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Ex-Bill Tom Dempsey, victim of Covid-19, recalled by Fred Smerlas as 'in-your-face guy'

Erik Brady

Before there was Wide Right, there was wide right.

Buffalo Bills kicker Tom Dempsey missed a 34-yard field goal in the Buffalo Bills’ home opener in 1979. It would have given the Bills their first win against the Miami Dolphins in 10 years. Former Bills defensive lineman Fred Smerlas will never forget it.

“We just sat there, stunned, in the locker room,” Smerlas said by phone from his home in Massachusetts. “It was dead quiet. And Demps, he was crying.”

Smerlas later found out why. It wasn’t just that Dempsey felt he’d disappointed his team and his town. More importantly, he felt he’d let down his many fans in the disability community.

“I went out drinking with him and that’s what he told me,” Smerlas said. “That really tells you a lot about the guy. He was a man of many dimensions. A tough guy. A great kicker. And a guy who really cared about people.”

Dempsey died of complications from coronavirus late Saturday in New Orleans, where 50 years ago he booted a game-winning field goal from 63 yards. That broke the NFL record by seven yards, a feat so outlandish at the time that it sounded like some American folk tale come to life.

That’s the extent of what Smerlas knew about Dempsey when meeting him for the first time at training camp at Niagara University in the summer of 1979, when Smerlas was a rookie nose tackle and Dempsey a 10-year veteran.

“He was the guy who kicked the 63-yard field goal,” Smerlas said. “He was historical.”

Dempsey was born with no toes on his right foot and kicked with a modified, flat-front shoe. He was also born with no fingers on his right hand, but none of that stopped him from playing sports. He was a wrestler, shot putter and defensive lineman at his high school in Southern California.

Smerlas was a high school wrestler, too. That made them kindred spirits. “Wrestlers love wrestlers,” Smerlas said.

They hit it off right away, though it was an odd-couple pairing on both ends. Veterans don’t usually hang out with rookies, and nose tackles don’t typically carouse with kickers. But Smerlas tells a story of one night at training camp when Dempsey joined Smerlas and fellow rookie Jim Haslett for a night on the town.

“We get back that night and Haz is giving him a hard time about something,” Smerlas said. “We’re in the elevator and Dempsey piledrives Haz into the wall and he’s jabbing him in the ribs with that nub of a right hand. I had to pull him off.”

Smerlas laughs out loud at the memory. It elevated Dempsey in Smerlas’ eyes.

“Most kickers aren’t 260 pounds,” Smerlas said. “He’d go out with you, have a few shots, drinking some whiskey, getting in there with all the boys. He was a head-butting, in-your-face guy and he fit in comfortably with all of us.”

That 1979 opener was the first game of Smerlas’ NFL career — and close to the last of Dempsey’s. He kicked the next week when the Bills blew out the Cincinnati Bengals in Buffalo. But in the season’s third game, in San Diego, Dempsey missed a pair of extra points in a 27-19 loss. That was it. Coach Chuck Knox signed veteran kicker Nick Mike-Mayer to replace him.

“He wasn’t with us a long time,” Smerlas said, “but we had the summer with him, and he made an impression.”

Dempsey told reporters after the Miami game that he’d missed just two last-second kicks that would’ve won NFL games. The other was a 26-yarder for the Philadelphia Eagles at Rich Stadium in 1973, so you could say the Bills broke even on Dempsey’s most miserable misfires.

The news reports of Dempsey’s death didn’t dwell on his misses, but they all told of the phantasmagorical glory of that 63-yarder that beat the Detroit Lions 50 years ago. And there’s a Buffalo angle to that kick, too.

Don Criqui, the St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute graduate who called some of the greatest moments in NFL history, manned the mic for CBS in that game at Tulane Stadium. You can watch the clip on YouTube and listen to Criqui’s classic call.

“I don’t believe this,” he said as the ball is in the air, before it reaches the goal posts. And then, when it goes through, “Oh, it’s good! I don’t believe this — from 63 yards away!”

The footage is grainy but the shifting timbre of Criqui’s voice makes the play feel fully alive all these years later.

“The goal posts were on the goal line then, not the back of the end zone,” Criqui said from his home in New Jersey. “So he kicked that ball from his own 37-yard line. The next week they put a little gold patch in the turf signifying where he kicked it from.”

Dempsey was carried off the field and spent the night celebrating at a bar on Bourbon Street. “From what I can recall,” he once said, “I had a great time.”

The record would not be broken for more than 40 years, until Denver Broncos kicker Matt Prater booted a 64-yard field goal in Denver in 2013.

“But that was in thin air, a mile high,” Smerlas said. “Dempsey kicked his in New Orleans, where the air is so thick your face gets wet just walking around. That thing would have been good from 75 yards in Denver.”

The kick made Dempsey a forever hero in New Orleans, but the Saints released him the next summer when he missed seven of eight field goals in preseason games. He later said he was out of shape after an offseason when everyone in Louisiana wanted to buy him dinner and drinks.

Dempsey played two seasons for the Saints, four for the Eagles, two for the Los Angeles Rams (for Knox) and one for the Houston Oilers before landing in Buffalo in 1978. That season he hit 10 field goals in 13 attempts. Then, in 1979, he made just one of four before Knox let him go. The Miami miss was the big one.

“Look, it was a rainy day,” Smerlas said. “Nobody was (upset) at him. The older guys were bummed because they hadn’t beat Miami in umpteen years. I was near tears. Haz tried to cheer me up. He said it was only the first game and we had 15 left to play.”

Smerlas turns 63 on Wednesday. Dempsey died at 73. He’d been diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s years earlier and was living in a nursing home in New Orleans where at least 14 others died of complications from coronavirus.

“He was a unique character,” Smerlas said. “He made a big impact on me. And I’m sad to see him go.”

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