NACOGDOCHES, Texas – The road to Clint Dempsey’s hometown goes through the city of Humble, which seems fitting for the modest beginnings in his story to stardom.
Along the tree-lined highway from Houston through East Texas there are small stands selling live catfish — just $1.50 a pound. Billboards sprout with Stetson-wearing men promising the lowest prices on anything from trucks to guns. There are churches, lots of churches, some the size of mini-malls.
Upon arrival, at least 2½ hours from any major city, visitors are greeted with a sign.
“Welcome to Nacogdoches: The Oldest Town in Texas.”
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Population: a little more than 30,000.
For Dempsey, already one of the greats of American soccer at 30 years old, this is home. This is where the toughness and hunger were born. This is where the crowd-pleasing style of play was developed. This is where it all started.
At heart, Dempsey has never left. Not while excelling at a small college in South Carolina, winning MLS Rookie of the Year in New England, setting new standards of success for Americans playing abroad, scoring in multiple World Cups, and certainly not in his momentous return stateside with Sounders FC. He will make his much-anticipated home debut at 7 p.m. Sunday against rival Portland.
“It’s where you’re from, it’s your roots, and that’s why I like to get back to Nacogdoches in the offseason and hang out with my family,” Dempsey said. “To me, it keeps me grounded and reminds me of how far I’ve come.”
True to his roots. Always. It’s what ex-teammates and coaches all say of Dempsey, an unassuming star who has posted 11 pictures on Instagram the past two months. Six were of going fishing.
Anthony Esquivel, another Texan who excelled at Furman University with Dempsey, was reminded of those close ties to home in the Sounders’ unveiling of their prize signing.
Dempsey, microphone in hand, addressed the CenturyLink Field fans before an Aug. 3 home game against FC Dallas: “Seattle, I just want to thank y’all and the Seattle Sounders organization for making me feel so welcome and at home.”
“Very Texas, with the twang,” Esquivel said with a laugh. “Totally Dempsey.”
In the beginning,
We were those kids
That played on the dirt fields.
The lyrics to “Don’t Tread” — Dempsey’s Nike-sponsored hip-hop collaboration in 2006 with Houston rapper Big Hawk — tell a rags-to-riches story that by now has become well-known among U.S. soccer fans.
Parents Debbie and Aubrey lived with their children in a trailer in the backyard of Dempsey’s grandparents’ house.
Clint was the fourth of five kids, and his club soccer practice in Dallas required six-hour round-trip commutes up to three times a week. It was an expensive-yet-rewarding endeavor for a family without money to spare, something only sustainable through tight cost-cutting and the help of other parents.
“Nothing was ever given to Clint,” Debbie Dempsey said. “He had to work, I always felt like, twice as hard to get what maybe some other people already had.”
Tough times were managed through close-knit relationships, and never were those more important than when Clint’s sister Jennifer, four years his elder and a promising tennis prospect, died of a brain aneurysm at age 16.
In the final scene of the “Don’t Tread” music video, Dempsey is seen placing a flower at Jennifer’s grave.
“Family comes together when you deal with hard times because it’s the only way you know how to cope,” he said. “It makes you appreciate the times that you have together. It makes it more special. That was something really brought us together. … We got strength from each other.”
Farshid Niroumand saw that strength in Dempsey at a young age.
Niroumand ran soccer camps in the area and started the boys program at Nacogdoches High School, coaching the team for 32 years.
Dempsey stood out right away. His ball handling was exceptional. His movement on the field was so fluid.
“I always thought he was going to be a very good player,” Niroumand said. “At that age and that time, I didn’t think he was going to go as far as he has — truthfully — because being from a small town in East Texas, there aren’t many opportunities. But you could tell that there was something inside burning.”
“Competitive” might not be a strong enough word in Dempsey’s case.
“I was a sore loser,” he said, “and if I didn’t win I tried to make my brothers or sisters, whoever I was playing, stay until I won.”
