In like Clint
Dempsey quickly has established himself
MANSFIELD -- On June 30, 1994, the news reached 11-year-old Clint Dempsey in Nacogdoches, Texas, and he ran from his family's home to inform his older brother, Ryan. Diego Armando Maradona had tested positive for traces of ephedrine following Argentina's 2-1 win over Nigeria at Foxboro Stadium, excluding him from the next World Cup game in Dallas.
''I was visiting one of my teammates," Ryan Dempsey recalled this week. ''And Clint just ran into their house, all upset, didn't knock on the door or anything. He was crying and all he could say was that Maradona was not going to be playing, and he wasn't going to the game."
When the Dempsey family loaded up the Ford truck for a three-hour drive to the Cotton Bowl for the Argentina-Bulgaria match, Clint refused to go -- Maradona would not be there, nor would he. Clint Eastwood might have been Dempsey's father's screen idol, but the son named for the Man With No Name had become enraptured by a video entitled ''Hero," highlights of the 1986 World Cup, starring Diego Maradona.
''We fell in love with Maradona, his style of play, his dribbling, his attitude, everything about him," Ryan said. ''We tried to emulate him as much as we could. He was our hero. We were just amazed by the guy."
There are plenty of solid, traditional role models in small Texas towns, and the Dempsey boys identified with them, as well as their Argentine hero.
A.D. Dempsey, son of sharecroppers in Trawick, worked in a foundry and raised six children, one of whom, Aubrey, Clint's father, was a linebacker and captain of the high school football team. Aubrey was a carpenter, earned an engineering degree, managed livestock, built bridges for Southern Pacific Railway, and now is involved in house construction. A.D. thought his grandsons would be playing baseball or football, and Aubrey thought so, too.
But Debbie Dempsey thought her boys should also play soccer. This was a few months after the '86 World Cup. Ryan was 8 years old, Clint was 3. Nobody knew about Maradona or the World Cup, nor the first thing about the club scene or college soccer. Major League Soccer did not exist, and even the United States national team was a vague notion at best.
After a couple of years, soccer started to grow on the family. There was something exotic about the sport that attracted the Dempsey boys, and Nacogdoches's off-the-map location enabled them to experiment with the game. They soon outgrew Nacogdoches, and Aubrey would drive the boys to Dallas twice a week for club games and practices.
A decade later, Clint Dempsey signed a professional contract, entering the Revolution starting lineup in the second game of the 2004 season, and launching his pro career where Maradona's concluded.
Dempsey's stock quickly rose and he made his US national team debut in November. This season, Dempsey went on a five-game scoring streak, helping the Revolution to a 6-0-1 start. He will join the US after the MetroStars-Revolution game at Giants Stadium tomorrow, preparing for games against England in Chicago (May 28) and World Cup qualifiers June 4 and 8. Should things go well, Dempsey will perform in the 2006 World Cup in Germany, which could launch him onto the European stage.
''I used to sit in my room watching TV and there would be all these fans at the game and I wanted to be on that field," Dempsey said. ''For a kid from Nacogdoches, that's pretty crazy. But you are going to see a lot of kids coming from nowhere and making it. That is why I always do a little bit more, because I am not just worried about kids coming up here, but there are kids in other countries. I play all the time and they are playing all the time.
''This is my dream, to play in the World Cup and be the person who plays an important role in the World Cup, and to win the World Cup. People can say I am young and I have plenty of time, but I don't look at it like that. I want to be the best I can possibly be, and any time I am on the field, I want to give the coach a reason to keep me out there."
There is a raw desire about Dempsey that, combined with an advanced level of skill, is seldom embodied and expressed so effectively by a US-born player. There are few players in this country who seem to be enjoying the game more than Dempsey, whose spontaneous goal-scoring celebrations have included stepping up like a batter swinging for the fences at RFK Stadium, and reeling in teammates like a bass fisherman.
Revolution coach Steve Nicol recognized Dempsey's ability and is accommodating him with a five-man midfield to optimize the team's creativity. The Revolution's 3-5-2 formation allows Dempsey freedom and space.
Dempsey only briefly relinquished his starting role with the Revolution last July, after the team trainer noticed Dempsey's jaw was broken -- Dempsey's persistence and tolerance for pain allowed him to play two games before the injury was detected.
''I don't know where he gets it, but he was always real competitive," Aubrey Dempsey said. ''It might have been in kind of a bad way sometimes, and a lot of coaches tried to knock some of it out of him, but we just let it go."
