I still remember Pat Summerall’s narration on This Week in Pro Football: “Sixty-three yards to the Hall of Fame.”
In typical NFL Films style, the ball descended in slow motion, to a sweeping orchestral score. As the ball cleared the crossbar—barely—the official in the background exploded from a half crouch and actually jumped into the air as he signaled that the kick was good.
I was eleven years old. I was not a Saints fan. But something about Tom Dempsey’s record 63-yard field goal, which gave the Saints a 19–17 win over the Lions, lodged inside me and lingered. The NFL Films presentation of it gave me goose bumps.
I’m sure part if that was due to anticipation. I’d waited six days to see that kick. (Yes, back then you had wait until the following Saturday to see a wrap-up of Sunday’s games.) And some of it had to do with the inspiring notion of a bad team emerging triumphant under desperate circumstances. Down a point, with time for one more play, the Saints lined up for a field goal in their own territory. (The goalposts were on the goal line in 1970, so the spot for Dempsey’s record-breaking kick was the New Orleans 37.)
But mostly the thing that captured my imagination about that kick was the kicker.
I knew that Tom Dempsey had been born with just half a right foot and half a right arm. And I just thought, in a simplistic, kidlike way, it was cool that he had overcome those limitations to not only make it to the NFL, but to also set a record.
But during the week following Dempsey’s record-setting kick, I discovered that not everyone shared my sense of wonder. Dallas Cowboys president and general manager Tex Schramm, who was head of the NFL’s competition committee, declared: “I feel the record should have an asterisk by it.”
The issue was Dempsey’s kicking shoe, which had a large, flat front surface. His detractors said the shoe gave him an unfair advantage over other kickers. Supposedly his “club foot” turned his powerful right leg into an actual club—like a golfer’s driver.
There was a picture of Dempsey’s shoe in the paper. It sure didn’t look like an “advantage” to me. I thought the people who were complaining sounded like crybabies.
Scroll ahead 40 years. In 2010 I was working on a proposal for a book (never published) with the working title Further Review: An Annotated History of NFL Rules. The idea was to start with the official NFL Rulebook, in all its 295 pages of complexity, and work backward in a sort of forensic examination to determine how the modern game of pro football had evolved from its crude beginnings.
Most rule changes, I determined, were slow and incremental, a response to long-term trends. But a few could be traced to specific plays—and specific players. This was one:
Rule 5, Section 4, Article 3G
Kicking shoes must not be modified, and 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 toe.
The Tom Dempsey Rule, it was called.
Turned out that Schramm got his way with the competition committee, although it took seven years to approve the change.
Why Schramm had a vendetta against Dempsey is hard to say. Maybe it was because Schramm hated the old AFL, and it bothered him that an AFL reject (Dempsey had broken in with the AFL’s Chargers) had set an NFL record. Further, it was Chargers coach Sid Gillman who had suggested Dempsey try a custom-made shoe. (Before that, Dempsey had kicked barefoot.)
But the thing that puzzled me most about the Tom Dempsey Rule was that it apparently had never applied to Tom Dempsey. I’d seen photos of Dempsey when he played for the Buffalo Bills, after the rule change, and it looked like he was using the same style shoe he always had.
I wondered why that was. Had he been grandfathered in? Or was it a matter of semantics? Technically, Dempsey’s shoe wasn’t “modified”—it had been custom made to fit his foot, by a company called Rgp Orthopedic Appliance in San Diego. Nor did Dempsey have an “artificial limb.” He derived his impressive power from the leg he was born with.
I tracked down a phone number and called Dempsey for an explanation.
I’m happy to report that the impression I had formed of Tom Dempsey when I was eleven years old still held up in adulthood. For instance: He told me that, out of consideration for his mother, he had never bothered to research the cause of his birth defect. “I didn’t want to put that on her,” he said. “I just figured I was born that way and there was nothing I could do about it, so let’s just get on with life.”
And as for whether his custom-made shoe gave him an advantage, Dempsey said: “When I missed a field goal no one said I had a disadvantage.”
In that same spirit, Dempsey told me he was prepared to fight the NFL—in court, if necessary—if they insisted that he use a shoe with a “normal kicking toe.” His lawyer was prepared to sue the league for unlawful discrimination.
But it never came to that. Why? Because of a short, simple conversation between Dempsey and then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Said Dempsey, “He just told me, ‘Don’t worry about it, Tom.’”
And that was that. Tom Dempsey continued to wear the same shoe he always had, and the NFL took no action.
“Pete was a good guy,” Dempsey said. “He was maybe the last commissioner that liked the players and the fans.”
This conversation took place more than five years ago, long before Deflategate. But a controversy was already brewing about the NFL’s handling of the issue of concussions and player pensions. Since then Dempsey has gone into seclusion, at the Lambeth House in New Orleans. He suffers from Alzheimer’s.
This week, as the 45th anniversary of that landmark kick approached, I reviewed the notes of my brief conversation with Tom Dempsey. I was struck by what he’d said about Pete Rozelle—and, by implication, about the commissioners who followed.
I thought, naturally, of Roger Goodell. And I thought of Deflategate.
And I saw an obvious parallel.
Some might see this as a false equivalence—maybe even an offensive one. Tom Dempsey used a nonstandard shoe because of a birth defect. Tom Brady is accused of being “generally aware” that team employees allegedly reduced the air pressure in Patriots footballs per Brady’s preference.
Still, in each instance the NFL commissioner had to make essentially the same call. Presented with a dubious case involving allegations that altered equipment provided a competitive advantage, both Pete Rozelle and Roger Goodell had to decide whether to risk millions of dollars in legal fees and a potential public-relations nightmare in order to placate a handful of team owners.
It’s clear that Pete Rozelle made the right call and Roger Goodell did not. Really, it’s that simple. Last spring, with the same five simple words that Rozelle used, Goodell could have made this whole Deflategate mess go away:
Don’t worry about it, Tom.