Tom Dempsey did not like being referred to as a kicker.
"Kickers," he said, "are weird."
Dempsey saw himself differently.
"I'm a football player that kicks," he said.
Dempsey, who died Saturday after contracting coronavirus at age 73, started his football career as a lineman in high school. He was born without fingers on his right hand and with only half a right foot, but he played football in addition to wrestling and throwing the shot put because his father Huey told him, "There's no such word as 'can't.'"
So kicking a football? Sure, why not?
Dempsey spent 11 seasons in the NFL as a placekicker, four of them with the Eagles (1971-74), but it started at San Dieguito (California) High School when the team needed a kicker. Dempsey, who was starting on the defensive line, said he would give it a try. He kicked shoeless with his right foot wrapped in tape and found he could boom the ball out of the end zone. Thus, a new career was born.
He continued kicking at Palomar Junior College where he was spotted by San Diego Chargers coach Sid Gillman. After a year on the AFL Chargers' taxi squad, Dempsey was claimed by the New Orleans Saints in 1969. In 1970, he set an NFL record by kicking a 63-yard field goal on the final play to lift the Saints to a 19-17 upset of the Detroit Lions.
"I was young, strong, and stupid in those days," Dempsey said. "The Lions' players were laughing at me. They didn't think there was any way I could make it, but I had kicked a couple from 69 (yards) in practice, so I knew I could do it."
Joe Scarpati, an ex-Eagle, was the holder and Dempsey hit the ball, as golfers say, "dead solid perfect." The goal posts were on the goal line in those days and the ball cleared the crossbar by a foot. The previous NFL record was set by Baltimore's Bert Rechichar in 1953. Dempsey broke the record by a full 7 yards.
"I couldn't see where the ball came down, that's how far away it was," Dempsey said. "But I saw the ref's hands go up and that's when I knew I had done it. My teammates all mobbed me. We had a heckuva party that night, I'll tell you that."
Alex Karras was on that Lions team. After the game, the All-Pro defensive tackle still could not believe what had just happened.
"When you kick from your own 37-yard line, you're supposed to kick it to the nearest post, not the farthest," Karras said.
One year later, Dempsey was released by the Saints after a miserable preseason (he made one of eight field goal attempts) and claimed by the Eagles. He replaced Happy Feller who was going through a similarly bad time with the Eagles (he was 6-for-20 on field goal tries) and Dempsey got his career back on track at Veterans Stadium.
The 6-1, 260-pound kicker led the league with a .706 field goal percentage that season (12-for-17) with three kicks longer than 50 yards. His 54-yarder against the St. Louis Cardinals set a club record at the time. In 1972, he set a team record that still stands, kicking six field goals in one game against the Houston Oilers. He accounted for all the Eagles' points in an 18-17 victory at the Astrodome.
Dempsey kicked with a special shoe that had a flat, mallet-like face. It looked like the head of a sledge hammer and when it met the ball; it made a sound that was different than any other kicker.
"Usually it's a thump," said Bill Bradley, who held for Dempsey's kicks in Philadelphia, "but with Tom, it's a boom."
Dallas Cowboys president Tex Schramm asked the league to examine the shoe and determine whether it was in violation of the rules. It was rumored Dempsey had the leather shoe weighted to give him extra distance on his kicks. No weights were found and Dempsey was allowed to keep the shoe. He kicked with the Eagles through the 1974 season then finished his career with stops in Los Angeles (Rams), Houston, and Buffalo.
Dempsey retired with 159 field goals on 258 attempts. His 63-yard field goal was tied by several kickers but it has only been topped once and that was by Denver's Matt Prater.
"People think of my career as a one-kick career," Dempsey said, "but I had a lot of game-winners."
He was by far the biggest placekicker in the league – at times his weight approached 300 pounds – and he liked to throw that weight around. He didn't want to be thought of as just a kicking specialist so he looked for contact on special teams.
In the 1974 season, Dempsey was credited with six unassisted tackles which may be an Eagles record for a placekicker. On one kickoff, Dempsey knocked out Giants return man Leon McQuay. The 5-9, 190-pound McQuay was going full speed through the wedge when Dempsey hit him and knocked him silly. McQuay had to be helped off the field.
After the game, Dempsey was asked what was more satisfying: the 63-yard field goal or his hit on McQuay. He paused for a moment to think it over. Finally, he decided it was the field goal because, as he said, "it's in the record book."
"But that hit," he said with a smile, "did feel good."