(this is all five parts of the story in its entirety)
Ron Isley croons from the stereo of the Audi A6 Quattro Clint Dempsey purchased from sports agency-mate Ryan Nelsen. “You fool one day you’re here and then you’re gone.” But before the beat drops, before UGK’s Pimp C and Bun B have a chance to trade verses about making the most of the Texas youth they were dealt, before we’re even out of the parking lot of Dempsey’s apartment, we’re out of the car.
Across the street private preparatory school blazers are tossed to the sidewalk; tiny fists on fragile arms flail like loose garden hoses. “What the…. Should we break up that fight?” Dempsey asks without a glance to me, his big black eyes fixated on the fracas as if he already has his answer. “Sure, your town your call,” I tell him beginning to crack open the passenger seat door. We jump out of the car stopping traffic on the bustling two-lane road in London’s Wimbledon neighborhood. The dozen kids, no older than 12 maybe 13, turn toward us as we approach, taking notice of the bigger boys calling out, “Hey, what are you….”
“You’re Clint Dempsey!”
“You know Brian McBride!”
So much for that. Before we could break anything up the kids are pulling out notebooks and soccer boots for autographs, cell phones for pictures. A mother pushing a stroller finds herself caught in chaos. She’s confused but content to accept that she doesn’t recognize Dempsey, who in five days time will become the 2007-8 top scorer on the Fulham Football Club in the English Premier League. I corral the kids to one side, allowing her space to pass and then go to the car for my camera. The whole episode ends with a group photo.
“It’s hilarious you were here for that,” Clint says back in the car, his voice competing with UGK who is again filling the Audi’s interior as we make our way to the dry cleaners and then lunch at a burger joint that serves up American memories for the ex-pat player. “You were asking before but—I wasn’t lying—that’s the first time I’ve really been recognized.”
He’s being inducted into his alma mater’s athletic hall of fame. He has the key to the city of his hometown in Texas, the adoration of a nation of national team fans, but here in England Clint Dempsey is relatively unknown. The 25-year-old American soccer star, newly married and expecting his first child, is in a funny place, to say nothing of being a 25-year-old-with-a-kid-on-the-way. He’s making plenty of money playing soccer in the world famous English Premier League. He is one of only a few attacking players on the United States Men’s National Team consistently in the starting lineup, making him one of the most popular players in a nation starved of soccer heroes. But Dempsey has to constantly fight for a spot in the line-up for Fulham, a historic if historically mediocre club, and critics are now beginning to question the former player of the year’s national team starting spot.
The general consensus from the cab drivers, bartenders, and fans I spoke to over my 12 days in England last May—those who knew who he was, that is—thought Dempsey to be a fine player, but they weren’t quite sure what to make of him. Unlike the considerations given by American fans, Dempsey is seen as soft in certain English circles. “He’s no Brian McBride,” several said, unwilling to accept that maybe Dempsey is a different kind of player. The U.K.’s Guardian newspaper ran a preview of Fulham’s 2008-09 season recently without mentioning Dempsey at all. He’s played just sparingly in the first few games of 2008-09’s season after starting at the end of last season.
We don’t often think of our all-stars as having to fight for playing time or media attention, but such is life for America’s best soccer players in Europe. I’m thinking he can still wholly relate to his favorite Texas rappers. It’s not the crack game, but nearly every step of the way, this Texas baller has had his work cut out for him. If you’ve read anything about Clint Dempsey, you know he had to hustle too. One day you’re here and the next day…
It is a Tuesday in London. It hasn’t rained since the last Friday. There’s barely a cloud in the sky. On Saturday, I watched Fulham win their last home game of the season against Birmingham City. Save the exchange rate, it is a hell of a time for a soccer fan to be in England. This coming week should be a nervous one for Fulham players and fans, awaiting what will surely be a crazy finale in Portsmouth on Sunday. A cab drops me at Motspsur Park, home to Fulham’s training ground. Dempsey appears after practice unfazed by the past weekend’s victory or the impending final game. I figured to find him tightly wound, but he is loose and happy, like a kid with one last final exam before school is out for the summer. In one week’s time Dempsey will be moved out of his London flat and back in the U.S. for a much needed rest before national team duty calls.
Nobody is Tiger Woods. Nike (who sponsors both TIAS and Clint Dempsey), had that ad campaign all wrong. This is what I’m thinking while hitting Clint’s 4-iron in the stall next to him at a local driving range. The greatest golfer ever to live was hitting balls on the Mike Douglas Show in front of Jimmy Stewart and Bob Hope at the age of 2. He now owns a yacht named ‘privacy’, and speaks to the world through his website in a tightly guarded existence. Dempsey though? Right now he’s just a kid shanking golf balls into a sea of Astroturf. You could maybe be Clint Dempsey. He’s got an Audi sedan and sublets a furnished two-bedroom apartment in a decent area of London. At the age of 2 he was kicking around a soccer ball, but it was in his front yard like a normal human. Two decades later, Dempsey appears awfully normal. He’s not super fast, not a giant at 6’1”. He’s big enough, fast enough. He’s got a bit of that every-man mystique (and physique), the kind that makes you want to root for him because in your most selfish moments you think maybe it could have been you on that field. Maybe it still could be. But watch him long enough and you witness an enduring drive and work ethic capped atop magical feet that few could imitate. He fits the cliché: “don’t judge a book by its cover,” a crime American soccer has long been guilty of doing to its players since, well, forever.
