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Saints legend Dempsey remembers harsh labor era for players in 1974

Tom Dempsey kicking for the Philadelphia Eagles.Tom Dempsey kicking for the Philadelphia Eagles.NEW ORLEANS – During the summer of 1974, kicker Tom Dempsey found himself smack-dab in the middle of an ugly NFL players strike as a thankless union rep for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Though proud to serve his teammates in that capacity, these were not the best of times to stand up against an NFL owner such as Leonard Tose, a compulsive gambler and admitted alcoholic who eventually had to sell the Eagles in 1985 after incurring more than $25 million in casino-related debts.  

Now 37 years later, Dempsey recalled everything good, bad and ugly about the ’74 strike, a work stoppage that lasted 42 days (July 9-August 19) and ended during the dog days of training camp when defectors from the players’ union crossed picket lines.

Dempsey, 64, currently resides in New Orleans where he cut his NFL teeth with the Saints in 1969 and ’70. Born without fingers on his right hand and toes on his right foot, Dempsey is best remembered for his record-setting 63-yard field goal on Nov. 8, 1970, that gave the Saints a 19-17 victory against the Detroit Lions at Tulane Stadium.  

“It was really the first major strike in our league,’’ Dempsey recently told SportsNOLA.com. “It was kind of rough. It was the first time the owners called us a union and every time they did, we’d s… in our pants. Up until then, we thought we were an ‘Association.’  

“Back then, the NFL was a lot different than it is now. Owners called us communists. My wife couldn’t go to the store without feeling threatened (by fans). My first son was born in May (1974), right before the strike. We named him Thomas Baker but we called him Toby. I didn’t want my son called by my name because of what was happening to me and my family.’’  

Dempsey said he was viewed as the enemy by Eagles’ management, largely because of the influence he had on his teammates to remain out on strike despite repeated attempts by Tose to break their ranks.  

“Our quarterback got paid to break the strike,’’ said Dempsey, an 11-year veteran who also played for the Los Angeles Rams, Houston Oilers and Buffalo Bills before his retirement after the 1979 season. “We’re friends now but for years we weren’t. The Eagles paid him. I don’t know how much and I never wanted to know. All I know is the offensive linemen stopped blocking for him.’’

Dempsey declined to identity the quarterback who crossed the picket line, though that player is believed to be Roman Gabriel.  

“I told him I would never name names,’’ Dempsey said, again declining to name "him.''

“I will tell you one of our offensive lineman called me up one day and he was about to lose his house ’cause there was no money coming in. He asked me, ‘What do I do? Can I go in?’ I said, ‘Yeah, go take care of your family.’ ’’  

Dempsey said he also cautioned that same lineman to get his bribe-money up front.  

“They didn’t give him his money and as soon as the veterans came back in, they fired him,’’ Dempsey said.  

The striking Eagles’ best allies were members of the AFL-CIO, who joined the players on picket lines outside old Veterans Stadium. No surprise there since Philadelphia was then, and remains today, a very strong union town.  

“Some of the union guys said they would blow up Leonard Tose’s helicopter if we wanted them to,’’ Dempsey said, chuckling. “I said. ‘Guys, we’re not quite that far along yet.’ ’’  

Dempsey never regained favor with Tose nor Eagles' head coach Mike McCormack. During the offseason of 1975, Tose dealt Dempsey to the L.A. Rams for a fourth-round draft pick. Tose reportedly turned down a second-round pick from Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, who apparently held Dempsey in high regard.

As it turned out Dempsey ended up with a playoff team in L.A.  

“I didn’t want to be player rep when I got traded to the Rams,’’ Dempsey said. “I’d gotten the s… kicked out of me enough in Philly. The (fans) were against me in Philly because it was the first time we’d stood our ground. There were a lot of things happening back in those days. For instance, if you got hurt and you didn’t play, you probably wouldn’t have a job.  

“Guys who played one year and got crippled as a result of playing, they’re not getting any benefits. There are some owners who just want to say, ‘screw you, we don’t have to help.’ Not every owner is like that but there are some guys who feel that way.’’  

After the ’74 strike, the union won the right for players to bargain through their own agents with the clubs, improvements in basic salaries and pensions, dental care, and impartial arbitration for injury grievances. But it was unable to make much progress on its economic demands, and many union representatives were fired from teams.  

Today, Dempsey said he draws a monthly NFL pension of $2,500. He is closely watching the current labor dispute, knowing that retired veterans such as himself stand to benefit from a new player-friendly Collective Bargaining Agreement.  

Wednesday marked Day 70 of the NFL lockout with no end in sight.

“Look, I’m not a real fan of the NFLPA because they’re dumping on the old guys,’’ Dempsey said. “The modern players don’t realize how many of the old guys got hurt and have helped them get to where they are today.’’  

Dempsey paused, then introduced Saints quarterback Drew Brees into the conversation. Brees is a member of the executive board of the NFL Players Association, which now is legally classified as a “trade association’’ after being decertified.  

Brees also is a named plaintiff in the players’ antitrust suit against Saints' owner Tom Benson and the other 31 NFL owners.  

“Look, I respect Drew Brees,’’ Dempsey said. “He’s put himself on the line for the old players. He’s done a lot for us and he’s also doing it for the current players, just like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. That’s smart because their teammates will remember that when all this s… ends.’’  

Saints beat writer Brian Allee-Walsh can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 
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