Clint Dempsey rode out of Nacogdoches, Texas, and became Captain America.
That’s the nickname showing up repeatedly in newspapers and magazines that feature Dempsey wearing the colors of the United States national soccer team, which he will lead into World Cup play against Ghana on Monday.
And lead he will. Dempsey is the captain. It is a position of leadership that doesn’t surprise those who knew him during his childhood in east Texas, where he asked to play with the older kids and stepped in as if he belonged.
Also unsurprised are those who knew him at Furman University, where his idea of weekend nightlife was kicking balls alone in the lighted stadium.
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Equally unsurprised are those who know him now as the highest-profile player for Seattle Sounders FC, where he leads with or without the captain’s armband.
“He’s a superstar,” Sounders captain Brad Evans said. “(He’s) a big-time player who’s played in the big-time leagues and has been to a World Cup before. But then you get to know him when he comes to your team, and you know that he’s just a country boy, and he’s a family man, and first and foremost he likes to have fun. And obviously he wants to win games.”
That country-boy part of Dempsey formed in Nacogdoches, a city of fewer than 35,000 located about 185 miles southeast of Dallas and about 40 miles from the Texas-Louisiana border.
That geographical fact is relevant to Dempsey’s story, to his childhood and to the player he would become.
That’s because by age 10, Dempsey’s talents had outgrown the competition his hometown could offer. So he and his family looked to the Dallas Texans Soccer Club. The club was established in 1993 with a mission to develop championship-caliber youth teams and players capable of earning college scholarships and eventually even professional contracts.
The problem was that Dempsey was in Nacogdoches while the Dallas Texans were, understandably, in Dallas.
“It was very difficult for me honestly to believe that he’s going to be driving three hours one way — six hours to get to practice and then go,” said Hassan Nazari, founder and director of the Texans, and a former member of the Iranian national team. “But … I told his mom that we would love to see him at the end of the season in our tryouts.”
Nazari doubted he would see the Dempseys once those tryouts rolled around. The idea of a working mother taking her young son that distance to and from practices three times a week — after her work and his school, returning home around midnight — seemed inconceivable.
Dempsey and his mother showed up: him ready to practice, her rolling out a blanket to nap.
Then they upped the ante, with Dempsey asking if he also could join a team of older players, which added another day of travel. It also added to the challenge. Nazari said Dempsey had not only the talent to play against older kids, but also the confidence.
“He was the leader from day one,” Nazari said. “And in the league, everybody wanted to follow him, everybody wanted to play with him, everybody wanted to be on the same team as he was on. … Actually, to me, his leadership quality and his IQ was much more than his ability and athleticism and all of that.
“It is not a surprise to me — not at all — that he is the U.S. captain.”
That confidence showed up again when Dempsey began his college career at Furman University — a small private school in South Carolina with a national-class soccer program.
Dempsey was not their top recruit (that honor went to Ricardo Clark, who also went on to Major League Soccer, Europe and the U.S. national team). But in any case, the upperclassmen were skeptical that they needed any help from any freshman.
Dempsey felt otherwise.
“You have a team full of seniors and juniors, and there’s always a hierarchy, and you have to come in and kind of earn your respect,” said Anthony Esquivel, then one of those Furman upperclassmen and now an assistant coach there.
“He definitely came in with this kind of attitude like he didn’t care about any of that, that he was going to prove to everybody that he should be playing immediately.”
Esquivel said he liked that trait in Dempsey, although not everyone on the roster did. But for whatever distaste any college teammates had for Dempsey’s personality — Esquivel describes it as “rough around the edges” — there was no questioning his work ethic.
“This was college,” Esquivel said. “So you can imagine when we were not playing soccer the kind of trouble that we were trying to get into. (But) Clint was the kind of kid who would have 20 balls and it would be 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, and we would be driving by the stadium, and the stadium lights would be on, and there would be rap music blaring, and we’d be on our way to a party and he would be out there.”
The way Esquivel saw it, other players were happy just to be playing top-flight college soccer. Dempsey was aiming for greater things.
In Dempsey’s sophomore year, those greater things began pouring in. He became a starter, and a star, a first-team All-American, and got his first call-in with the national team. Later, he went to MLS, and over three seasons was honored as rookie of the year (2004) and MLS Best XI (2005, and ’06) while with the New England Revolution. Then he crossed the Atlantic where he scored more goals (57) in the English Premier League than any other American.
Dempsey followed that with a move back to the States last season, becoming the highest paid player in MLS. He made a wobbly debut with the Sounders, but those memories have faded amid the successes of this season. Dempsey shares the team goals lead, with eight, on the MLS’ top-ranked club.
As the league stands aside for World Cup group play, Dempsey has swapped his rave green jersey for red, white and blue. He is Captain America.
“We knew that Clint would be a massive part of Brazil,” Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer said. “Not sure we knew he’d be the captain of the team, but it’s the kind of investment that we wanted to make for our club, for our community, for the organization long term. And we’re certainly happy that he’s going to have a chance to represent the Seattle Sounders in Brazil.”
Ultimately, what seemed to be a long road from Nacogdoches stretched farther than anyone might have understood. It led beyond Dallas and on to South Carolina, New England, England, Seattle and other parts of the world. Now, it has taken him to Brazil. It also took him from being the best young player in a small Texas city to three times being recognized as U.S. Soccer male athlete of the year.
At age 31 and on the eve of his third World Cup appearance, Dempsey was asked where else that road might lead.
“You want to go as far as you can possibly go,” Dempsey said. “But I don’t want to put labels on this is a success/this is not a success. That’s not how we’re thinking. We’re just thinking we want to go as far as we can go.”
Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808