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Jun 8, 2006

No ordinary background

The thought alone moves Debbie Dempsey to tears. It's Monday, 54,000 people are squeezed into Gelsenkirchen's World Cup Stadium and millions more are watching on television at home. Running around on the perfectly manicured field below her, wearing the red, white and blue, playing in the largest sporting event in the world, is her son, Clint.

"I won't see any of the 50,000 people; I won't hear any of them -- it will be just me and him in that stadium," Debbie says. "Just to know that everything we went through and everything he had to overcome, he still reached his goal. He did it. It's emotional just thinking about it."

How could it not be? How could Debbie sit in a soccer stadium in the middle of Germany, for the World Cup, and not think back to the three-hour drives, three days a week, so her son could play club soccer?

How could she not think of all the corners they had to cut -- selling her husband's boat, holding off on new furniture, never going out to eat, never going on a vacation, not buying a new car -- to help pay for soccer?

And how could she not think of her daughter Jennifer, who only to die of a brain aneurysm at 16. She sacrificed her own athletic ambitions on the tennis court so Clint could chase his soccer dreams.

"He's overcome so much," Debbie says. "We can tell you about it, but until you've lived it, you have no idea. And he carries all of it with him every time he steps on the field."

The Clint Dempsey story is nothing new in professional sports. Talented athlete overcomes humble background to become a star in the sport he loves. But it is unique for American soccer.

American soccer stars don't grow up in a trailer in their grandparents' backyard in East Texas, learning the game from the Hispanic kids in their neighborhood. They don't grow up playing on dirt fields, kicking rock-hard basketballs with their bare feet while using T-shirts and socks as the outline for goals. And if they do somehow, someway overcome all that to make it to the big time, they don't make a rap video when they get there, sharing their life story in a head-bobbing hip-hop tune for Nike that shows up on BET and becomes the soul of the shoe conglomerate's U.S. World Cup promotional campaign.

And yet Clint Dempsey has lived it all.

"Not everything has been cupcakes and ice cream and happy endings," he said. "It's been a grind. It's been tough. But that's what's made me who I am."

"Something I Had to Do"

World Cup Pick'Em
Do you think you can choose the winner for each of the upcoming 64 World Cup matches? If so, don't hesitate to take part in ESPN's bracket game for Germany. Click here for details.

Who Clint Dempsey is is a fearless competitor who will go right at the opposition with little regard for anything but winning. Over the past two years, he's come out of nowhere to compete for a spot in Bruce Arena's starting lineup when the U.S. team takes the field in its World Cup opener Monday against the Czech Republic. Yet ask Dempsey's mother and she'll tell you with a straight face that out of each of her five kids, Clint was the most likely to become … a priest.

"He had such a strong faith and such a young age cared about other people so much," Debbie said. "We'd have these big conversations about what happens when people die and he'd get so torn up emotionally."

On the flip side is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get man who hates to lose. When Clint was 11, he refused to go to Dallas to watch Argentina in the World Cup after FIFA suspended Diego Maradona, his favorite player.

Years later, after becoming a professional with the New England Revolution of the MLS, he played two games with a broken jaw. This past March, he was suspended two weeks after a fistfight with New England captain Joe Franchino.

"It's one of those things that happens in sports," Dempsey said. "Two fiery competitors getting into it. I'm upset that it happened. It's something that should have been avoided."

So how does a kid from football-happy Texas end up playing the "other" football? Ryan Dempsey, Clint's older brother by five years, claims he was the one who first put a soccer ball in front of Clint after learning the game from the Hispanic kids in their neighborhood. Debbie remembers signing her kids up for soccer just so they could get out and run around a bit. And Clint's first memory is playing with a local rec league team, the Strikers.

"I remember everything else as something fun to do," Dempsey said. "Soccer was something I had to do. It was inside me."

The family realized Clint had ability, but knew that if he was going to have any chance of playing in college, he'd have to play outside of Nacogdoches, a secluded town of 40,000. So when Clint was 10, his dad Aubrey drove him to three hours to Dallas to tryout for a club team, the Longhorns. The coach dropped a ball in front of Clint, watched him dribble a few steps and immediately said, "I want him."

"Aubrey was like, 'Now wait a second, here. He can have a temper. He's very competitive. You need to look at him some more,' " Debbie recalled. "But the coach was like, 'Nope. I know what I see. I want him.' "

And so began the family commitment to help Clint, the second of five children, chase his dreams. Clint would go to sleep praying for two things: to become a professional soccer player and to play in the World Cup. As many as three days a week, either Debbie or Aubrey would load the family in the car and make the six-hour round trek to Dallas in hopes that those dreams would someday come true. Sometimes the kids would talk, sometimes they'd to homework, sometimes they'd sing songs.

"It brought us closer together as a family," Debbie said.

To help offset the cost of gas and meals away from home -- an estimated $120 week, Debbie says -- Aubrey, who worked in a variety of jobs over the years (carpenter, bridge builder and construction), sold his boat and his hunting guns. The family stopped taking camping vacations. And they stopped making big purchases. On the rare occasions the family did eat out, the five kids would split a meal. And Debbie, who worked as a nurse, picked up every overtime shift available.

"Our vacations became soccer tournaments," Debbie said. "I'd look around and see other nurses and what material possessions they had, but I was more concerned that my kids were happy -- that they had what they needed."

