Tom Dempsey, who was born without toes on his right foot or fingers on his right hand but played for 11 NFL seasons as a placekicker and was remembered for his game-winning, 63-yard field goal for the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 8, 1970, a league record at the time, died on Saturday at an assisted living center in New Orleans. He was 73.
His wife, Carlene, said the cause was complications of the coronavirus, which he contracted on March 25 at the Lambeth House center, where he had been treated for dementia that was diagnosed in 2010.
At 6-2 and 255 pounds, Dempsey relished running downfield to deliver hits to cover his kickoffs and had sustained several concussions, his family told the New York Times in 2013.
The Saints' opponents on the day Dempsey set the record, the Detroit Lions, were laughing on the sidelines at Tulane Stadium at the absurd notion that he could connect as he prepared for what became his astonishing kick. Seconds later, on the final play of the game, the Lions had been defeated 19-17.
"I was more concerned about kicking it straight because I felt I could handle the distance," Dempsey told the Times-Picayune of New Orleans afterward. He said he had received a perfect snap and hold and "I hit it sweet."
The spot of the kick was the Saints 37 (at that time, goalposts were on the goal line).
Dempsey's immortal boot shattered the previous record by 7 yards, and it wasn't until 1984 that another NFL kicker converted from even 60 yards.
The record was matched three times between 1998 and 2012, and it wasn't exceeded until the Denver Broncos' Matt Prater kicked a 64-yarder in 2013 in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains.
Dempsey hit 22 field goals in 41 attempts as a rookie in 1969, when he was voted to the Pro Bowl, and succeeded on 18 of 34 tries in 1970. But he was cut before the 1971 season.
He went on to play with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Los Angeles Rams, the Houston Oilers and the Buffalo Bills. He retired after the 1979 season with 159 field goals in 258 tries and 252 extra points on 282 attempts.
Dempsey had a custom shoe that featured a flattened and enlarged toe surface. The shoe he was wearing for his epic kick is held by the Saints at their Hall of Fame; another of his special shoes is at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
The 63-yard field goal came on a straight-on stance at a time when soccer-style kicking was arriving. At the time, Tex Schramm, then president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, complained that Dempsey's misshapen foot with his special shoe gave him an unfair advantage in making contact with the ball.
The NFL added a rule in 1977 stating that "any shoe that is worn by a player with an artificial limb on his kicking leg must have a kicking surface that conforms to that of a normal kicking shoe."
In response, Dempsey, as quoted on the Saints' website, once said: "Unfair, eh? How about you try kicking a 63-yard field goal to win it with two seconds left and you're wearing a square shoe. Oh yeah, and no toes either."
After retiring from football, Dempsey worked as an oil field salesman in Louisiana until the late 1980s and ran a car dealership owned by then-Saints owner Tom Benson.
He loved New Orleans nightlife.
In addition to his wife, Dempsey is survived by his daughters, Ashley Dempsey and Meghan Dempsey Crosby; his son, Toby; his sister, Janice MacArthur; and three grandchildren.
Ashley Dempsey told the Times-Picayune/Advocate that her family was unable to be with her father as his condition worsened because residents of the center he was in were in quarantine.
She told the paper that the family did video chats with him because "we didn't want him to think we had abandoned him. We wanted him to know we still loved him — always."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.