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.
“I can remember, really clearly, arriving at the hospital and a little doubt forming in the back of mind: ‘What if this is it? What if my sister dies today?’”
“His voice is steady but this is the one moment he pauses,” writes Taylor. “‘You get there,’ recalls Dempsey, ‘and everyone is crying. They tell you and your heart falls from your chest. You hit the ground and you cry for hours. You cry until your head aches.’”
“I can talk about it now as I feel she is in a better place,” he says softly. “But it’s something you can never get over.”
“It’s weird because I remember something she told me. We would talk about death and she said, ‘If I ever pass away, do you want me to come back and let you know I’m OK?’
“I said: ‘No, that would scare me too bad!’
“We talked about it some more and she said, ‘Well, if I ever die I will help you get the ball in the net.’
“And that’s why I look up to the sky now when I score — to remember her.”
As a 12-year-old, he made that promise to her in a hand-written letter
he placed in a vase at Jennifer’s grave.
An autographed photo of Dempsey gazing heavenward
Today, he is a member of the U.S. National Soccer Team – yes, the squad that represents America in the Olympics. England still has trouble forgiving him for scoring against them in the 2010 World Cup. In America’s Major League Soccer, he made quite an impact with that hunger to score that he’s never lost – and his wild enthusiasm. After one famous goal, he jumped into the stands to plant a kiss on his mother’s cheek.
“After everything we had been through together,” he says with a smile, “we shared that moment.”
After all, she did her best to make every game possible when he played on a full scholarship at Furman University. However, finances made it tough. In college, two of his teammates, Greg Griffin and Chefik Simo, asked him one day if he wanted to go with them to a concert.
“They were friends of mine and I wanted to go but I was like, ‘I haven’t even got 10 bucks to spend.’ And being broke saved my life. They got in a car crash, they flipped over and an 18-wheeler hit them. Greg died. Chefik was injured so bad he couldn’t play again.”
Dempsey broke records at Furman, then went on to play three seasons with MLS’s New England Revolution, where he bagged 25 goals, a
Rookie of the Year trophy and two MLS “Best XI” selections – in which the league honors the best 11 players of the year.
Finances eased when he signed with British powerhouse Fulham for $4 million, an MLS record. He scored his first goal for Fulham against arch-rival Liverpool, a last-second 1-0 winner that kept the game from going into overtime – sending fans into joyous pandemonium. Now he has led Fulham in scoring three different seasons. His 33 English Premier League goals are the most for any Fulham player ever – not to mention a Yank playing British soccer.
Dempsey after his historic U.S. goal tying England in the World Cup
He’s been the team’s Player of the Year and is tied for the longest-tenured player on the team with the legendary Simon Davies.
“Dempsey,” writes ESPN soccer writer’s Leander Schaerlaeckens, “has developed into a highly physical, fearless and inexhaustible forward.”
In a recent U.S. game against Spain, notes Schaerlaeckens, “Dempsey was the only American capable of injecting some danger into the U.S. attack. Since he made the team in 2004, has made 72 appearances and scored 20 times. And, not coincidentally, the moments the U.S.
distinguishes itself coincide with Dempsey’s best games.
Airborne, Dempsey scores against Spain
“He was the one, for example, who threw his body headlong into a challenge with Algeria’s goalkeeper at the 2010 World Cup, allowing the ball to skip loose for Landon Donovan to sweep it into the net.
Only two Americans have ever scored in two different World Cups. One of them is Dempsey.
“You know what you’re going to get from him,” says U.S. national team captain Carlos Bocanegra. “He’s somebody who you want on your team every time because he gives everything.”
The humble, devout Catholic with “Psalm 23” tattooed on his arm is a sensation in the English Premier League, which doesn’t have a history of letting just any Yank show up and show them how the game is played.
But they love his trademark gift for “finishing,” then glancing at the sky, sometimes pointing heavenward …
As he remembers that pledge made as a 12-year-old to his big sister …
Who promised to be waiting in the net.