METAIRIE — Tom Dempsey has dementia.
That’s why, on the morning of the 43rd anniversary of his NFL-record 63-yard field goal, Dempsey was at Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine undergoing physical and occupational therapy in hopes of stymieing the inevitable.
“They really hammer me,” said the man whose shot off his squared-off shoe ranks as one of the top moments in Saints history. “But I’m a better patient now that I see there’s been some progress.”
“Progress” in this case is a relative term.
But Saints fans, including those far too young to remember that long ago day at Tulane Stadium, will be glad to know that Dempsey’s condition, at least for now, does not appear as developed as was indicated in a recent Sports Illustrated article on Dempsey, who’s 65, and the shares the record with three other players — Jason Elam, Sebastian Janikowski and David Akers.
Dempsey, who resides in Old Jefferson with Carlene, his wife of 41 years, daughter Ashley and grandson Dylan, drives himself to and from his twice-weekly sessions at Tulane plus regular treatment at Dr. Paul Harch’s hyperbaric oxygen therapy clinic in Marrero.
And since first beginning treatment two years ago when he met brain disorder specialist Dr. Daniel Amen at his California clinic, Dempsey is much fitter after losing 70 pounds through a combination of healthy eating and walking the family dog, Darwin, four times a day.
Dempsey is even sharp enough that when a visitor says he will see him on Wednesday, he quickly reminds him that it was actually set for Thursday. To be sure, the longer the interview goes on, the more disjointed Dempsey’s responses become.
And he’ll talk about how “They’re screwing up football today,” by putting limitations on offseason and in-season practices, claiming that only leads to more injuries, how the Saints’ season has been “torpedoed by that idiot in New York” (presumably Roger Goodell) because the NFL doesn’t want them playing in the Super Bowl in their own stadium and how he doesn’t like going to Saints games anymore because, “Football should be played outdoors in the mud and the blood and the beer.”
Dempsey even had to be reminded the significance of Nov. 8, the day he became a Saints legend.
However, the irritability that first alerted Dempsey’s family that something wasn’t right has been curtailed and he is no longer reclusive, Dempsey said, thanks to his therapy which stresses brain exercises. His balance also has improved with physical therapy.
“Reading more, writing down things and talking to people only helps your brain get stronger,” said Dempsey, who wants to write a book about the important people in his life. “And losing weight eased the pressure on the three holes Dr. Amen discovered in my brain.”
But more than anything else these days, Dempsey is concerned about players from his era whom he believes suffered brain injuries during their playing days.
“I want to help these guys get to the right doctors,” he said. “There’s too many people dying before they should.”
That includes the recently deceased Alex Karras, who was famously laughing at Dempsey that day before Dempsey’s kick beat Karras and the Detroit Lions, 19-17.
Earlier in the game, Dempsey recalls, Karras knocked him down after another kick, but then helped him up. “He said, ‘I like you kid,’” Dempsey said. ‘You’re not scared.’”
Although he was a kicker, Dempsey said he estimates he suffered at least six concussions because he was never one to shy away from contact, including time spent playing linebacker at Palomar College in California and guard with a semipro team in Massachusetts before beginning his 11-year career in the NFL.
And all of that was accomplished despite Dempsey’s being born with a right arm that ends just below the elbow with a malformed hand and without toes on his right foot, hence the famous square-toed kicking shoe.
So Dempsey was never one to let him limitations beat him, an attitude, he said was developed when spending time on his grandfather’s farm in Winnsboro when he was a child, his grandfather would thump him on the head and say, “You can do it.”
With an attitude like that, Dempsey is determined to combat his condition rather than resign himself to fading away. He’s also doing what he can to help children undergoing treatment at Harch’s clinic, assuring them that it doesn’t hurt and there’s nothing to worry about.
“I’m not depressed and I’m not scared,” he said. “I was at first when I saw those holes in my brain, but not anymore.
“And when I’m doing things like I should my wife tells me. She says she wants to be around for while with me, and I want to be around with her.”
The outpouring of support he’s received since the article came out has been uplifting.
“People will ask me how I’m feeling, and I’ll telling them I’m fighting this the same way I did when I was playing football,” Dempsey said. “It’s nice to be remembered.”