Ron Isley croons from the stereo of the Audi A6 Quattro Clint Dempsey purchased from sports agency-mate Ryan Nelson. “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 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 Premiere 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 Premiere 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 a 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 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 Premiere 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 articles.
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