Saints kicker Tom Dempsey is gone, but his legacy lives forever

Saints kicker Tom Dempsey is gone, but his legacy lives forever
Legendary New Orleans Saints place kicker Tom Dempsey died Saturday night (April 4) after a battle with COVID-19. He was 73. (Source: New Orleans Saints)

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Mikel Schaefer, FOX 8 News Director.

I was there. If you have lived here long enough, for me all my life, you have heard it over and over again from millions of New Orleanians, "I was at Tulane Stadium when Tom Dempsey kicked the 63-yard field goal."

It has become urban legend how many people were there that day, except millions were not there while Dempsey, at the time, kicked the greatest field goal in NFL history.

Seriously, I really was there. I do not have a ticket to prove it, but I remember it, as much as any sports memory since. It may be my first real sports memory.

I was six-years-old and my sister and brother-in-law took me and my older brother to that game. We sat high in the end zone opposite of where Dempsey made history. I was a Lions fan. Now before you Who Dats blow me up, remember I was six and my Zodiac sign is Leo, so I liked the Lions. It was very short lived, okay?

Now, I wanted the Lions to win and it looked as if they would be scoring to go ahead with seconds left in the game. I remember telling someone behind me we were going to win as they teased me. Then Dempsey did what seemed impossible and with two seconds left drilled the longest field goal ever, beating the former record by seven yards. Saints fans went nuts getting a thrill of a lifetime. That is what it became to me, one of the greatest sports thrills of my lifetime.

Dempsey's kick came during the Saints fourth season in the NFL and as a child of the 70's, it unfortunately became one of all-too-few great plays for the team. The 70's were lean for Saints fans, really lean! There were not many wins, as a matter of fact the Saints did not have a winning season in the 70's.

The lows were low, the Atlanta Falcons beat the Saints 62-7 in 1973, one of the earliest reasons they became the dirty birds. The best record the Saints could muster in the decade was 8-and-8 in 1979. That season also saw the team blow a 35-14 lead to Oakland, a game that could have cost the team its first playoff appearance.

Which brings me back to that kick: that unlikely, unbelievable kick from an unlikely kicker.

Dempsey, born without toes on his right foot had a special boot designed just for him, was undrafted out of Palomar College in California. He made the Pro Bowl and first team All-Pro his rookie season.

After his record kick, he became a Saints legend, a fan favorite, an unlikely underdog who did the near impossible.

What was there not to love for Saints fans? Dempsey was the kind of player that just fit in with us New Orleanians, despite the fact he only played two seasons for the team.

Even after playing for four more teams, Dempsey came back to the New Orleans area to settle down and raise his family after his career ended following the 1979 season. He became simply one of us.

Year after year it seemed Dempsey’s record may never be broken. Just like Billy Cannon’s Halloween run, sportscasters would replay his kick on its anniversary, every November 8th. It is still chilling to hear the call and watch Tulane stadium shake as fans erupt in football rapture. It is a great memory and while records are meant to be broken, it is one I hoped never would.

While Oakland Raider Sebastian Janikowski and Denver Bronco Jason Elam tied Dempsey’s record, in 2013 the Broncos’ Matt Prater finally broke it with a 64-yarder.

Janikowski, Elam and Prater’s kicks all came in the thin air of Denver. They should try to equal Dempsey’s kick below sea level.

For many of us, it just does not feel right the record no longer resides in New Orleans. It was our record. Tom gave it to us as a gift for all the years we suffered.

As COVID-19 ravages so many around the world, the virus has taken its toll on many of us around New Orleans and Louisiana. It swooped in and claimed Dempsey at Lambeth House Uptown along with too many other residents there. His death was an unlikely ending for an unlikely kicker who kicked an unlikely field goal.

Dempsey kicked his way into our hearts nearly 50 years ago and for the "millions" of New Orleanians in Tulane Stadium that day, thank you for the thrill, we will never forget.

Dempsey, who died at 73, is survived by his wife Carlene and their children Ashley, Toby and Meghan.

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