Tom Dempsey's Shoe

Toeless kicker launched 63-yard field goal in 1970

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by Tom Wancho, Exhibits Planner and Avid Sports Fan

The black and white Zenith TV in our family room was tuned to the Detroit Lions-New Orleans Saints game on November 8, 1970. I saw one play—Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal, an NFL record—and I only saw it once because instant replays on television broadcasts had not yet been developed. The legend of the kick was born and from there it grew.

Tom Dempsey (1947–) was the kicker for the New Orleans Saints. But he wasn't your usual kicker. Dempsey was born without toes on his right foot and without four fingers on his right hand. That didn’t keep him from following his dreams.

“I was very fortunate and my dad had a lot to do with it. I remember one day I was building something and I said, ‛Dammit, I can’t get this done.’ And he said, ‛Boy, you never say can’t. You may have to do something differently, but you can do it.’”

With the aid of a specially-made right shoe, Dempsey replaced can’t with can and began playing football. He played defense and kicked for San Dieguito High School in Encinitas, California. He then played for Palomar College before receiving a tryout from the Green Bay Packers. At 6’ 2” and weighing 255 pounds, Packers coaching legend Vince Lombardi envisioned him as an offensive lineman who could kick field goals. For the first time in his career, Dempsey was outmatched physically, and after being cut, decided to concentrate on kicking full-time.

Dempsey joined the New Orleans Saints in 1969—a year before he made history. Going into the final seconds of the game, the Saints trailed the Lions 17–16 that momentous day.

“They [the coaches] called down [to the sideline] and said, ‛Tell Stumpy to get ready, we’re going to kick a long field goal.’ That's what our offensive coordinator used to say. I don’t think they planned on making it a 63-yard field goal.”

The day after the legendary field goal, my friends and I wondered how a kicker with only half a foot could kick a football 63 yards, seven yards farther than anyone else in NFL history. Rumors spread of a steel plate inside Dempsey's shoe, located where his toes would be. But we were 9 years old and read the comics more than the sports pages. There were no cable networks to replay the kick repeatedly, so we were left to imagine the kick, over and over and over again.

Now, thanks to YouTube, I can watch the play as many times as I want. The video from the November 8, 1970 game is grainy, but the reaction on the field is priceless. When the referee underneath the goalpost gives the “good” signal (both arms extended vertically above his head), he actually jumps a bit into the air in his excitement. Dempsey is mobbed by his teammates. Tulane Stadium in New Orleans erupts, celebrating the second (and final) Saints win of the year.

Dempsey played 11 years in the NFL with five different teams before retiring in 1979. Since then, three other kickers have matched his 63-yard record, and one (Denver’s Matt Prater) broke it with a 64-yard boot. But it is Dempsey’s kick fans remember most.

“The older you get, the nicer it is to be remembered,” Dempsey said.

You can see Tom Dempsey's modified kicking shoe in the exhibition, Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, on view at the Bullock Museum until January 3, 2016.

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Tom Dempsey's Shoe Artifact from Canton, Ohio
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