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Tom Dempsey's dream was to kick for Packers

Not acquiring the prolific kicker led to dark period at the position in Green Bay

New Orleans Saints' Tom Dempsey moves up to kick a 63-yard field goal
New Orleans Saints' Tom Dempsey moves up to kick a 63-yard field goal

If only Vince Lombardi would have paid heed to Tom Dempsey's dream of kicking for the Green Bay Packers.

But he didn't during his one year as general manager and it led to one of most horrendous stretches of field-goal kicking any NFL team has ever endured.

Dempsey, who died April 4, at age 73, from coronavirus, first contacted the Packers in 1967 when he was 20 years old and they were about to win their third straight NFL championship under Lombardi. With reliable veteran Don Chandler in his third and final season with the Packers there was no need for Dempsey.

 But a year later, after Lombardi resigned as coach and stayed on as general manager, there was a desperate need for a kicker. Chandler also retired and left Phil Bengtson, Lombardi's successor, with a bare spot on his roster that Dempsey would have gladly filled.

Here was the horror story that followed.

From 1968-71, nine different Packers kickers converted 48 of 105 field-goal attempts, a miserable 46 percent. Keep in mind, too, the goal posts were still located on the goal line, not the end line. Thus, during that period, Packers kickers were 14 of 15 on field goals from inside the 20-yard line. Remove those from the equation and their percentage would have dropped to 38 percent.

Worse yet, those nine kickers over those four seasons made only six of 25 from the 40-yard line and beyond, or 24 percent. They weren't very good from the 30 to 39, either. Their conversion rate from that distance was 10 of 27 for 37 percent.

At some point before training camp started in July 1967, Dempsey wrote Lombardi asking for a tryout. Lombardi recommended that he contact officials with the Lowell (Mass.) Giants, members of the Atlantic Coast Football League and a minor league affiliate of the Packers.

So Dempsey did and paid his own way from California to Lowell, where he immediately drew national attention.

Born without toes on his right foot – he wrapped tape around his stump – and also with a withered right forearm and partial right hand, Dempsey kicked an 18-yard field goal with 2:26 remaining on the night of July 25, 1967, to give the Lowell Giants a 3-0 victory over the Boston Patriots rookies.

Not surprisingly, his story made The Associated Press wire and appeared in papers across the country.

Dempsey, who stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 275 pounds, spent the season with Lowell, which finished 7-5 and second to the Westchester Bulls in the ACFL's Northern Division. Dempsey led the league with 42 extra points, 15 more than any other kicker, and also made two field goals, according to "Outsiders II," a minor league and independent football encyclopedia for the years 1951-85.

Having been born in Milwaukee, Dempsey was hoping to get a shot with the Packers in 1968. He went to high school in California and then played football and wrestled at Palomar Junior College in San Marcos, Calif., but he later said he was back working in Milwaukee when he wrote his letter to the Packers in 1967.

When the Packers showed no interest the next year, he attended an open kickers camp that the San Diego Chargers held as part of a promotion to sell season tickets and immediately impressed head coach Sid Gillman. Dempsey made kicks from midfield and beyond, and his hang time on kickoffs that landed at the back of the end zone was 4.5 seconds.

"I've been around this game for a long time, but I never saw anything like that," Gillman said after watching Dempsey kick.

 Dempsey spent 1968 on San Diego's taxi squad – the equivalent of today's practice squads – and then signed with the Saints as a free agent in 1969 after being cut by the Chargers.

Dempsey spent 11 years in the NFL kicking for five different teams and made 159 of 258 attempts, or 61.6%.

When Packers kickers Mike Mercer and Booth Lusteg converted only six of 22 field-goal tries in 1969, Dempsey made 22 of 41 for the Saints with 10 of his misses coming from 50 yards or more.

In 1970, when Dale Livingston made one field goal from beyond 40 yards, Dempsey kicked an NFL record 63-yarder. In 1971, when Packers kickers Dave Conway, Lou Michaels and Tim Webster made only one of six field-goal attempts from beyond 40 yards, Dempsey made five of eight from that distance and led the NFL in field-goal accuracy with 70.6.

Dempsey's 63-yarder broke the previous league record by seven yards. And it stood as the league record for 43 years.

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