Our plan after Tuesday’s practice is to hit the driving range, grab some food and maybe catch a movie and/or play video games. Fulham’s pending final exam is not the only thing fit for a scholastic metaphor. I haven’t had a day that goes soccer practice-driving range-food-TV-movie or maybe some video games since high school. And though I have played golf between then and now, you wouldn’t know it by watching me hit balls. But neither would you know Dempsey, who played his first round of real golf last year, is a professional athlete (he doesn’t even get a prolonged look from driving range staff or golfers). I offer up (about as well as any book-smart golfer with a 20 handicap can) pointers on club grip and shot selection when he asks—not that giving advice to a professional athlete makes any sense at the moment. The fact is my 20 years of off-and-on golf have brought me about square with Clint Dempsey on year one.
While taking our swings and watching our balls scatter across the turf, I ask him about getting noticed in public (never happens) and life in London (quiet), about relegation battles and transfer possibilities (they are what they are), about weddings and honeymoons—and about wristwatches. He pulled a hefty-looking, shiny black timepiece out of its factory box after practice and strapped it on his wrist. He fidgeted with the dials. Fifteen minutes later, at the driving range, he took it off and placed it back in its box. It’s a modern hunk of a thing from a brand I was not familiar with. Post-golf, back in the car, the watch is out again, and Dempsey is again playing with the knobs. It’s a 44mm Hublot Big Bang Black Magic, he tells me as we try to decipher the push pull code of the control knobs so that he can properly set it. “They have the Bigger Bang and one with diamonds all over it,” he says, now that the watch has become the center of attention. “But I wouldn’t spend that much money on a car.”
I’m thinking the car must spend a lot of time in the garage, but Dempsey parks his pre-owned Audi in a small lot out front the building that could be a mansion but is merely a small apartment complex. The smell of fresh paint permeates the hallways. There’s no need to put down real roots here for Dempsey, not when he doesn’t know where he will be playing next year or the year after or the year after. Such is life on the global soccer market. Playing 40 games at Fulham over the last two seasons triggered a two-year extension to Dempsey’s original contract, theoretically keeping Dempsey at the club through the summer of 2010. But a loss at Portsmouth would relegate the club out of the English Premier League for next season (into the lesser Championship division) and most likely mean Dempsey’s exit from the team—as he looks to move on and Fulham looks to save money. This time in 2007 the relegation battle was already over, Fulham’s safety solidified by Dempsey’s first E.P.L. goal, a game winner against Liverpool the media called “the $60 million dollar goal,” thanks to its securing the financial windfalls of being a Premiership club. A year later he is back between the rock and hard place. Reward in professional sports for the great majority of athletes is short-lived.
With summer and the off-season approaching, packing is in full swing at the Dempseys’ sublet. The two-bedroom apartment, which came fully furnished, is littered with boxes. It’s a nice, well-lit space nestled on the apartment building’s second floor. A small balcony looks onto a landscaped back yard that appears as if it is never used. Planted in the middle of the living room is one of those specialized video game rocking chairs that has audio inputs and speakers built in. It stands out like a lawn sculpture in a concrete yard. Besides the Fulham jersey with “Dempsey” stenciled on the back draped over the dining table, the gaming chair is the only thing that obviously belongs to Clint. The electronics are busted but the rocking chair is no-less comfortable for his aching back.
Dempsey’s wife, Bethany, 25, due to give birth to the couple’s first child in January, is already back in the States receiving a masters degree in school psychology at Appalachian State, leaving Clint to the final week of the 2007-08 E.P.L. season and what’s left of the apartment. For a guy with a lot of stuff hanging in the balance he is nonchalantly confident and talking about how now is not the time to worry about soccer. In fact, it’s never a good time. “I can bust my ass on the field, but most of it is out of my hands,” Dempsey says. “I just want to play for whoever wants me. If that’s for Fulham, great. If that’s somewhere else, if Fulham sells me, OK, I’ll go there and fight. I can’t do anything else.” As we talk, Clint settles into his chair with an Orange Capri-Sun drink and the remote control in hand. I’ve asked all the cliché soccer questions (What do you think about…?) and for the record he’s given all the cliché soccer answers (“Whatever, it’s cool”… “He’s fine”…“You gotta work hard”…“I can’t do anything else”…). So now what?
Back to the beginning, I guess, to Nacogdoches, the small college town of about 30,000 people in East Texas—closer to Louisiana than Dallas—where Dempsey was born. He leans back in his chair, Capri-Sun number 2 sucked down, and helps me go through past articles, checking facts, making corrections, getting the details we didn’t get in the previous pieces.
A talented tennis player, Jennifer Dempsey ranked in the top two at Nacogdoches High School. Her athletic pursuits begged for more attention, and being a family of limited means, younger brother Clint, 13 at the time, was forced to put his soccer development on the backburner after three years of family sacrifice supported his pay-to-play club needs. It was only fair; Clint is one of five children (younger than Ryan, Jennifer, and Crystal; and older than Lance) and was by no means the only child in the family with sporting aspirations.
The bargaining for shares started when the Dempsey boys heard about soccer tryouts for select teams in Dallas in 1993. “We didn’t even know what a select team meant,” Clint’s mom, Debbie, tells me over the phone. (I can hear Clint’s dad, Aubrey, agreeing in the background). “We got this flyer and took Ryan, our eldest, for a tryout. Clint came along just for fun.” The flyer came from a newsletter called The Pitch that Ryan had picked up at a tournament with his recreational team. There was one more day of tryouts for the Longhorns club in Dallas, but it was the next day. “And as the story goes,” Debbie says, “it turns out to be a mistake. It was a girl’s tryout. It seemed really unusual; I knew it had to be fate, because it was for the Longhorn club. They don’t need to search for players because they’ve got thousands of them in Dallas trying desperately to get on the teams. A young lady approached us and said if we left our name and number the boy’s coach would call us. Later I find out that the tryout is nothing. They already know who they want on the team and just have an official day of tryouts to say they did. Which is, again, why looking back, putting all the pieces together, I think it had to be fate.”
