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By Ron Wagner, Contributing Writer
Clint Dempsey’s relentless climb up soccer’s ladder has been as tenacious as it has been unlikely. His days of topping himself appear to be nearing an end, however—but don’t worry. This isn’t the story of a fading star realizing his declining skills have carried him as far as he can go.
In this story the star has reached the end of his quest simply because there’s nowhere higher to go. When the United States opened the World Cup, Clint Dempsey ’05, once an unheralded recruit plucked out of the remote east Texas flatlands by Furman men’s soccer coach Doug Allison, led the way as our country’s best player, the equivalent of LeBron James or Mike Trout once wearing Paladin purple.
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of Dempsey’s athletic accomplishment, just as it’s difficult to argue that any Furman athlete in any sport has matched his level of achievement. About the only thing left for the 31-year-old forward is to become the United States’ greatest ever, which of course is crazy talk.
Or is it? Some think he’s already there.
“He’s the best player they’ve ever had,” Allison, an Englishman who knows a thing or two about the game, says when asked where Dempsey ranks on America’s all-time list. “(Brian) McBride was a good player, and Landon Donovan obviously . . . But Clint’s done it at the top level for a number of years now.”
It might be tempting at first blush to classify such a statement from Dempsey’s former coach and longtime friend under “hyperbole,” but Allison isn’t alone. Dempsey’s 37 national-team goals are second only to Donovan’s 57 in U.S. history, and, more significantly in soccer circles, Donovan never achieved Dempsey’s level of respect or success internationally. In fact, no U.S. player has.
Two seasons ago, Dempsey surpassed McBride as the highest-scoring American in the English Premier League, and few would argue that at the very least Dempsey is the most gifted and creative scorer this country has ever produced. Still, despite becoming MLS’s highest-paid player when he signed a $33 million contract with the Seattle Sounders (compared to the $40,625 he made as a rookie with the New England Revolution 10 years ago), Dempsey’s name is not known to casual fans like Donovan’s is. That probably won’t be the case for long.
It was big news when U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann left Donovan off the World Cup roster, and when he named Dempsey captain it was clear the mantle had been passed. Sports Illustrated wrapped Dempsey in a U.S. flag and dubbed him “Captain America” on the cover of its World Cup preview issue, instantly making him the new face of American soccer.
The face of American soccer is supposed to do more than score goals, though, as if that’s not difficult enough. His interview is also the most sought-after; his autograph the most coveted; his jersey the most popular (Dempsey’s is the team’s best-selling). Weight comes with those expectations, but Allison scoffed at the idea of Dempsey buckling.
“I don’t think Clint has ever felt pressure, and if he has he always seems to rise to those occasions,” Allison says. “He’s always challenged himself to the highest level he can, and that’s why he is so good.”
Dempsey arrived at Furman in 2001 as a little-known name in a recruiting class headlined by Ricardo Clark ’05, one of the top junior players in the nation. Allison had seen Dempsey, a native of Nacogdoches, Texas, at an Alabama tournament and was intrigued. “He was always in the middle so there was always a lot of traffic around, but he always seemed to take the ball away from pressure,” Allison remembers. “He had so much time on the ball and I was like, how is he doing this?”
Clint Hill ’03, Furman’s director of athletics development, wondered the same thing after his first encounter with Dempsey on the pitch.
“We were all trying to feel each other out,” Hill, a junior at the time, said. “He had the ball, and I literally couldn’t get it from him. He’s lanky and he’s heavier than he looks too. When you went in on a tackle, you felt it. He was a strong kid.”
Dempsey quickly forced his way into the rotation of one of the most talented Paladin teams ever, and once he was drafted by the Revolution after his junior year he had scored 17 goals and notched 19 assists in leading Furman to two Southern Conference championships and two NCAA tournament appearances. A promising pro career seemed possible, but nobody was prepared for Dempsey’s meteoric rise highlighted by a brief but memorable stint in the 2006 World Cup.
“Clint never really got to play a lot, but when he came on against Italy he was the only guy taking them on,” Allison said. “And it changed the game a little. He was taking on some really, really good, world-class players . . . and he wasn’t afraid of them.”
“That’s what raised everybody’s eyebrows,” Hill adds. “Who is this young American going right at these world-class defenders? He was still in the MLS at that point.”
Not that his coaches and teammates from Furman were surprised. If there’s one thing Dempsey has carried with him on every field, it’s a refusal to back down from anyone and an unwavering belief in himself.
“He’s never been the fastest player, he’s never been the quickest player, he’s never been the strongest player. But when people talk about Clint the one thing it always comes back to is his heart and his determination,” Anthony Esquivel ’03, Dempsey’s former teammate and now Allison’s recruiting coordinator, said. “That really does show on the field because he’s the player making the runs in the box when nobody else is, the one who doesn’t stop moving, the one who tries things nobody else is willing to try. . . We saw that in practice when he was doing things with the ball that we’d never seen before, and he would try them in games.”
Dempsey also established at an early age he and he alone would be the one to decide how good he was. His toughness has become the stuff of legend.
“His sophomore year he was first-team All-American, and that was really his first year getting called into a national team. And I remember he went into that U-20 camp and he didn’t play at all,” Esquivel said. “And we were so happy for him because anybody who gets called into a national team, it’s such a huge honor. But he came back and he was upset, he was pissed about it, because he didn’t play. He said it was a waste of time. So he has always found a reason to play with a chip on his shoulder.”
Off the pitch it’s another story, however. Dempsey has three children with Beth Keegan Dempsey ’05 and has kept strong ties to Furman. He jumped at Hill’s request to shoot a video to help raise money for a new field house at Stone Soccer Stadium, which was recently fully funded to the tune of $1.6 million, and his fame provides an immeasurable benefit for the school.
“It’s just amazing to see how much he has grown as a person, as a player, as a father,” Esquivel , who was among several Furman alumni who made the trip to Jacksonville, Florida, to visit with the Dempseys while they were in town playing a friendly against Nigeria just before the World Cup, said. “It was pretty neat to spend some time with him, particularly with everybody tugging on him. Every player looking to play college soccer at a high level knows about Furman, and they know about Furman because of those years with Clint and Ricardo. It’s a huge, huge help for us.”
“It’s very nice as we try to grow Furman as a brand and as a university to have Captain America on our side,” Hill said with a smile. “He’s going to go toe-to-toe with whomever, from whatever country we’re playing, and say hey, look, we’re here to take you down. And that’s the kind of spirit and enthusiasm we as a country respond to.”
Allison noted that if Dempsey scores in his third World Cup, he will be the first American to do so. He’s already carved his place in history, however.
“(Esquivel said) ‘it seems like he’s gotten bigger.’ He’s grown up. He’s a man now—he’s tough and he’s hardened,” Allison said. “One day he’ll wake up and realize what he’s done. It’s pretty incredible, and we are extremely proud that he’s worn our shirt.”
For more detail on Dempsey’s career, click here. Matches will be televised on ESPN and can also be followed at USSoccer.com or on Twitter @USSoccer. Follow @FurmanPaladins, @FurmanSoccer and @clint_dempsey to keep up with Dempsey at the World Cup.
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