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World Cup star Clint Dempsey traces path through Furman

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/21/19/18/DZlzd.Em.138.jpeg|451
    CARL DE SOUZA - AFP/Getty Images
    U.S. forward Clint Dempsey celebrates after scoring during Monday’s match against Ghana. With striker Jozy Altidore sidelined, Dempsey will be the focal point of the U.S. offense against Portugal, a game that could qualify the Americans for the World Cup’s knockout stage.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/21/19/18/1hCYAS.Em.138.jpeg|208
    CARL DE SOUZA - AFP/Getty Images
    Monday, Clint Dempsey captained a 2-1 U.S. victory against Ghana with a goal in the game’s first 32 seconds, making him the first American to score in three consecutive World Cups.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/21/19/18/6tpiW.Em.138.jpeg|368
    Kevin C. Cox - Getty Images
    U.S. forward Clint Dempsey works out during training in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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GREENVILLE, S.C. Clint Dempsey will take the pitch Sunday against Portugal with America watching to see if he can do it again.

Monday, he captained a 2-1 U.S. victory against Ghana with a goal in the game’s first 32 seconds, making him the first American to score in three consecutive World Cups.

Now, with a hamstring injury sidelining striker Jozy Altidore, Dempsey will be the focal point of the U.S. offense in a game that could qualify the Americans for the World Cup’s knockout stage.

Dempsey, 31, is no stranger to challenges. On Friday, two days before a monumental game against a world power in Portugal, Dempsey’s college coach and a teammate recalled Dempsey from before he reached the pantheon of U.S. soccer players.

Dempsey, a native of Nacogdoches, Texas, a town of about 30,000 people, attended Furman University despite not getting a much-needed full scholarship to the school his freshman year.

He wasn’t even the best player in his collegiate recruiting class.

“Clint’s story here at Furman falls in line with his story he’s had everywhere,” said Anthony Esquivel, Dempsey’s former college teammate and current Furman assistant coach. “He came in and had to prove himself, wasn’t given anything, fought hard to take advantage of his chances. He always seems to take advantage of his opportunities.”

The challenges Dempsey has faced didn’t start at Furman.

His family lived in a trailer behind his grandparents’ house in the Texas town near the Louisiana border. Dempsey’s sister, Jennifer, died of a brain aneurysm when he was 12, and she’s been a galvanizing force in his life ever since. His father, Aubrey, sold his boat to help fund three-hour trips to Dallas so Dempsey could practice with his club team as a teenager.

With a miniscule recruiting budget in 2000, Furman soccer coach Doug Allison didn’t have the funds to sit in Dempsey’s living room to pitch the school or even fly Dempsey into Greenville to visit.

He also didn’t have the scholarship allotment to offer Dempsey any more than a 90-percent scholarship.

Dempsey committed to Furman without seeing the school.

“I think him getting comfortable with me, and just being safe and his parents feeling safe about sending Clint a long way from home,” Allison said Friday between sessions of his annual soccer academy. “There are so many universities between Nacogdoches and Greenville. They felt safe with me, I really believe that.

“Plus it was a good academic environment. And Clint wasn’t the stellar ‘A’ student. He’s not the prototypical Furman student, but with the group of guys he was with, and the team that we were building and that we had, I think he was pretty excited about coming with the guys of that class.”

Despite its smaller size, Furman had one of the best soccer programs in the country in the early 2000s. The Paladins went to the NCAA tournament quarterfinals in 1999 and welcomed Dempsey to campus in the fall of 2001.

But Ricardo Clark was the jewel of the recruiting class. A member of the youth national team, Clark would go on to be drafted second overall in the MLS draft and eventually join Dempsey on the U.S. national team.

“Definitely didn’t see future U.S. National Team World Cup captain (in Dempsey). I’d be lying if I said I did,” former teammate Esquivel said. “But there were flashes of brilliance. He did amazing things. I will say he was the only player that I can remember that would not only try things goofing around in practice, but he’d have the confidence to do them in games and not be scared to lose possession. He was trying these tricks we would try when coach wasn’t looking, except he was doing them in games.”

As often as they could, Dempsey’s parents would drive the 800-plus-miles to Furman in Aubrey’s truck to see Dempsey play, Allison said. They would camp rather than get a hotel to save money.

After a 17-5 season in Dempsey’s freshman year, he earned a full scholarship and the Paladins were primed to make a national title run in 2002. Allison had a strong senior class, two of the top sophomores in country and a top-three nationally ranked freshman class headlined by Chefik Simo and North Mecklenburg’s Gray Griffin, who was co-captain of the under-17 national team.

