Clint Dempsey didn’t have much time to think, even as he and his family floated through the air in an overturning vehicle. Dempsey was awakened from his sleep as the family car flipped over, and didn’t have much time to process what was happening.
It was the summer of 2002 and the tail-end of an 18-hour drive from West Texas to Furman University in South Carolina, where Dempsey was playing soccer, when Dempsey’s father dozed off. He woke up before a collision, but couldn’t keep the car from going into a barrel roll. The seconds the vehicle was overturning seemed to go in slow-motion to Dempsey, who had been sleeping. When the car miraculously landed back on its wheels, Dempsey and family ran out of the vehicle. Moments later, an 18-wheeler zoomed past, serving as a reminder of just how much worse things could have been.
"I was lucky that night, we were all lucky," said Dempsey of the accident that took place almost nine years ago. "It was like there was a guardian angel watching over our family that night."
As Dempsey prepares to take the field at Gillette Stadium against Spain on Saturday, in the town where his professional career began eight years ago, he is playing some of the best soccer of his career. The Fulham star is coming off his best season since making the move from MLS to England more than four years ago (his 12 goals this season setting a record for an American in the Premier League). When the United States kicks off its 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup campaign against Canada on Tuesday, he will be expected to provide goals for a team looking to win its third championship in four tries.
As good as things are going for Dempsey, and for all the unforgettable moments of his soccer career – the World Cup goals and the memorable club team goals – few people realize that his dream career almost never happened; that as much as Dempsey’s success story has been about hard work and determination, he has also had the strong hand of fate guiding him.
Consider that two months after his family’s car wreck back in 2002, Dempsey had a chance to join some college teammates on a road trip to see a rap concert. He didn’t have $26 needed for a ticket and stayed at school while his teammates went without him. The road trip wound up being a deadly one as one teammate, Gray Griffin, died and another teammate, Chefik Simo, saw his soccer career ended when the jeep they were traveling in overturned and was struck by a passing truck.
"Being broke might have saved my life that time," Dempsey said. "You think about it and wonder if things would have been different if you were there, but I know I was lucky."
As lucky as Dempsey has been, his life has had its share of tragedy. His older sister, Jennifer, died of a brain aneurysm when she was 16. He was 12. She was a budding tennis star whose tennis career became a priority for the Dempsey family, which for a time led to Dempsey having to give up playing on better youth teams because his family didn’t have the money.
The Dempsey family persevered and eventually it was Clint whose athletic career became the focus. He starred on the Texas club circuit and eventually earned a scholarship to Furman, one of the top programs in the nation. He enjoyed a solid career, but still wasn’t considered a professional prospect until fate stepped in again.
Operation Iraqi Freedom took place in 2003, with the war in the Middle East forcing FIFA to delay the Under-20 World Cup from early in the year all the way to late November. That change allowed Dempsey to play his way onto the U.S. Under-20 radar. Making that team ultimately led to the professional contract offer that began his career.
Eight years later, Dempsey has made the most of every bit of that good luck. He has become one of the most important players on a Fulham team that just qualified for the Europa League and finished in eighth place in the English Premier League, widely-regarded as the toughest league in the world. His 12 goals were among the most in the league by a midfielder, and the dozen scores helped him break Fulham’s career record for goals in the Premier League.
Despite the success in Europe, and his many clutch moments for the U.S. national team, Dempsey isn’t as much of a mainstream star as you would expect given his resume. You can chalk that up, at least in part, to the fact that Dempsey’s attitude toward self-promotion has changed over the years.
"When I was younger, and was in MLS, I wasn’t making that much money so I felt like I had to try and get my hustle on and put myself out there more," Dempsey said. "So I did the rap thing and what not, but now I don’t worry about that stuff as much. Maybe I should put myself out more but I’m happy just playing and spending time with my family."
Off the field, Dempsey has settled into a comfortable family life with his wife and two children and is much more likely to be found playing with his kids at the park than walking around central London, but on the field, the laid-back demeanor is replaced by a fiery persona and a temper that often leads to him going face to face with opponents.
"I know how krunk I am. I know how I can get," Dempsey said. "This last U.S. game against Argentina game I was pretty vocal, but I felt in that game we weren’t getting a lot of calls.
"I’m not saying I was the only one doing that, but that’s just my personality. If I think things aren’t fair I’m the first person to speak up. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing, that’s just the way it’s always been. That was the way I was playing Mexican League when I was growing up. It’s survival of the fittest.
"I have that chip on my shoulder and I’m not sure it’ll ever go away. Just going through some tough things and not really being given anything. You feel like you have to fight for everything."
It is that attitude, his never-back-down demeanor, along with his outstanding play that has made Dempsey a favorite of American fans despite the lack of publicity he receives. As much as his goals have inspired scores of U.S. national team and Fulham fans, his toughness and what some in England call an "American swagger" has endeared him to so many fans who see a player who always seems willing to take on an opponent.
"Some people might take that the wrong way, some people might appreciate that, but I just want to win," Dempsey said. "My competitive nature will always be that way. Off the field, I’m more relaxed and I’m in a better place because I can provide for my family.
Dempsey has had some good luck through his life, but he’s also had to work harder than most for everything he’s accomplished. From the days of his family struggling to keep his elite youth career going, to his time in England, which has seen him play for four managers in four and a half years (with a fifth on the way after Mark Hughes’ sudden resignation this week), Dempsey has had to prove himself repeatedly, and he has stepped up to the challenge each time.
As he prepares to play for a new manager, Dempsey made a point to single out one manager who has remained a constant for him, both as a coach and also as a supporter.
"One thing I have to be very appreciative of is Bob (Bradley)," Dempsey said. "Even when I haven’t been in favor over here he’s stuck by me and I’ve been able to prove that he was right by doing so.
"I’ve been blessed to have him as a manager because he believed in me and it’s great to have a manager believe in you even when things weren’t really going the best for you in club football. That’s something I’ve always appreciated because he didn’t have to do that."
Dempsey is back in the Boston area for Saturday’s USA-Spain friendly, and while he first made his name as a professional with the New England Revolution, Dempsey has been vocal about his unhappiness with his time in MLS. He has cited what he felt was mistreatment in terms of his contract and the league’s handling of transfer opportunities when he was in the league.
While he has stated in the past that he would never play in MLS again, he has since softened his stance and wouldn’t rule out returning to play in the United States one day. "You never can say never," Dempsey said. "Before I’ve said I wouldn’t go back to MLS but you never can say never. It’s like a bittersweet relationship, a love-hate relationship. Without MLS I wouldn’t be where I am today. They gave me my opportunity. But at the same time I feel like I wasn’t treated right by them.
"I’m 28, I still have a lot of years left. You might find yourself in a situation where you’re not playing (in Europe) but you’re still at a level that you can play well enough to make an impact in (MLS).
"Ideally I would like to finish my career in Europe, but maybe my mentality changes when I’m older. Right now I’m thinking about Europe and playing in Champions League, and at least experiencing that in my career, being in Champions League.
"That’s a goal. That’s every player’s goal. Every player wants to win trophies and play at the highest level possible."
At this point in his career, and really in his life, Dempsey has accomplished many of the goals he set out for himself. From his success on the club level, to the national team level, to his family life, Dempsey has a life he could only have dreamed of growing up in Texas, but he also knows that he isn’t finished. He is determined to make the most of every opportunity because he knows just how hard he has worked, and he also knows just how lucky he has been.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.