The woman at the girl’s practice told the Dempseys that Ryan’s age group was full but they were still looking for kids for the 1983 team, which just so happened to be Clint’s age group. The Under-11 coach calls some days later and wants to see Clint, intrigued about a family who would drive 3 hours for a tryout that didn’t exist. If the coach liked him, the Dempseys had many a 3-hour trip to consider. “I didn’t know how we’d be able to do anything like that, even one time a week,” Debbie says. “But the coach was persistent that we go. I was trying to talk ourselves out of it. So my husband, Aubrey, takes him up there. Clint walks onto the field and starts kicking the ball and the coach says he wants him.”
Just starts kicking the ball around. Sounds like something a mother would say, exaggerating a child’s talent, but the story holds true. “I just sort of juggled the ball around,” Clint remembers. “I didn’t really do much of anything, and [the coach] was saying that he wanted me. My dad was like ‘wait a second. Don’t you want to watch him for a while to make sure he is what you want?’ I don’t know if my dad really wanted us to [play on this level] or not. He wanted us to go up there and have the experience, but I don’t think he was ready to make that type of commitment yet.”
But Aubrey signed him up, without even asking Debbie. At 9 Clint could juggle a ball and that was all the coach needed to know. “He’s telling me they signed a contract,” Debbie recalls. “I mean, this is so foreign—they signed a contract. Now here Clint was going two or three times a week to practice three hours away. The kid is 10. Plus there’s the cost of uniforms and bags and coaching expenses. I don’t know why we did it. But we just did.”
To get back and forth from Dallas, they planned on using a neighbor’s motor home. The kids could study on the way up and back. With five kids, as far as eight years apart, the parents didn’t see any other way. But the motor home became obsolete when the parents of Clint’s teammates opened their houses to the Dempseys. The generosity, Debbie recalls, was amazing, however, there was an underlying motive. They made some incredible friendships, Debbie remembers, but the team wanted Clint to stay in Dallas, no bones about it. If the game was on a Saturday, they wanted him in Dallas the night before. “It was amazing how serious and competitive it was,” Debbie says. “That was under-11.”
Even with the help, Aubrey and Debbie realized they were going to have to cut back to do this. Working as much as they could—he as a carpenter and construction engineer, she a nurse—was not enough to keep up. Thanks to soccer, the family now had thousands of dollars in new expenses every new season. Thanks to soccer, though, there wasn’t time for hunting trips anymore. So Aubrey could sell his guns. Much-loved family activities, like camping, boating, and fishing, were given up. The family was now always at a soccer field. Entertainment was soccer. Family time was soccer. “There just wasn’t any time anymore,” Debbie says “There was the rare trip to Six Flags, maybe, but if I wasn’t at a soccer field I was trying to work as much as I could.”
They worried and sacrificed and worried that maybe they were sacrificing too much. Jennifer was getting more competitive at tennis, and the parents couldn’t be in all the different places at the same time. So after a few years of giving so much time to Dallas and soccer, they decided to stop. Clint had to give up playing for the Longhorns. All the kids, the parents admit, were very good at obliging each other. With five of them, they didn’t have much choice. But after reading some of the interviews Clint has given since finding notoriety—almost all of which focus on his novel past—Debbie says she learned just how let down he really was to have to give it up. “I would read these articles,” she tells me, “And see how deeply disappointed he was to not be able to compete at that level. He is just so competitive. He’s gonna play until he wins and then, OK, game’s over. When they were kids, I couldn’t even sit out by the pool because they had to race and swim laps, and I had to time them. We’d keep doing it until Clint won. Nobody could just relax and splash around.”
Not yet a teenager, Clint admits today that at the time he begrudgingly traded the regular six-hour round trips to play on the reigning regional champion team for a recreational league closer to home. “But it was a blessing in disguise,” he says looking back. “We all got to spend more time with Jennifer.”
It was not long after the re-purposing of the family finances that Jennifer passed away from a sudden brain aneurism. The long story is you never get over a loss like that and words can’t describe it (a post-goal point to the heavens does just about say it all). The short reality of it found Clint back on a club team—this time the Dallas Texans—and again three hours away. Toward the end of his tenure with the Longhorns, other parents started complaining that Clint wasn’t showing up to all the practices—due to the excessive commute—but he was still playing entire games. He was subsequently consigned to play just half of each game. But the Texans coach said missing practices wouldn’t be a problem on his team. “With the gas prices being what they are today,” Clint figures, “we probably wouldn’t have been able to do any of that.”
Back in Dallas the teenaged Dempsey had a new coach, one who didn’t know anything about the kid who was supposed to be so good. So he started from the bottom, just as he did on the Under-11 team, and just as he is doing now at Fulham. “He’s had to prove himself again and again in England,” Debbie says. “He’ll call sometimes frustrated and I say, Clint, this is nothing different than what you’ve done your entire life. Which just cements the fact that if he puts his mind to it, it’s going to happen.”
Those years Clint played on club teams were a financially extreme existence. Everyone, including their banker, was telling them that they were crazy, that it wasn’t worth it, the sports, the sacrifice. They said the kids wouldn’t go on to be professional athletes. But Aubrey and Debbie saw young stars on TV saying, ‘My parents always believed in me and said that I could do it. And to go for it.’ In the face of sacrifice the parents plainly stuck by the basics, telling the kids, “We’ll do our part if you do yours.”
