopefully it’s the same with our readers, but it’s closing in. And, it feels like it’s only a matter of time when people who have ties to our world, like UVA basketball star Kyle Guy’s father, are victim to the virus.
I was sad to see former NFL kicker Tom Dempsey succumb to the virus this week. If you’re 50 or younger you probably never saw Dempsey kick except in old films. His final year in the NFL was 1979, when he kicked in just three games for the Buffalo Bills. He was one for four on field goals and eight for 11 on extra points before being released, ending his career at 32 years of age.
Dempsey kicked for five teams in an 11 year career, the Saints, Eagles, Rams, Oilers and Bills. However, he’ll always be remembered for his 63 yard field goal for the Saints in 1970. It was on the final play of the game with the Saints trailing the Lions, 17-16.
People chuckled when the field goal unit lined up at midfield. In 1970 the previous long field goal in an NFL game was 56 yards by Bert Rechichar of the Colts. That was the record for 17 years in an age when kickers also played a position on the field and kicked straight on. The soccer style kickers didn’t enter the NFL until Pete Gogolak signed with the American Football League Buffalo Bills in 1964. He was so successful the soccer style kickers had become commonplace by 1970, but Dempsey was an old style, straight-on guy.
When Dempsey’s kick of 63 yards was good, it broke Rechichar’s record by seven yards and likely would have been good from 65. It was a big deal at the time, and the record stood for 43 years before Matt Prater topped it by one yard in 2013. Three kickers had tied the 63 yard record, Jason Elam in 1998, Sebastian Janikowski in 2011 and David Akers in 2012.
I remember watching the highlights of that Saints win in the fall of 1970, culminating in Dempsey’s kick. It was not only long, but high as well. People looked on in disbelief as the pigskin dropped to the ground, over the bar, behind the end zone at Tulane Stadium, which was then the home of the Saints.
What made Dempsey even more special was the fact that he kicked that field goal with half a foot. He was born without fingers on his right hand and toes on his right foot, and his kicking shoe laced up the side and had a flat surface where his toes would have been. I remember some people felt that gave him an advantage and should have been illegal. However, that would have been tough to do as Dempsey instantly became a symbol of overcoming a birth defect to succeed in life.
The shoe Dempsey kicked the field goal with is now in the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. When my youngest step-son, Andrew, was about eight years old we visited friends in Ohio and took in the Hall of Fame. That shoe was what he remembered most among all the great stuff to see. I explained on our visit that Dempsey kicked the longest field goal ever with half a foot, wearing that shoe, and Andrew just stood there and looked at it in almost disbelief.
Dempsey died Saturday, April 4th, at age 73 of complications from the coronavirus. The story announcing his passing indicated he had been battling dementia for the past eight years. Saints owner Gayle Benson released a statement upon his death.
“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,” said Benson. “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.”
Two words summed up Dempsey’s life. “It’s good!!”