Part of Dempsey's motivation could derive from the realization of how fleeting life can be.
His sister, Jennifer, was on the way to becoming a ranked tennis player when she died of a brain aneurysm.
''I guess Clint wouldn't be where he is right now if that hadn't happened," Aubrey said. ''We were taking him out of [club soccer] because what Jennifer was doing involves a lot of travel. She was almost certified when it happened. She was 16 years old, a beautiful girl."
Children at play
There was always plenty of room in Nacogdoches for the boys to compete. A.D.'s property was big enough for Aubrey to move a trailer home onto it for four years, the kids improvising a soccer goal by turning a trampoline on its side. Other youngsters would visit, spending the day playing soccer and video games.
''We would go over to each other's house and just stay, but most of the time they would come to my crib because my parents were more relaxed about it," Clint said. ''The longest anyone stayed over was probably two weeks. We would play games and when we did we always got on each other. Even if we were on the same team, we were talking smack to each other. From the outside, it seems funny."
They made up a game called World Cup, a one-against-four dribbling and shooting drill. They copied the moves of players on TV; Dempsey even pulled one off in the Revolution's home opener against Columbus last month, the audacious ''Cuauhtemina," originated by Mexico's Cuauhtemoc Blanco, in which he hopped through defenders with the ball tucked between his legs.
''It wasn't typical, grassroots America, where the kids have shin guards and new cleats," Ryan said. ''We lived on a dirt road in a Latino neighborhood and we were playing barefoot, like kids in South America. Soccer was like a pastime to us, we played to take our mind off things. We didn't have a whole lot of money, we weren't going to
''There was T-ball and [recreational] soccer, and all the kids did that. A few of us played pickup games of soccer and Clint was there playing with the older guys, getting knocked down and dirty and getting a taste of what it's like."
The Dempsey boys rejected the ''Friday Night Lights" mentality and embraced a global sporting culture that, it turned out, was a seamless fit for a working-class family.
''Other sports didn't strike us the way soccer did," Ryan said. ''I can't put my finger on it, but we did not want to be in a sport with a lot of stop-and-go and breaks in the play. It was because we had played a lot of soccer and we were used to it, so we basically had a preference for fast-moving, continuous play, and we weren't able to change our minds."
Ryan was the ''guinea pig, learning everything the hard way," going on to perform in college and the semi-professional level. Once, when the Dempsey family was concluding a camping trip near Dallas, and facing a three-hour drive home, Ryan convinced them to take a detour for a tryout. They arrived too late for Ryan, but an Under-10 coach saw Clint juggling the ball and invited him to return.
''I am five years older than [Clint] and every time I learned something new, he was right beside me watching it," Ryan said. ''He always had a passion for the soccer ball. Even when he was barely walking, we would roll the ball to him and think it was funny how he would go for it. And he never really left it alone. He is very comfortable with the ball, he has natural ability. You can't imagine how much soccer this kid has played."
If Dempsey seems like a young man in a hurry, it is partly because of Ryan's experience.
''[Ryan] had the same dream I had and the same passion, and he could have made it," Clint said. ''It saddens me. I was educated because of my brother; it was his experience which helped me choose a college. And, I've been lucky. I went to Furman and, at the last minute, they took me on the [US] Under-20 team. If I wasn't on that team, I probably could not have left school early because the MLS probably would not have taken me."
The US Under-20 team featured Freddy Adu, Bobby Convey, and Eddie Johnson. Dempsey played only briefly in the FIFA World Championships in the United Arab Emirates, the US eliminated by Argentina in the quarterfinals, but the fact that he was on the squad encouraged MLS teams to scout him. If not, Dempsey might have spent last year in college instead of becoming the MLS rookie of the year and one of the youngest players on the US national team.
''Kids have dreams of being movie stars and being other things," Ryan said. ''They drop those when they get older and find out how much work it takes and how difficult it is.
''But Clint has goals you wouldn't believe. He wants to be the Michael Jordan of soccer. He wants to be like Pele and Maradona, he wants to be World Player of the Year and win the World Cup, and most kids who play the game have those goals. You have to have that ambition. But he also doesn't forget where he comes from and he appreciates what he has done already. One day, it could all be over. If he breaks his leg and his career ends, he is not going to be completely devastated. He has gotten an opportunity and God has given him ability and he is going to keep working and doing whatever he can to keep getting better."