Tragedy struck midway through the season, though. In October 2002, Griffin died in a car accident driving back to school on Interstate 85 from a rap concert in Charlotte. Simo sustained injuries that were ultimately career ending. Dempsey told Fox Sports in May that he would have gone to the concert, but he didn’t have the $26 for a ticket.

The Paladins took 12 days off to mourn. Their rallying cry became, “Let’s do it for the guys who are not here with us.”

Furman won 10 straight games – all shutouts – before falling in the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament to Stanford.

“That year really came down to the mental and what we had inside as opposed to our physical tactics,” Esquivel said. “I can’t remember ever having a scouting report after the accident. It wasn’t about the other team. It was about us.”

Nationally ranked

Dempsey and his teammates also bonded by freestyle rapping. Eminem’s movie “8 Mile” was released in November 2002, and the movie further inspired Dempsey and teammates to create lyrics in the back of the bus going to games.

Influenced heavily by Houston rappers, Dempsey was by far the best of the group, Esquivel said. Dempsey’s rap name is “Deuce,” and last week he released a single from his new rap album.

“We were fake rappers trying to make words rhyme and rapping as we’re reading it,” Esquivel said. “Clint was like Jay Z coming in with nothing written and breaking it down.”

Furman finished the season ranked eighth nationally, a ranking the Paladins haven’t attained since. With Griffin’s death, graduating seniors, Clark going to the draft, transfers and a recruiting cycle disturbed, the Paladins went 6-9-4 in Dempsey’s junior year. Furman didn’t return to a Top 25 poll until 2007.

The New England Revolution drafted Dempsey eighth overall after his junior season in 2004; he scored 17 goals and added 19 assists in his Furman career. He went to the English club Fulham in 2006, where he experienced the greatest success in the English Premier League of any American soccer player.

Dempsey won a Honda Ridgeline truck when he was named the 2006 player of the year, an award given to the best American soccer player. He gave the truck to his father as a form of payback for all the trips he took for Dempsey, and in his acceptance speech Dempsey credited his work ethic.

“It’s just staying focused and working hard; that’s all I’ve ever done,” Dempsey said. “I was fortunate enough that things worked out for me. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I don’t let bumps in the road throw me off course.”

He made the U.S. national team in the 2006 World Cup and scored the team’s only goal of the tournament against Ghana. Dempsey celebrated the goal by doing the “heel toe,” a dance move he and his Paladin teammates used to do before games.

“When he scored that first goal, me and all our teammates, we knew exactly what he was doing, and it was an inside thing for us,” Esquivel said.

Every World Cup celebration has meant something for Dempsey. After his goal against England in the 2010 World Cup, Dempsey lifted his hands and formed the number 13 to memorialize his high school teammate Victor Rivera Jr., who wore No. 13 at Nocogdoches and died in 2005. He pointed to the sky after his goal Monday to honor his sister.

One of the guys

Allison, also a coach for a youth Olympic development team, took his regional team of 15-year-olds to England in 2010 to play a match against Fulham’s youth team. He asked Dempsey if he had time to meet, and Dempsey came to the locker room before the game to meet the team he once played for as a teenager.

“He goes, ‘You guys are cheap. Those are the same shirts we wore! You haven’t changed them,’ ” Allison recalls Dempsey saying. “He looks around for the No. 2 shirt and he goes, ‘That’s my shirt!’ And the kid goes, ‘Are you serious?’ 

Dempsey has yet to finish his degree, and with his demanding schedule, he rarely makes it back to Furman.

Esquivel went with his wife to Jacksonville, Fla., two weeks ago to see Dempsey and the national team off to Brazil. They talked about soccer formations, the absence of Landon Donovan from the team and Dempsey’s plans after his career is finished.

Dempsey and his wife Bethany, who is from Boone and was a cheerleader at Furman, plan to retire in North Carolina. He promised Esquivel they will soon be fishing together.

There’s a story Esquivel tells young players like the ones at Allison’s soccer camp. He recalls driving by Stone Stadium on campus on Friday nights and seeing the lights on and Eminem or 50 Cent rap songs emanating from the field.

Esquivel, headed for a night out, would see Dempsey, typically by himself, with 25 soccer balls and cones set along the pitch.

“He had that drive and mentality,” Esquivel said. “We were all satisfied being big-time college soccer players and big men on campus, and he wanted something more. To see where he is now, it’s not as far fetched as you’d think with those habits that he had.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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