And that’s basically how it went. Aubrey sold the family boat. That paid for a fall season. They figured something else out to come up with the January fees and so on. Multiple kids, multiple teams. “We’d look back,” Debbie recalls, “and say, ‘we’ve been doing this for four years,’ and then it was nine years. I have no idea how we did it. People would take them to tournaments. We couldn’t afford to fly to Colorado for a tournament, but there was a mother of one of Clint’s teammates who worked for an airline and got him standby tickets. There was always somebody offering to help us cut corners and save money or make payment plans. If it were not for all the people working with us, it would not have happened. And if gas cost then what it costs now, it would not have happened.”
High gas prices alone could have killed Clint’s soccer career, but somehow I think the family still would have found a way. “Just a lot of encouragement, reminders, and really strong faith is what got us all through it,” Debbie says. (Again, as throughout our conversation, I hear Aubrey agree in the background, but this time I hear a loud cheer). “And we know that’s what Jennifer would have wanted for him. I still have a little sign at the house that says ‘Go Clint’ that she colored. She glued a quarter in the middle of it and it says Kick Butt. That’s kind of how we always have been. Just go out there and kick butt.”
Lance Dempsey now coaches soccer in North Carolina. Seeing the game from the other side of the sidelines gave him a new respect for the work his older brother put in. “My parents sacrificed a lot,” he tells me. “But I don’t want it to sound like something crazy, like we were homeless, like Clint was the focus of the family. My parents did what any good parents would do. They helped all of us. Clint put in a lot of work.”
That work began as is typical among siblings, with the younger brother trying to keep up with his older brother. Ryan, now 30, has five years on Clint, whose feet were firmly placed in the elder’s footprints at a very young age. The boys took to the free form and constant flow of soccer over the traditional family favorites, football and baseball. The Dempseys weren’t initially a soccer family and Nacogdoches didn’t have anything similar to a club team. The boys played pick-up games in their largely Hispanic neighborhood, learning from their peers without coaching or structure. They ran through the house and school hallways with their favorite soccer jerseys on.
“Football was popular,” Clint says of his hometown. “But our high school was like the a team you see getting beat in Friday Night Lights. We played all the sports when we were little, but as we got older and had to chose, we were all about soccer.” The passion really hit its stride when the 1994 World Cup came to the United States. “We didn’t even know there was international soccer until then,” Ryan says. “There was just so much personality on the field. The international flavor of that tournament just made us crazy for the game. And they talked about this guy named Maradona. We had to learn more so we ordered one of those Eurosport videos of his highlights from the 1986 World Cup. From then on we would try to duplicate his moves in the yard. It wasn’t practice, but it served as the best practice.”
The front yard was the real testing ground even as the boys grew and joined recreational teams. Ryan’s earliest memories date back before there was even a soccer ball to kick. “When Clint was small, we lived in Drewery Trailer Park off the south loop in Nacogdoches,” Ryan remembers. “It was privately owned so the roads were always terrible, getting back there was hard. That land backed up to our grandparents’ house with a fence running in between. They had an old basketball goal and ball. We would use the basketball as a soccer ball and the fence as a goal. We were barefoot and dirty as hell. The ball came up to Clint’s hip—he would kick it as little guys do and chase it, fall down, and get up and do it again.” Games went on all day; friends stayed overnight, sometimes multiple nights in a row. When Lance came of age (he’s 2 years younger than Clint), it became 2-verus-1, the two younger boys against the dominate elder. Game on. By the time they were teenagers, the competition was fierce, rarely just ‘lets go out and kick the ball around.’ Someone won, someone lost. The tight-knit brothers were sparing partners, teammates and opponents.
With soccer it was always Ryan before Clint, the oldest child testing the waters that would inevitably make it easier for the younger one. Not to say Clint had it easy, but the experience of not just playing with Ryan and older kids, but watching them develop through the winding roads of American soccer is an enormous benefit if a young player pays attention. And Clint did. Ryan helped mold his little brother’s game—as did a healthy dose of the Maradona video “Hero”—but more importantly, considering the largely off-the-map existence the kids had in Nacogdoches, Ryan provided priceless advice through experience.
After that fateful first club try-out, Clint’s coach helped find Ryan a team, where he impressed and progressed in just three years to the point of having several colleges recruiting him (even with his starting in the club system as a teenager. Clint on the other hand began when he was 9). With little to no guidance, Ryan went to the school that offered him the most money, Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and ended up unsatisfied (poor grades and test scores also kept Ryan from several bigger schools such as Northwestern and Cincinnati). Clint never made the same missteps, essentially becoming Ryan’s second chance. “I didn’t attract any good division 1 schools to really lay it on me,” Ryan says. “I didn’t have anyone really to guide me about my grades. I was the ignorant kid who thought that if I was good enough at sports, if they want me, they will figure out a way. And my parents didn’t know any better until I went through it.” Ryan left Northeastern Illinois after one year, spending time training with Mexican club Cruz Azul, who asked him to stay. But Ryan took some advice he now questions and went back to college instead of a pursuing a career in professional soccer. Ryan earned a degree from East Texas Baptist and helped the school win a national championship in the NCCAA, a Christian conference. He now works in the energy business in Beaumont, Texas, plays semi-professionally for the Professional Development League’s Houston Leones and in Houston’s Football Association.
