The 29-year-old midfielder's skills have made him an enemy of anyone who thinks Americans can't play soccer at the highest international levels.
The U.S., some stodgy pundits say, may have shed its reputation as a soccer minnow, but it still hasn't produced a true world-class talent. But in the last six months, Clint Dempsey, the 29-year-old midfielder for London's Fulham FC, became both the most prolific U.S.-born scorer and the first American to notch a hat trick in English Premier League history. Plus, he kicked the winning goal when the U.S. national team snapped a 78-year losing streak against the powerhouse Italians. In addition, the Nacogdoches, Texas–raised Dempsey is most certainly the only Premier League player who can claim to have recorded a single ("Don't Tread") with the late Houston rapper Big Hawk. His carpe diem competitiveness, though, comes from a dark place: the childhood loss of his older sister from a brain aneurysm.
It's a short game we're all playing. So go hard.
To make it to where I've made it, no one would have thought it was possible. There have always been hurdles to get over: I would drive from Nacogdoches to Dallas to play when I was a kid, and had to try and make it there. From there, it was college, MLS [Major League Soccer, the U.S. and Canadian pro circuit], EPL [English Premier League] — at each step I had to prove myself.
I feel a chip on my shoulder playing in England. You're always seen as beneath the players from other countries. You're always trying to fight to show that an American can compete at the highest level. The intensity is so high. But I've always wanted to play on the biggest stage possible, and week in and week out, I test myself against the best. And I've done it playing the way I want to play.
I grew up in Texas and still listen to Texas rap in my car on the way to the stadium. Bun B, Big Hawk — it reminds me of where I've come from.
I'd play pickup [soccer] all the time and there was a lot of improvising in those games. That's what I got from pickup culture — learning the importance of expressing myself on the field. There's so much pressure as a professional to fit inside a box. But you learn that it's about picking and choosing when to take risks. Going through tough times, losing a loved one, it makes you realize life is short. You've got to make the most of what you have.
Now I'm getting into the prime of my career. What am I going to be able to do in these next four to five years? Hopefully, I can do something special — something to tell the grandkids about one day.
This story originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of SPIN.