The family commitment weighed on Clint. After ever game, every practice, every workout, as Debbie recalls, he'd walk over to his parents and ask, "Are you proud of me?"

"I always felt I had to show my parents that I gave everything I had," Dempsey said. "They're the one's who were making those trips, who were sacrificing so much for me. The whole family was. I'd be out on the field, look over and know that they're the ones busting their butts. That always motivated me. Still does."

The Ultimate Motivation

As the kids grew older, Clint's big sister Jennifer developed a talent for tennis. In the fall of 1995, feeling it was time to spread the wealth amongst her children, Debbie pulled Clint out of the club league in Dallas so Jennifer could travel more as a state-ranked tennis star.

A high and a low
May 2nd was a bittersweet day for U.S. midfielder Clint Dempsey. On one end, he had finally realized a lifelong dream by being selected to play in the World Cup, but earlier that day he received word that Houston rapper Big Hawk, whom he had collaborated with on Nike's "Don't Tread" video, had been murdered.

"I was on such a high and such a low," Dempsey said. "He was somebody I listened to growing up and somebody I was really starting to get to know. He was going to help this sport grow."

Houston Police have no motive or suspects in the death of John Hawkins, who was shot when he went to play dominoes at a friend's south Houston home on May 1. Dempsey said that after the World Cup, both he and U.S. teammate Eddie Johnson will auction game-worn autographed jerseys to raise money for the family.

"He was the one making money for them," Dempsey said. "So anything I can do to help out and make things easier on the family. My heart goes out to them."

But in November of that year, at the age of 16, Jennifer died of a brain aneurysm. The next spring, Clint was back on his way to Dallas, playing soccer with greater motivation than before.

"Before she passed away, we had talks about death," Dempsey said. "And I remember her telling me that if something ever happened to her, she'd help me score goals. She'd help them go in the net."

Six months after the death, Debbie found a note folded in the vase at Jennifer's grave. It was from Clint.

"He wrote to her that for the rest of his life, every time he scored a goal he would look up and think about her," Debbie said.

To this day, Clint thinks about his sister almost every day. His older brother Ryan considers Jennifer's death the turning point in Clint's soccer career.

"When something like that happens, your perspectives change," Ryan said. "I was worn out. But Clint would go out and practice twice as much. He'd work twice as hard. He wanted to do it in her name, in her glory. So he dedicated everything to her."

Including the music video. When representatives from Nike heard Dempsey freestyle last year and called him about making a hip-hop video for the World Cup, he set a list of parameters -- they had to use a Texas artist (they ended up choosing Big Hawk), they had to film the video around his hometown (much of the footage was filmed on the fields Dempsey grew up on) and they had to let him include Jennifer's story.

So in the beginning of the video, when a little girl is holding a daisy next to her mother, that's supposed to be Jennifer. And at the end, when Clint places that same daisy on a gravestone, it's Jennifer Dempsey's actual grave.

"We aren't some guys who are going to do something for Nike because we feel privileged," said Ryan, who served as an associate producer on the video. "Portray ourselves the right way, the way our life really was or don't do it at all. And that's the way it worked out."

"Book the Tickets"

Debbie Dempsey was sitting at her son's old college computer that day last month, constantly hitting refresh, nervously waiting for the confirmation e-mail that her son had made the U.S. World Cup team.

In the days since those never-ending drives to Dallas, Clint had led tiny Furman University to two NCAA appearances and earned MLS Rookie of the Year honors with the Revolution. He had 19 caps for the U.S. national team and had scored four goals to go along with two assists. But none of that mattered now.

There was no e-mail. No reason to open the two bottles of champagne Debbie and Aubrey had bought to celebrate. Debbie began to cry.

"I kept thinking to myself, 'Great -- I'm going to be the one who is going to have to tell my son the biggest dream in his world isn't going to happen," Debbie said.

She began to sweat. Her throat tightened. Her stomach started turning over. "I felt miserable," she said. "SportsCenter" was about to announce the selections in 10 minutes, but there was no e-mail. She hit refresh again and a new message popped up. The subject line: REPORTING. Tears flowing down her face as she opened the e-mail and read the first line.

Congratulations. You've been selected for the 2006 World Cup.

"We were screaming, laughing, crying, it was incredible," Debbie said. "Clint was on the phone with Aubrey and he said, 'Well, book the tickets.' "

Yes, book the tickets. Mom, Dad, Ryan, Lance, Crystal -- everyone.

"I'm paying for the whole family to go," Clint said. "Everything. It doesn't begin to make up for everything they did for me, but it's a start. And I wouldn't want to do this without all of them there."

The June 12 opener against the Czech Republic will mark the first time the entire Dempsey clan has been together since Christmas. It's only the second time Debbie and Aubrey have ever left the country. And even that was just a quick jaunt to Cancun for a scuba adventure. Going to Germany, watching her son in a World Cup, knowing his dreams have come true, after all those nights where he'd pray for this before he went to sleep? It's incomprehensible.

"He doesn't owe us a thing," Debbie said. "You want your kids to be happy -- that's all I ever wanted for Clint or any of my children. And that's why that day will be the ultimate, to look through his eyes and know what he's feeling, know what he's thinking. We're all going to soak up that moment."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.