Clint was initially behind the pack in high school in terms of physical maturity. “He was young-looking and slow,” Ryan says. But Clint hit a growth spurt between 9th and 10th grade. The boys’ grandfather was a former marathon runner and believed puberty was the time to start training the body. So Clint joined the cross country team and went through agility training, Ryan making Clint do everything he was doing. “I knew what was making me better,” Ryan says. “And what I wished I had done when I was younger. After that summer, Clint was at my level. He was a sophomore then, I was playing at Cruz Azul. We saw guys like Bobby Convey playing professional at 16. We would push each other and be like, man lets make these pros.”
“They virtually invented themselves,” Frank Dell’apa tells me. As the Revolution beat writer for the Boston Globe, Dell’apa covered Dempsey extensively after his arrival to professional soccer and the New England Revolution of M.L.S. Dell’apa was particularly struck by the influence of Ryan on Clint. “Everybody wanted to talk about the story about this poor kid from East Texas, and that stuff surely shaped him, but as a soccer player Ryan had these ideas about how the game should be played. And a lot of it was nonconforming to the system. Coaches didn’t influence them, really. Ryan was very adamant that players like him and especially Clint were going to find their own way. And they were going to be team players, but they were going to be uninhibited out there and figure out problems on their own.”
They may not have known where to put him, but as he approached college age, coaches knew they wanted Clint. Passing on offers from Southern Methodist University (he wanted out of Texas for awhile) and Notre Dame (they didn’t offer enough money), Clint went to Furman University on a full athletic scholarship. The relatively sleepy school in the Appalachian foothills of South Carolina is not exactly a soccer powerhouse but neither is it a slouch. Furman supplied a competitive environment in which Clint’s game could grow. It was also the place where Clint experienced two serious car accidents, one he was in and one he should have been in.
As one of the coaches that selected the regional soccer team that includes Texas, Furman soccer coach Doug Allison got an early look at Dempsey as a teenager at a tournament in Alabama. “I remember talking to a guy named Charlie DeLong who is a region coach and a good friend of mine,” Allison tells me. “I said ‘Charlie, come look at this boy. Is it me or does he have this much time on the ball?’ We went over to the other side of the field and just watched him—we were trying to choose the region team at the time. He doesn’t have this blazing speed and at that point he wasn’t going to physically out-muscle some of the other kids his age, but his footwork was terrific and his awareness was amazing. His passing was very good. His intelligence was good and his timing off the ball was brilliant. He anticipates so much. He has a really good soccer brain. But what has got him to where he is, is competitiveness. It’s unbelievable. Truly different than most. He does not want to lose anything.”
Everybody seems to see the intense competitiveness, but Allison also saw something else. “Clint just wanted to be wanted,” Allison tells me about the recruiting process. Notre Dame was at Clint’s door on July 1, the first day of the recruiting season while Furman didn’t have the funds for staff to travel. After a few phone calls, however, and without a visit, Clint committed to Furman.
Dempsey helped propel a Furman team that produced several pros including Clint’s US MNT teammate Ricardo Clark to two Southern Conference championships and a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances in his three seasons. But he was having a hard time cracking the national team. Allison remembers a conversation he had with Thomas Rongen, who was the U20 national team coach at that time. “The first time he was taken with the Under 20’s,” Allison says. “Rongen called me and said, ‘yeah it would be great if Clint could just play and not try to nutmeg Cobi Jones’—that was the thing he wanted to do the most (laughing). It’s like he has a point to prove, but that’s what makes him Clint. He has his own personal battles and he has his own personal goals.”
One of those goals found strange foreshadowing during Clint’s freshman year at Furman when the team did a tour of the UK. Allison secured last minute tickets from friends for a game at Fulham’s Craven Cottage against Liverpool, Clint and his teammates huddled behind the goal (that area of the stadium is now seats) watching the likes of Michael Owen and Louis Saha warming up. Just a few years later Dempsey would net his $60 million goal against Liverpool right there, on the other side of the fence, cementing his place in Fulham lore.
College found Dempsey again lurking in the shadows of widespread respect. He was an All-Southern Conference selection every year at Furman, but was only named to the NSCAA Second Team All-America squad in 2002. He made the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship roster, but made only one appearance as a substitute in the team’s final group match. For a kid with an all-American story, his game was apparently anything but to American coaches. They didn’t know where to put him, but Clint knew where he wanted to go.
A point often mentioned in Clint’s career is that FC Dallas passed on the cagey college player not once but twice in the first round of the 2004 MLS draft. Still he was the eighth overall selection, taken by New England Revolution. “They figured it out quickly,” Dell’apa remembers about the Revolution’s selection. “Clint was a bit of a live wire, I guess, because he was thought to have this hard edge and not be coach-able. He immediately made you think that if you took a swing he might swing back. You certainly weren’t getting some docile kid. Not to say he didn’t need to mature out there, because he needed to, and he did, but they knew from the beginning they had some serious talent. They just needed to figure out how to use him. They first thought he’d be a defensive midfielder but soon they realized he was more than that and had him at striker, which isn’t his best position, but they just had to get him forward.”
Revolution Coach Steve Nicol’s first call when considering Dempsey was to Thomas Rongen. “While he wasn’t a regular in the U20’s at the time,” Nicol tells me, “Thomas felt that Clint still had a lot of developing to do and could, in the right place with the right team, go on and do well.” The second time Dempsey came up for Nicol was at the combine. “Right off the bat,” Nicol recalls, “he had a huge physical presence with a nice touch. He seemed to have that streak in him that made him want to win all the time, which I liked. Those three things really swung it. He just had that look about him that he didn’t like losing.”
