Soon after delivering the longest field goal in NFL history, the Saints’ Tom Dempsey, of course, was celebrating his achievement in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Dempsey, a former multi-sport star at San Dieguito High and Palomar College, was the toast of the town in a city where that’s quite an accomplishment. His giddy teammates joined him to cheer his game-winning, 63-yard kick in 1970, with drinks flowing and the music blaring.
Quickly, both came to an abrupt halt when a waiter approached the table with a telephone: President Richard Nixon was on hold to talk with Dempsey.
“Yes, Mr. President,” Dempsey said. “Thank you, Mr. President.”
Actually, thank you Dave Parks, a fellow Saint who had pulled a fast one on Dempsey in a prank which was told in “Tales from the Saints Sidelines.”
“The President doesn’t want to speak to you, you (expletive),” Parks replied.
Dempsey, a top-notch practical joker, removed the hook, line and sinker.
“I should have known the president didn’t have a Texas accent,” Dempsey said with a red face.
Dempsey, 73, passed away Saturday after contracting coronavirus at a New Orleans retirement home. His death was felt locally, as Dempsey grew up in Encinitas, back when it was known for flowers and farming.
“He always kept in touch with his old friends,” Bill Sullivan said.
Sullivan played whatever sport was in season with Dempsey, dating to the late 1950s. No matter what ball they were chasing, Dempsey never fell behind despite being born with half of a right foot and a right hand that featured but a thumb and pinkie.
We mention Dempsey’s disability here instead of at the beginning. That’s just how Dempsey would have preferred, according to Sullivan and others knowing the man everyone confirmed was the life of any party.
“He never used that for an excuse,” said Sullivan, now living in Fort Collins, Colo. “He would just get in there and play and do whatever we were doing well. Even with half of a foot, he was able to outrun some players on our Palomar team. He always gave 110 percent.”
Other pals mentioned how Dempsey’s folks wouldn’t let their athletic but compromised son use the pity card. Dempsey, who also shot put and wrestled at Palomar, was eager for anything.
“I think his parents deserved the primary credit for that,” said a longtime family associate, who declined to be named. “They never let him use his disability as an excuse for not doing something. That included baseball, where he would field a ball and flip his glove off after he caught it to throw it.”
Sullivan recalls Dempsey tossing aside overmatched junior college players. Dempsey played both sides of the line at Palomar (he was All-Conference at defensive tackle) as he often deployed his wrestling maneuvers to gain leverage on opponents.
“He was a football player,” Sullivan stressed. “He wasn’t just a kicker.”
That his deformed right foot led to his spot in NFL lore with his epic boot is what added to his story, especially considering how it came about.
“We had a pretty good kicker (at Palomar) but he had trouble on kickoffs,” Dempsey told the North County Times in 2012. “One day we were standing around and a coach said, ‘Which one of you (guys) can kick?’ I took off my shoe and kicked one out of the end zone. He asked me to do it again, and I did.”
Dempsey had an 11-year NFL career with the Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Oilers and Buffalo Bills. He was an All-NFL selection in 1969 and he was all-everything to children, disabled and otherwise, as a source of inspiration.
“He always loved talking to the kids,” Sullivan said.
John Carney, the former Chargers and Saints kicker, remembered Dempsey’s charisma at an Encinitas Little League opening day in 2007.
ELL, which was called the Northern San Dieguito Little League when “Tommy” Dempsey played in it as a 12-year-old, started the Tom Dempsey Award. Each year a player who has overcome significant obstacles is honored.
“I got to meet him which was nice because he is such a legend in New Orleans,” said Carney, a North County resident whose longest field goal went 54 yards. “His record stood for 43 years.”
Despite having but one developed foot, Dempsey, who is survived by his wife, Carlene, three children, a sister and three grandchildren, stood tall no matter his locale.
“He was a special guy and everybody’s friend,” Sullivan said. “He was just a guy everyone wanted to know and hang out with.”
Too bad President Nixon didn’t really call. He would have found a warm soul on the line’s other end.
Contact Jay Paris at [email protected] Follow him @jparis_sports.