the study of the kicking components within sports

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Tom Dempsey

When the third class was inducted into the American Football Kicking Hall of Fame, among them was Tom Dempsey. His inclusion in the Hall of Fame is a fitting tribute to the entirety of his career, which is often forgotten by fans, the media, and Father Time - with only his missing hand and toes and his record setting 63 yard field goal being remembered. Those two topics are also typically the only ones on which he still gets questions. Dempsey once noted regarding the former:
"I still get calls and e-mails, I don’t know how people get my address and my phone number, but they seem to be able to do it. Their kids are born “handicapped,” which is a word that I don’t particularly like. I say I was born different. When God made me, he broke the mold. It used to be easy, because I’d send them to my mom and my dad, but they’ve since passed. The first thing I tell them is you have to love your child enough to let him or her fail. Who are the only people in the world who never fail? People that never try. You don’t know how good you can do or what you can do if you never try. That’s tough. I must’ve been one hell of a surprise to my parents when I popped out. No toes and no fingers, but my dad never let it stop. Everyday when he came home from work, he hit baseballs to me, spent the time with me, told me I could do it. That made a big difference."
His kicking career didn't begin until 1964 at Palomar College in southern California.
"I came up in an era where they didn’t know a lot about kickers. I didn’t even know I could kick until I was in college. I was an end on the field goal team, because I was the smallest defensive lineman on our team and I weighed 255 in high school. I was in college and we had a good little kicker, but he can’t kick off. And we had a coach there that I didn’t particularly care for, and he said, 'one of you blankety blanks can kick off.' So he lined up the whole team and everybody took a shot at kicking off. I took off my shoe and I kicked and it went out of the end zone. And he said, 'Do it again.' It went out of the end zone again and he said, 'You’re on Saturday night.' And that’s the way it started."
Dempsey's college coach, Mack Wiebe, recollected:
"We used to have trouble warming up before games, because when he kicked the ball the noise was amazing. It was a splat. He had such powerful strength. He wasn't that accurate in college, but he really worked on it."
Dempsey's evolution into a more well rounded kicker occurred when he landed with the San Diego Chargers in 1968, as he noted:
"Before that, I just ripped it and didn't think about it. [OL coach] Joe Madro coached me, and [head coach] Sid Gillman helped develop my shoe. I have really fond memories of my time there. That year with the Chargers was a big part of me making it in the NFL. I owed them a lot."
His famous kick would come two years later when he was with New Orleans. The 63 yarder with two seconds left in the game gave the Saints a 19-17 cone from behind victory over the Lions.
"I didn’t know it was 63 yards. I truly didn’t because I never, ever measured off where I kicked from. I always let my holder do that, because I had other things to worry about and I happened to have a great holder in Joe Scarpati at that time. I went out there, we lined it up and Joe looked back at me and said, 'Tom, we’re going to move back a yard.' Normally you kick a ball at seven yards, two feet because if you do that, the laces are forward every time. He said we’ve got to give it more time to get high. We got a perfect snap, we got a perfect hold and I hit it as hard as I could. I knew the second I hit it that it was going to go a long way. I didn’t know if it would stay straight the whole time, but it did."
At the time of his big kick -  a time before the age of political correctness - fans and teammates affectionately referred to Dempsey by the nick name of Stumpy. The Saints offensive coordinator said just before the 63 yarder, "Tell Stumpy to get ready". In the wake of the kick, detractors suggested that his toeless kicking foot and special shoe were an unfair advantage and that he had essentially cheated. The NFL would eventually add a rule, the "Tom Dempsey Rule", requiring shoes to be "normal".

While many were concerning themselves with Stumpy's foot and his one kick, Dempsey went on to play for five different NFL teams (New Orleans, Philadelphia, Los Angeles Houston, and Buffalo) over an 11 year span (1969-1979) - putting together a career worthy of a Hall of Fame induction.

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