Tom Dempsey: Rare Stories on a Saints Legend from Mike Detillier
Yesterday we found out that former New Orleans Saints place-kicker Tom Dempsey had passed away due to complications in contracting the Coronavirus.
Dempsey had been diagnosed with dementia in 2012 and later Alzheimer’s disease. Tom fought the good fight in life and never considered himself special in any manner and just wanted to be a regular guy.
We send out our prayers and condolences to his wife Carlene, along with his children Ashley, Meghan and Toby, and his many many friends.
DEMPSEY'S INTERVIEW WITH BOBBY HEBERT AND MIKE DETILLIER
In early 2011 Dempsey came do a show at the Silver Slipper Casino in Mississippi with Bobby Hebert and me on WWL-Radio. You could see even then signs that I have seen in the past few years with my own Mother who has dementia in that he could remember something that happened 30 to 35 years ago like it was yesterday, but had little short-term memory and he had a tendency to repeat himself. But he was thrilled so many folks came to take pictures with him and get his autograph.
“I’m stunned after all these years people still remember me,” Dempsey said.
I had worked a few times earlier with Tom along with Buddy Diliberto on WWL-Radio 870 and he was a kind, very gentle big man and he was a jokester. He loved to laugh and tell stories and he put you at ease with him. He wanted to know things about your life and showed a genuine interest in you and he shared his life story with you. Tom loved football and wanted to talk about the game all the time, but he was also a good man in life, a great ambassador for our area and always thought of others.
We will miss him.
DEMPSEY'S SIDELINES STORY ON THE KICK
But on this cold January day in 2011 Dempsey repeated a story I had heard him say many times about his record 63-yard field goal. And he told the folks at the Silver Slipper Casino also about exactly what happened on November 8, 1970.
“I’ve seen it written and spoken about a lot of different ways, but on the 63-yard field goal the call for me to kick the field goal, it did not come from the head coach- it came from our offensive backfield coach Don Heinrich,” Dempsey said. “This was J.D. Roberts’ first game as a head coach. We played hard that day and we had a lead late in the game and the Lions kicker Errol Mann hits a field goal to give them a (17-16) lead with little time left. It ran through my mind that we would lose another close game and we just had a history of losing these type games and that was a major reason our head coach Tom Fears had been fired a week earlier.”
“One of the unsung heroes that day was Al Dodd. Al played wide receiver for us and also returned kickoffs. He had gone to West Jefferson High School and had played his college ball at Northwestern State (LA.). Al returned Mann’s kickoff to the 28-yard line. And then Billy (Kilmer) hits Al with a quick pass on the sidelines for 17 yards. Those two plays by Al Dodd gave us a real shot that day.”
Dempsey says that with just a couple of seconds left it was either try the long field goal or throw a deep pass downfield and hope for the best.
“There was some confusion on the sidelines, I saw that and J.D. wanted to give Billy a chance to throw a deep pass, but I can still hear Don Heinrich saying “There’s time for just one play- No, No, No, let “Stumpy kick it, let Stumpy kick it.” Coach Heinrich turned around and said “Stumpy, go kick it.” I had kicked longer field goals before in practice and even in pregame warm-ups, but never in a game. That’s a big difference in kicking under pressure and kicking it practice kick. But Coach Heinrich had seen me kick and knew I had a good shot at it. The question for me was not the length of the kick, but could I keep the kick straight enough to make it.”
Dempsey said Roberts went along with Heinrich and sent the field goal unit on the field.
“All I heard was Coach Heinrich tell me “Stumpy, relax and give it a ride” and I told him “I’m ready.” Now Coach Roberts has told the story that I spoke to him and he told me to kick the ball, but that really wasn’t the case. It was Don Heinrich and I only really spoke to Coach Heinrich. Don made the call for me to kick the field goal.”
Dempsey knowing the length of the kick felt he needed to take an extra step to give himself a better shot to hit the field goal.
“I had a great set-up with Jackie Burkett as the deep-snapper and Joe (Scarpati) as my holder. Both those guys were just terrific in what they did. I told Joe that I would go back an extra yard to give myself a build-up step. If you watch the film you see I am so used to kicking my certain steps-rhythm wise- that there is a little bit of a hesitation before I get into the kick, but I just kicked it solid. I wanted to make sure it cleared the front-line because with those longer kicks the trajectory is a little lower and I kept my head down and my follow through was really good. The players tell me they knew I had kicked it well because of the sound of me hitting the ball, but I was so concentrated on hitting it right and clearing the line I swear I didn’t really hear it that way. It seemed like it stayed in the air forever and out of the corner of my eye I saw someone throw their hands up and I then heard the crowd roar.”
Dempsey says the stadium was a little more than half full because many of the fans had left after the Lions scored to get to their vehicles.
“We had a good crowd that day, but many of them left after Mann kicked the field goal, but it sounded like 200,000 people because of all the noise. Now, I have heard about half a million people tell me they were there that day, but again that is stretching the rubber-band a little or you might say a lot. I was just mobbed after the kick by the coaches and my teammates and it was such a glorious feeling. I was happy for me because of the accomplishment, but I was also so happy we had won and the lift it gave the team. But we couldn’t sustain the momentum and we ended up losing the next 6 games and most of those games weren’t even close.”
Dempsey laughed about the fact that he may be the only player in NFL history to be on the cover of the team’s press guide the next season and get cut in preseason.
“I can’t think of anyone else that something like that happened to,” Dempsey laughed. “Coach Roberts felt I was overweight and I was never thin, and I will admit I was 20 to 25 pounds heavier than the year before and he had me doing laps after practice sessions. I had been on the speaking circuit and I didn’t push away too many meals. But I had gotten kicked in the calf trying to make a tackle on a kickoff and it bothered me throughout the pre-season and I went 1 for 8 in field goal tries and J.D. cut me loose and Skip Butler took my place. So here I was the record holder for the longest field goal and less than a year later unemployed, but the Saints had to live with my picture on their media guide all year.”
“I was fortunate to play 9 more seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Oilers and the Buffalo Bills. But New Orleans was always special to me. The people were special and once they embraced you, you stayed embraced. New Orleans and Louisiana is my home. Always will be. Being here with Bobby and Mike, both real Cajun folks, has been wonderful for me tonight. These guys along with the folks at the Silver Slipper Casino and everyone here tonight have treated me like I’m made out of gold or something. I thought I had stories until I heard them two guys telling stories. I’m not in their zip code for stuff like that.”
BUDDY D AND PETE FINNEY BACKSTORY
One of the backstories on Dempsey’s record breaking 63-yard field goal was that my old WWL-Radio broadcast partner Buddy Diliberto never let Times Picayune sports columnist Pete Finney forget that he never actually saw the kick in real time.
Pete (Finney) won numerous writing awards for his coverage of the field goal, and some national awards, but Pete never saw the kick from the stadium,” Diliberto told me. “After the Lions kicked the field goal to take the lead Finney headed to the locker-room to get interviews and he was en-route when Dempsey made the kick. He heard the stadium erupt, but he never saw the kick live. I would tell Pete he was stealing awards for writing about something he never say until he saw it on a television replay. I mean this isn’t petty larceny stuff, but big time stealing.”
But Finney had the ultimate comeback for Diliberto giving him grief.
Buddy D’s response, “Pete is 2000% right about that. I had “coin” on the game, and they would have had to dynamite me out of my seat before that game was over.”
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