And each time after Clint Dempsey scored, he looked to the sky.
Only reluctantly will he tell you why. As a 10- and 11-year-old local soccer phenomenon, Dempsey grew up outside of Nacogdoches, deep in Texas football territory.
Clint Dempsey looks to heaven
There, he earned youth soccer coaches’ attention — and dread — with his young hunger to score and his instinctual ability to “finish” – to be there just at the right split-second to slam the soccer ball into the net.
Dempsey recalls how as a 7- and 8-year-old, he loved kicking basketballs with Hispanic buddies with their bare feet on any available grassy patch with piles of rocks as their goalposts. If six kids showed up, they competed 3-on-3. If 12 came, 6-on-6. If it was 30 – including big sisters and little brothers, they played 15-on-15. They didn’t need coaches or referees blowing whistles; they just played for hours, enjoying the sheer joy of soccer.
As a third grader, “I was hooked,” Dempsey tells the British daily the Guardian. “The popular kids at school would be like, ‘What are you doing, man?’ I played all the other sports, too. But I hated all the waiting to bat that you get in baseball. And there were too many stoppages in football. Soccer was continuous, free-flowing and exciting – and I was good at it too.”
“His family could see he had talent,” reports the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor, “and when he reached 10, they decided to do something about it. His dad, Aubrey, drove him toDallas to trials for a club team called the Longhorns.”
The coach for the Under-12 team threw a ball to the youngster, watched Clint do a few fancy moves he’d learned from neighborhood buddies and their dads – and immediately declared: “I want him.”
Easily 10-year-old Dempsey made the starting lineup for the
prestigious Longhorns Under-12 tournament squad – enduring the 3-hour, 20-minute drives to practice twice and three times a week – which cost the family $120 weekly in gas.
A recent Under-12 Texas Longhorn tournament squad
Tournaments in Houston, Tulsa, Kansas City and Orlando weren’t easy either. Texas youth soccer is an upper middle class phenomenon whose team parents – often upwardly mobile doctors, lawyers and status-conscious junior executives – fill pricy hotels and enjoy the best restaurants. Between games, moms in Prada and Gucci throng to upscale malls while dads in Adidas and Reebok put up fancy, logo-festooned pop-up tents and custom-made team flags on the sidelines for their young stars’ next match.
The Dempseys struggled just to get Clint to the events, writes Taylor. “His mother, Debbie, a nurse, worked every overtime shift available while Aubrey, a carpenter, sold his boat and collection of guns. The family cut their supermarket bills and on the special occasions they ate at a restaurant, it would be at McDonald’s or Taco Bell” – taking advantage of $1 Value Meals.
On one tournament trip, at 2 a.m. on a 16-hour drive, his dad fell asleep at the wheel and flipped the car. “The only thing that saved us was that we landed on our wheels,” Clint remembers. “There’s always been these close calls. And it makes you put life in perspective.”
But just after he turned 12, Dempsey’s world turned upside down. Although the seventh grader had accepted skipping junior high football because of soccer, and dreamed of starring in the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup, his older sister, Jennifer, began excelling in tennis.
The family, already operating on a tight budget, decided to pull him out of the Longhorns so they could afford all the traveling for their
young tennis pro.“I was really upset and angry,” Dempsey recalls in his deep Texas drawl. “I had to go from playing club soccer to ‘recreational’ with a girl on my team. But the simple fact was, we couldn’t afford it.”
Not long afterward, he recalls for the Guardian’s Taylor, he was playing at a friend’s house when he was called home. Jennifer, 16, was in the hospital after collapsing with a brain aneurysm.