Dempsey came into professional soccer just like the barefooted toddler entered his older brother’s pick-up games, with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. “It’s all depends on how you view it,” Nicol says. “One thing we were told before the draft was that he had a bit of an attitude. But you can use that attitude to your advantage. You have a guy who doesn’t like losing and so you channel that aggression and maybe that short fuse into your opponent. And I think that is what he has done.”
Allison also remembers the moniker. “He was [at Furman] for three years,” Allison says. “And those were kind of his growing up years. It’s funny though. Everybody is like ‘he’s competitive. He has this bad boy image. He’s this and that.’ He’s such a down to earth guy. People don’t realize how soft spoken he is off the field. Although he is fun when he is rapping and doing all that stuff—he’s the life of the party at that point—he is also this guy who will just sit in the corner and hang out. It’s very strange that people don’t see that but you could tell that here. You know one of these little ball boys came back during the preseason after Clint decided to go pro [after his junior year]—he was maybe 10, 12 years old—and the boy said “I really miss Clint at church.” And I’m like ‘Clint went to your church?’ You just didn’t know some of the stuff he did off the field. He volunteered for a lot of stuff. He wasn’t always the angel, but you don’t expect athletes that are so competitive to always be angels anyway.”
Almost immediately the Revolution looked to feature Dempsey, altering their line-up to fit the free form of Clint’s game. “Within a couple weeks of him being here,” Nicol says, “I called [assistant coach] Paul [Mariner] and said we need to find a place for this guy on our team.” Like so many things in life, it was right place, right time. “Playing three in the back given our players could suit us,” Nicol says. “It really made it simple to find a place for Clint. We really felt that on the field of play he was a guy who was going to make a difference.” Living with a host family outside of Boston (“It was kind of weird but whatever,” he says), Clint collected the 2004 Rookie of the Year award and was third on his team with seven goals. He missed several games that season after playing in two games with a broken jaw.
From the host family, Clint moved into an apartment in Mansfield, MA, with Ryan, basically telling his older brother whose life was in a professional and personal rut at the time, that he had no choice but to come live with him. It was a move of brotherly love, but the competition was not far behind. It never is with Clint. They were sleeping on the floor in the bare rental; they didn’t have a TV or futon. “One day he decided he wanted to make a comment about my chest,” Ryan says offering up one of his favorite stories. “Calling me bird chest or something like that. I was like I bet I can do more push-ups than you. He’s like ‘All right let’s go.’ He just jumps on the floor and starts doing push-ups. I’m like, this guy’s for real. So we counted his push-ups and I got down there and did push-ups and beat him. I was like haha there you go motherf+*#er, and he gets up, jumps at me going ‘Bitch get out of my face bitch right now before I knock you the f+*# out.’ And I’m like Daaaaamn dawg, we’re just doing a friendly push-up game. And your doing some shit talking.”
At this point Ryan is roaring in laughter retelling the story over the phone. “Clint’s like ‘Yeah, but I’m not trying to really hear right now am I, so why don’t you get the f+*# out of my face.’ Allright dawg, I told him. I just went into the back room and let him cool down. He was angry. This is just a couple of years ago. I’m like all right pimp. That’s Clint Dempsey for you.”
When they purchased some furniture and a TV, the battles turned to video games. Neighbors called and complained because Clint and his friends would be making too much noise, screaming and throwing the controllers against the wall.
Dempsey did what Nicol said and funneled that aggression onto the field. Clint’s goal tally rose to 10 in 2005, a season in which he started in the All-Star game, made the MLS best XI, and helped New England reach the MLS Cup finals while playing 13 times for the men’s national team. Sounds like he finally made it: all-star, World Cup qualifiers. Was he satisfied? “After 2005 I wanted the World Cup, and I wanted to go to Europe,” Clint says. Do you remember it being a fun time? “Yeah, but I remember a lot of work too. I had things I wanted to do.”
It’s dark out, time has gotten away. I didn’t envision talking to Dempsey to be this easy. I should probably let the guy get some rest. But he keeps asking questions, almost as many as me. He wants to compare our lives, proving his point that he’s just another guy working his way up.
All those details Tom Wolfe wants to believe define us support Clint’s claim. Nothing is extravagant. He and Bethany go to movies. They dress like a couple of average twenty-somethings. They go to dinner in the neighborhood. They hang out with teammate Eddie Johnson and his family. They enjoy going to Brian McBride’s home where they found all the places that carry American style cheese and pickles. “It’s pretty boring, but we love it,” Clint says of his daily life. “Bethany got an internship, so she was working most days. At nights we just chill. I’ve never had much interest in drinking and going out.”
The lifestyle, the modest apartment, all the way down to the mid-priced luxury sedan, it could be the stereotypical married life of a middle-aged man. It could be as much a stereotype as the drunken debauchery we’ve come to expect from young, brash professional athletes if Dempsey weren’t so young, his play so brash.
Bethany confirms the domestication when we speak after I returned to the U.S. “I remember in college,” she says. “People would be going out and Clint would be down at the soccer field, all alone a lot of the time, dribbling or shooting or running. For him free time means family, a few good friends, and probably fishing.”
The evening wears on with our conversation. At the moment Clint’s life has new intriguing possibilities. He’s newly married and financially secure. He can give back to the family that gave him so much, while starting his own. So what does he want? He just bought a nice watch, so I ask him what’s next. He selects nothing material. Even the house-hunting back in the U.S. is more about having a place away from the bustle of soccer to lay down some roots, raise a few kids, than it is about buying a mansion. It’s a ridiculous comparison, but I can’t stop thinking he could, if he wanted, be something much closer to the internet-leaked fast-life photo-op that has become standard operating procedure these days for many professional athletes. But then you realize he never received the platitudes and genuflections that help inflate the already confident egos of young athletes into the invincibility hallucinations that come with the highest orders of skill, fame, and money. He may or may not be one of the best, but for sure he’s rarely, if ever, treated that way.
