Across a prolific athletic and academic career at Kirksville, Paxton Dempsay has rarely been satisfied.
In football, basketball and baseball, there are plenty of games he wishes the Tigers would have come out on top. He’d give away all of his school records — which is almost every passing mark at Kirksville — to have some of those games back. Even scoring a 30 on the ACT wasn’t enough for him, so he’s taking the test again because he thinks he can score higher.
It was his drive that helped guide Kirksville to its first district win since 2013 and warrants his selection as the 2019 Daily Express Football Player of the Year.
“He’s also extremely humble,” said Kirksville football coach Conrad Schottel. “He’s one of our star players and one of our high-flying names, but he just consistently plays at a high level and never let that — even though he was one of our best — get to his head. I can assure you that he will be grateful for this honor, but if you were to ask him, he’d say, ‘Oh, I’d trade this, all-district, all-conference, all-state and trade it all for two or three more wins.’ Because he would.”
And Dempsay certainly did say that: “Any records, any individual awards, (I’d give those) for more playoff wins, more wins in general.”
Winning is the only thing that satiates his drive, but even those provide fleeting relief because he’s always focused on what comes next.
“A win. And then moving on to the next week,” said Dempsay of what keeps him focused and motivated. “… Always enjoy the win when you have it, but you know in the back of your mind that, sooner than later, you have to start preparing for the next game.”
His mindset is one of the big reasons he was always dialed in on Friday nights. It didn’t matter if the Tigers had lost several in a row or they were coming off a win, he always had tunnel vision from game to game. That helped him never get too high after a great play or drive, and not too low after an interception or missed throw.
In the Tigers’ district game against Warrenton, the Tigers were down late and needed a strong drive to take the lead back. Dempsay threw an interception on that key drive and it appeared things were over for the Tigers. But the defense worked a stop and got the offense back on the field. Dempsay was perfect on the drive, eventually hitting Jaden Ballinger for a jump ball in the end zone and then Noah Copeland for a two-point conversion to win.
“I think that sequence of events to have the fruit of his labor realized (stands out),” said Schottel. “For him to stay in there, just the calm and collected, ‘Hey, I’m going to go out there and keep swinging.’ Because it looked at the time like they were going to be able to run the clock out and we were done after that pick. But the fact of the matter was we were fortunate to get back out there and he kept his cool and was able to take us down the yard when it mattered the most, and score and complete the big one when it mattered.”
Dempsay’s terrific arm capped off that drive, a talent Schottel noticed during Dempsay’s sophomore year and prompted an offensive change. Dempsay was set to take over at quarterback in his junior year, but Schottel made the call to change early as the team prepared for Boonville. The Tigers were 1-4 at the time and installed a new offense in a week. Dempsay didn’t know he was becoming the new starting quarterback, just that there were some new packages he would lead. Those packages lasted the whole game and the Tigers won 27-6.
With time, Dempsay’s role on offense became larger, collaborating more with the coaches on play calls. Dempsay loved learning from Schottel, a former collegiate quarterback, since that is what he wants to do. As Dempsay gained more and more experience, Schottel knew he could trust him to do almost anything on the field.
“It’s really fun whenever you have a kid like Paxton with that football IQ because it really is a collaboration, a co-partnership when you’re attacking a defense,” Schottel said. “A lot of schools and a lot of teams, the coach has quite a grip on what is being thrown and what’s being thrown when. But with Paxton, we could really open it up to trust him to have more than just one read. We could have a two-receiver read, a three-receiver read. We could trust him with an RPO and knew he was going to make the best decision with it. It was really fun and it’s really special and really rare. It’s one of those things that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. It’s not going to hit us or him until next August, but we’re going to look different.”
Schottel remembers the defense getting a turnover in that Boonville game and he had to hold Dempsay off the field because he was so excited. That was the spark of Dempsay’s leadership, which turned over into his junior year when he called out his offensive line to play better during a home game against Chillicothe, and then shone brightest in this year’s playoff game.
Dempsay finished this season with 2,484 passing yards, a 60 percent completion rate and 28 passing touchdowns. He also led the team in rushing with 427 yards, and ran eight touchdowns in. But he credits his surrounding weapons for those totals and that’s why he loves team accomplishments much more than individual ones.
“Wins as a team are much more fun than setting a record by yourself because you accomplish something as a team and as a whole,” Dempsay said.
“His numbers and his productivity were just absolutely crazy. For a team — and even a program — that has struggled for a long time, for us to have a player of that caliber is just special,” Schottel said. “His numbers speak for themselves, but two and a half years as a starting quarterback, over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns — anytime a quarterback is doing that, it’s special. All that being said, the things we love about Paxton is that he’s an incredible talent and incredibly productive, but he’s also an incredible leader. He goes about his business the right way, he’s extremely committed, never misses anything, always puts in extra time, has a deep understanding of the game and what it takes to be a consistent preparer for Friday nights.”
Since he was driven so much by winning, Dempsay does hold disappointment that the Tigers only won eight games in his tenure. But Schottel sees the ripple effects of Dempsay’s legacy much differently.
He saw the sheer competitiveness of the program completely change with Dempsay under center, a mark he knows he has to meet with new Tiger leaders next year.
“He automatically brought us and our program, in two years, to a competitive level that we were not at before,” Schottel said. “Just from a standpoint of, if we won a handful of games before, the rest of them, we were getting our brains kicked in and it wasn’t even close. Now we’re winning a handful of games and most of the other games are still really close.”