Debbie Dempsey adds: “Even when the ball was up to his knees, he was going to do whatever it took.”
But with determination,
We came from the bottom
And rose to the top
The flicks and tricks, the unpredictability and flair, all started at home for Dempsey.
He embraced the Latino influence in a community where soccer was a minority sport compared to to football — this was Texas, after all — as well as baseball and basketball. The Dragons of NHS had a rich Mexican presence, as did the Sunday league where Dempsey played against grown men. The games got physical at times, but skill was ultimately preferred to strength.
On TV it was much the same, and Dempsey modeled his play after dynamic Argentine legend Diego Maradona and Brazilian greats Romario and Bebeto, among others.
“The time that you spent outside with the ball, that’s how you become friends with it and develop your skill,” Dempsey said. “It’s easier to destroy than it is to create, but I’ve always enjoyed the creative aspect of the game.”
Enjoying it is one thing. Putting the work in is another.
At home, Dempsey would convince his mother that he should be allowed to play in the house, where he’d kick the ball back and forth off a wall. As a teenager he would go to his high-school campus and work on his own, a habit that stayed with him at Furman.
Esquivel remembers as much, particularly on Friday nights while hanging out with teammates.
“As normal college kids, we were thinking about what party we were going to,” Esquivel said. “We drove by the stadium and Clint would be out there with 20 balls doing drills by himself.”
Repetition led to confidence and eventually to swagger.
All the Furman players would try fancy moves every now and then in practice. Dempsey was the only one who would try them in games — and often to great effect.
“He was always a bit of a maverick,” said Furman coach Doug Allison. “He always had the ability to do some incredible things on the ball that a lot of people had never done before.”
Coaches weren’t always enamored with the show, however, and Dempsey has been told at many levels to play simpler. In England, he felt stifled at times.
One coach — and Dempsey went through a few of them at Fulham and Tottenham — wanted players to only take two or three touches with the ball before passing. Another didn’t even want to play through the midfield, encouraging defenders to simply kick the ball directly up field to the forwards.
Dempsey, somewhat out of his comfort zone, had to adapt, and focused on getting better at defending, seeing the field and making quicker decisions.
“It definitely helped my game and made me more of a complete player,” he said, “but I’m looking forward to having that freedom to be more creative.”
We chased and grabbed
Ahold of our dreams.
Now we play on the fields
Where the grass is greenest.
Dempsey already has experience where the Sounders want to get this season: the MLS Cup final.
His Revolution club lost both those championship appearances, though, first in overtime to the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2005 and then on penalty kicks to the Houston Dynamo in 2006.
If Seattle finally gets to that level, it will likely depend heavily on Dempsey, who this year was named captain of the U.S. men’s national team.
But success is measured in more ways than trophies, particularly to those who have known Dempsey longest, back when he was “Deuce” the rapper. These days M.C. nicknames have given way to “Dad” — he has three children with wife Bethany, his college sweetheart.
At Nacogdoches High School, Niroumand has retired the No. 11 jersey worn by all three Dempsey brothers — including Ryan, the oldest, and Lance, the youngest. The coach also has plans to go to the city council and have a field named after Clint once Dempsey’s professional career is over.
“I’ve seen his soccer, but I’m prouder of the man that he has become,” Niroumand said. “He’s very supporting of his community. He’s a wonderful family man. He’s a credit to our city and his state.”
At Furman, Allison is looking forward to eventually bringing Dempsey back to South Carolina for alumni games.
“He’s just going to be one of the guys; it’s going to be pretty cool that way,” Allison said. “He loves being part of the team here. … I’ll appreciate that from him forever: he’s always made us welcome.”
Debbie Dempsey had to excuse herself for getting emotional when that praise of her son was relayed to her.
“He never forgot who he was,” she said through tears, “and he goes out and does it for all the people who didn’t make it. He knows how blessed he is to do what he loves.”
Still humble amid the fame. Still that boy from in a close-knit family in small, quiet town in East Texas.
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @joshuamayers