“His goal was always to set foot on the field for the World Cup,” Ryan says. “That was it. He did that and it was time for the other stuff. He’s got all of his retirement in order. He’s been very disciplined and mature considering what he could be doing. You know footballers can get wild. I know I’d be out there getting in to all sorts of shit.”
But come on, Clint, you’re a soccer player in the E.P.L. That’s pretty dope, no?
He doesn’t disagree, but he also isn’t done making his point. “So you’re a writer,” Clint declares as if he’s found the equation. “That’s your thing. You write because you love it, right? You work at a magazine, but you probably didn’t start your career at the magazine you’re at now; you work your way up. There are a lot of magazines, a lot of writers. I bet there are a few magazines you might want to write for some day. So you write some stuff and maybe they publish it, maybe they don’t. Writing can be pretty subjective. Maybe somebody loves the same thing you do. Maybe they don’t. So you keep at it. You have to if you want to make it.”
“Everybody’s life is pretty much the same?” I say repeating a line of his from a previous conversation.
“And maybe you want to go to a different magazine,” Clint continues. “Maybe your skill set fits better there. Maybe they will appreciate you more. It’s no different with me, man. I was at the Revs, and it was no mystery at the end that I wanted out, but until you have an offer on the table, you can’t just tell the place your at to screw off.”
Christiano Ronaldo, maybe?
“Maybe,” Clint says. “But not me.”
In the summer of 2006 New England didn’t accept the first $1.5 million offer that came in from Charlton Athletic, so Clint stayed and begrudgingly helped the team make it to the playoffs before an ankle injury pushed him to the bench. It was a fitting end to a tumultuous year that saw Dempsey suspended twice for aggressive play and once for fighting with teammate Joe Franchino during a Revolution scrimmage. “Everybody changes and grows up and progesses,” Nicol says about that final year with Clint in New England. “You know part of your education is maturing as well, and obviously one of Clint’s goals was always to play at the highest level and that being the Premier League. And when one team came for him and we didn’t let him go, it frustrated him. There are very few people born on this earth who just have maturity straight off the bat, so he had to learn that you have to be patient and all the things that got you to the position of people offering, you keep doing those things and other offers will come. To his credit, he got over that, knuckled down and then got his other offer. He really matured over that spell, and kind of realized that some good things take time to come to you.”
“When MLS rejected the first bid,” Ryan says, “it was showing in his game. He wasn’t trying anymore. I was like ‘Clint, you don’t want to go to Charlton Athletic anyway and they really didn’t put up enough money for you. If I was MLS I would have definitely turned it down too. So don’t get so pissed off, it’s showing in your game dude.’”
Clint took his coach’s and brother’s advice and found an outlet on the national team. He was named 2006 Honda Player of the Year after scoring the only U.S. goal in the 2006 World Cup, and in 2007 he was named U.S. Male Soccer Athlete of the Year.
“You’re part of a team,” Clint explains. “But at the same time, you’re on your own. You can do the game, but once you can’t do it for the game anymore, the game don’t care.” Said with a strong Texas drawl, it is the hip hop hook. This is the Clint Dempsey everyone thinks they know: hard and rough, his age possibly peeking through with his choice of phrasing, his choice to take it all so personally. “For you, you’re only good as your last article, the last thing you write,” Clint says finishing his analogy. “I’m only as good as my last game. So in the big scheme of things, what does that mean?”
It means different things to different people at different times. That’s life. In early 2007 it meant a then-record $4 million transfer fee to Fulham from the Revolution. Though it has yet to be determined whether or out Fulham will be the long term home for Dempsey and his certain blend of attributes, that transfer and subsequent contract means he can look forward again, even to retirement, he says, by the age of 33, maybe. “Don’t be surprised, but don’t hold me to it.”
Though it’s clear the roller coaster ride up and down the Fulham depth chart has taken away some of the joy of the game, there is plenty Clint still wants to do on the soccer field. But he has so little control over that, and it’s just that there is this 16-acres in North Carolina he found on the internet, not far from his wife’s family and his younger brother Lance, and well, it’s a good time to buy—his salary and the real estate market being what they are. So he looks forward to that. The first order of business after the season ends is checking it and other options out. Fulham’s or his own soccer future won’t change that in Clint’s mind, so at the apex of a trying season he is smiling and excited. There are two ponds to fish on, he shows me, pointing at a satellite image of the property on his computer. “And room right here for a soccer goal, so I can play with my kids. Bethany likes the idea of being a soccer mom.”
When Clint met Bethany at Furman she was in a relationship, but during study hall they chatted. The casual conversations progressed to deeper subjects, like what they wanted out of life: a rural existence, kids, quiet. He just sort of tucked it away. “She had a boyfriend. It’s not like I was, ‘Hey, don’t you know I’m gonna be playing in the English Premier League.’” While he was in Boston the two reconnected. They weren’t dating very long before they got engaged. Just shy of his one year anniversary, Clint’s explaining how quickly he knew she was the one when his cell phone rings. It’s Bethany calling from the States. Clint hands me the remote and I lose him for awhile.
