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Clint Dempsey's Road to Success

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A true tale of sorrow as Dempsey forms his own dream team with lost sister

Fulham's Texan striker tells Daniel Taylor how tragedy struck 12 years ago and changed his life forever

Saturday November 24, 2007 - The Guardian


On the face of it the Clint Dempsey story is nothing new in professional sports. Football is littered with talented, determined young men who have overcome humble backgrounds to make a career in the sport. But then the Fulham striker explains why he looks to the sky after every goal and it hits home that the first Texan to play Premier League football has the kind of life narrative that might be considered far-fetched for Hollywood. It is a story of courage and perseverance but entwined with grief, tragedy and, every so often, unmistakable glimpses of hurt.


Now 24, his improbable journey begins in the family's trailer in the backyard of his grandparents' home on the outskirts of Nacogdoches, a sleepy town in East Texas named after the tribe of Indians who once settled there and little known for any reason apart from picking up most of the debris from the Columbia space shuttle disaster. The fourth of five children, Dempsey's first football memory is of watching the Hispanic boys from his neighbourhood kicking around a basketball with their bare feet on a dirt field, with rolled-up socks acting as the goalposts.


"I was hooked," he remembers. "From that moment onwards it felt like football was for me. The popular kids at school would be like [pulls a face], '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 [American] football. Soccer was continuous, free-flowing and exciting - and I was good at it too."


His family could see he had talent and when he reached 10 they decided to do something about it. His dad, Aubrey, drove him to Dallas to trials for a club team called the Longhorns. The manager threw a ball to the young Dempsey, watched him do a few keepie-ups and immediately said: "I want him."


Training was two or three times a week but there was one problem with it: the Dempseys lived three hours away by car. It cost the family $120 (?58) in petrol every week, so his mother Debbie, a nurse, worked every overtime shift available while Aubrey, a carpenter, sold his boat and collection of guns. The family stopped their annual camping holiday, cut their supermarket bills and on the special occasions they ate at a restaurant it would be a McDonald's or Taco Bell - and one meal would be split between Clint and his four siblings.


"My parents were crazy," he reflects. "They just wanted to do everything they could for their kids. With the gas prices now it would be impossible but, back then, they did everything they could to make it happen. It was really tough for them because it was 'pay-to-play' in club football and it was expensive. But my family did it somehow."


To this point it seems like just another story of an all-American kid making good. But it is here that his world turned upside down. As he dreamt of making it in Major League Soccer, his elder sister Jennifer developed a talent for tennis and the family, operating on a tight budget as it was, had to pull him out of his league so they could pay for all the travelling as she turned professional.


"I was really upset and angry," he recalls, speaking in that strong Texan drawl at Fulham's training ground before tomorrow's match with Blackburn. "I had to go from playing club football to a recreational side and [screws his face up] with a girl on my team. But the simple fact was we couldn't afford it."


Soon afterwards he was playing at a friend's house when he was called home. "They said Jennifer, then 16, had fainted," he said. "She'd actually had a brain aneurism. My dad found her and he was freaking out. They took her to one hospital, then a better one and then they decided she would need surgery to try to fix it.


"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. "You get there 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."


He was 12 at the time and the experience has had a profound effect on his life. "I can talk about it now as I feel she is in a better place," he goes on. "But it's something you can never get over and it's sad it takes something like that to make you appreciate everything in your life.


"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."


It was a promise he made in a hand-written letter he placed in a vase at Jennifer's grave six months after her death. In his teens Dempsey started going back to Dallas, playing with greater determination than ever before and, after going through the system regularly scoring goals, he was signed by New England Revolution. Dempsey made an instant impact, both with his finishing and his goal celebrations, including jumping into the stands on one occasion to plant a kiss on his mother's cheek. "After everything we had been through together," he says, "we shared that moment."


His first call-up to the US national side followed in 2004 and, in late 2005, Nike heard he was into hip-hop and asked him to freestyle on the team's World Cup record, Don't Tread, with Big Hawk, a rapper from Houston. Dempsey agreed as long as it was dedicated to his sister and, at his request, the video ends with him placing a flower at her grave.


"Big Hawk was well known in Houston," he says. "He was a cool guy, a God-fearing man, a Christian and, in musical terms, a pioneer. But the next year he got shot dead. They called me up to tell me and I just couldn't believe it." The police have never found the killer of John Hawkins. "But the streets always talk and people always know what's going on," says Dempsey. "It's like the Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. thing. Maybe the law don't always handle things but that doesn't mean things don't get handled."


Tragedy is an over-used word in football and an audience with Dempsey, a likeable, 100-word-a-minute kind of guy, serves as a reminder that the word should never be applied to losing an important match. In college two of his team-mates, 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."


Another time, at 2am 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," he says. "There's always been these close calls. And it makes you put life in perspective."

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