When he returns with another Capri-Sun, we get sucked into watching Cool Hand Luke on the TV. Before it’s over, I feel like I should leave. We make plans for a round of golf after practice the next day; he asks me if I had fun. I tell him I am a little surprised to find everything so normal, so squared away. He’s right, I concede, save for him being a professional soccer player and all, our lives are pretty similar.
For a young man who throughout his short career has been tagged as the Bad Boy, England seems to have spawned a more mature Clinton Drew Dempsey. “Deuce” is the nickname that dates back to the day when his preferred jersey number was 2, when he was making hip hop videos captured through grimy filters before rapper Big Hawk was killed. But it might not fit anymore. He’s still that kid, the slang vocabulary still entrenched, but its ever so slightly below the surface now. There’s a new layer. I mean, he hasn’t worn the number 2 in years. “I was into doing all that stuff because I thought I had to,” he says of his time leading up his European transfer. “I had to get mine, get paid. I got through that time and now I have new goals.” It’s family man Clint Dempsey, no need for the hustle.
Looking over photos back in New York, it’s clear that the closest I ever got to being Clint Dempsey was on the golf course (and that probably will end once he puts in some practice). The flare that helped get Clint to where he is today might be lacking at the moment as he fights for playing time in a system at Fulham that often works against the instincts he and his brother developed in the name of Maradona in the trailer park, but listening to Clint talk about his game, you know those skills are there if only in hibernation. And I’m not one to wake a sleeping beast. Golf though, well, I figure if I was going to take Clint in something, the frustrating game of golf was my best shot.
My confidence grew after I eeked out a victory during our first round at Hampton Court Palace, a private golf club built on the queen’s land where deer run free by law. We played again after practice on that Wednesday at Richmond Park, a public course where the crab grass ran free. The club pro was like Clint’s local bartender, if he had one, at his favorite bar, if he had one. The guy’s a soccer fan; they chatted about the past weekend’s big victory and the upcoming finale at Portsmouth. Clint was happy to oblige the stop-n-chat, we signed in; he bought a visor.
Three days without the wife and it was golf not drinking. He wasn’t rounding up the boys to party. All of his close friends on the team have families. Wondering about the quiet life Clint leads in what is arguably the soccer capital of the world, I couldn’t think of one American who really lets loose. Fulham had five Americans on the roster last season and not one would you necessarily call a big star. They certainly aren’t superstars. Humble endurance is forced upon the Americans who dare tread the European waters. The need to endure follows almost every career, especially Brian McBride, whose name came up throughout my time in England and with Clint. More than anyone else, McBride has turned humble endurance into stardom. It’s as if every American who comes after McBride will be expected to have his hard head, his tough game. It leads you to question whether this is the right league for Dempsey. There is however plenty of reason for Dempsey to want to emulate McBride.
Whenever I probed Clint’s life in the context of his profession, he pointed to the model McBride set. The stalwart striker found an apprentice in Dempsey by offering seemingly the only thing his family could not: how to live this unusual life. All the way down to the pickle jar Clint watched McBride as he did Ryan before. Dempsey has had to change his game to fit Fulham’s style of play, all the time knowing he can’t be McBride, all the time losing bits and pieces of what makes Clint special. Who knows what this season holds for Dempsey and the Fulham Football Club, but if the path laid this far is any guide, if Clint Dempsey can teach us anything, it’s that everything being equal the person who tries the hardest, who wants it the most, is probably going to succeed no matter how many times they lose. There was never a plan B for Clint. There was only this game of soccer, only what was in front of him to make the most of. One day you’re here and then you’re gone. There is no back up plan, but Clint Dempsey is no fool.
On the golf course, “Erratic but safe” was my answer to Clint’s “straight but off,” and the two methods placed us close on the scorecard. It was a coy competition, neither of us really any good at golf, so the shit talking largely took a back seat to conversation. I wasn’t about to bet on my rental clubs. I had a bit more length, but go figure Dempsey’s touch game was solid for a beginner, keeping him in the match when the less forgiving long irons gave him pause. He found his way into quite a few bunkers but was surprisingly good at getting out. He finished well while my three putts stacked up with trepidation. It was his scrambling offense versus my long defense. In the end Clint had to concede after a tough couple of holes down the back nine put it out of reach. We both beat our scores from the day prior, and before the round was over I was taking solace in that improvement. Clint, not so much.
“Yeah,” Clint said. “I’ll get you next time.”
He was smiling, but the dark of his eyes told me he was serious. It was the first time the competitiveness was directed at me. With the game in the bag I was already thinking that if there ever is a next time for me and Clint, I’m going to need to be a lot better, because you know he will be. Like a loyal hound, I think Clint would die before he let the games end. He grew quiet. I tried to throw him a bone. “This is like the 6th beautiful day in London in a row,” I said. “I’m done pressing my luck.”
“No, no,” he was quick to catch, smiling even bigger. “We’ll do this again.”
“Ok,” I conceded, “but let’s focus on Portsmouth first.”
“Yes, Portsmouth. Gonna be a fight. Gonna be fun. I’m looking forward to that. And beating you at golf.”
I headed to Portsmouth a day before the big game, which by this time we all know they won, not that it changes Clint’s fate with the club. I sent Clint a text from the train, our final communication before I headed back to New York. I told him I was heading down early and that I probably wouldn’t see him again. I thanked him for his time and wished him the best of luck for the weekend. His reply?
“Thanks! It was fun. be easy.”
And few moments later…
“I got you in golf.”
For more from my trip to England, check out my stories from the last two games–Gentle Shifts South, One Last Miracle–of Fulham’s great escape. And view all the photos from my trip to England at TIAS Flickr.