Zac Lee Rigg: Dempsey is tough as gristle and fierce as a jaw wired shut

Dempsey hasn't quite arrived in the Champions League, but the distance he's traveled to arrive at Tottenham is impressive nonetheless.
Clint Dempsey sat next to the lake behind where the Americans stayed outside Pretoria, South Africa, for most of the 2010 World Cup, fishing with Jose Torres and ignoring the jibes of their bored teammates. It wasn't exactly bass fishing on Lake Nacogdoches, but, well, players need to kill time between games somehow.

The 29-year-old had plenty of time to kill lately as well, after sitting out Fulham's first two games ahead of a deadline-day transfer to Tottenham Hotspur. He doesn't get too much fishing done in London, though.

Dempsey's off-field pastimes – fishing, golf, parenting – tend toward the serene for a guy who broke John Terry's jaw, gave Phil Jones a concussion, and who once played two MLS games with a broken jaw of his own before the team physio caught on. But then most humans embody wonderful juxtapositions, if not outright contradictions, and Dempsey's no exception.

For one there's his out of wack swagger-to-silliness ratio. Dempsey is undeniably goofy looking. His short-cropped hair lets his ears stick out even more prominently than when Shaggy Clint had different goofinesses going on. His eyes bulge out from dark sockets (or perhaps perpetual shiners). But any silliness of appearance probably only highlights his natural swagger. As Richard Ford, a favorite author of Dempsey's former coach at Fulham, Roy Hodson, would put it, he's "within himself."

Part of that is maturity, sure. But the self-confidence has always been there - humility and sports stars seldom overlap. By now, the unruly, quarrelsome part of Dempsey has been channeled into a frightening on-field intensity. He's been known to get into tussles with teammates and once gave his captain, Joe Franchino, a black eye while with the New England Revolution. There's less joking around lately. The quirky, funny goal celebrations from his MLS days have bled into frightening, intense whoops, full-throated screams as he slams his closed fist against his heart.

There are more goals to celebrate, angrily or not, than before. No one has scored more for Fulham in any given season since 2007-08, and this last one was particularly scorching. The 29-year-old scored 17 goals in the English Premier League, 23 in total, to set records for the most goals scored by an American in the Premier League overall and in a single season. He also became the first American to score a hat trick in the Premier League.

Here's a list of players who scored more EPL goals last year: Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Sergio Aguero. That's it.

With so few names above his on the scoring charts, Dempsey wanted fewer names above his team on the league table. The first thing Dempsey asked incoming U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann was how to get his name on a Champions League teamsheet. Leveraging a move out of Craven Cottage with his impending free agency, Dempsey eventually wriggled across London to Spurs in the closing minutes of the summer transfer window.

It's not quite the Champions League move he wanted – Tottenham finished fourth last season but will play in the Europa League because Chelsea, which finished sixth, qualified by winning the CL – but it's a significant step forward. Dempsey's not quite there yet, but the distance he has come is impressive.

Clint grew up the fourth of five siblings in an average house by the railroad tracks outside Nacogdoches, Texas. His family drove three hours each way three times a week for him to play with the Longhorns, a youth soccer club in Dallas, before snapping the cap back on the gas tank to focus funds on older sister Jennifer's state-ranked tennis potential instead. When she died of a brain aneurism at 16, the kids were piling into the car for three-hour commutes again, this time with Clint playing for the Dallas Texans.

Dempsey has improved steadily at every stage. He helped Furman University to two NCAA appearances (with future international teammate Rico Clark) without ever really breaking into the U.S. youth setup. One appearance off the bench for the U.S. U20s at a world youth championship helped earn an MLS gig with the Revs, and there he slowly muscled and scrapped and elbowed his way to an important role and a World Cup callup. A goal in the 2006 World Cup prompted a transfer to Fulham in England. Though his first goal in England, against Liverpool, kept the club in the top division, he didn't become a consistent starter until his second season.

Hitting his peak just as most players are sloping downwards, Dempsey complains often of his late start. Plenty of others have bloomed belatedly in their college-tardied careers – think Brad Friedel (UCLA), who at 41 is still starting in the Premier League, or former Fulham teammates Kasey Keller (University of Portland) and Brian McBride (Saint Louis University). Another example of a player who didn't become a professional until after turning two decades old is Dider Drogba, and he was still trampling Europe's best defenses at 34. There's certainly evidence that his prime years could yet be ahead, but Dempsey's in a bit of a hurry. One doesn't lose a sister around puberty without considering mortality once or twice. And Dempsey knows how much has been sacrificed by his family for him to become a professional, so he's determined not to squander it.

"Careers – you don't know how long they're going to last. You want to look back and have no regrets," he told FOX Soccer. "That's the way I live my life; that's the way I play my soccer."

So Dempsey goes for it and goes for it hard. Sometimes it comes off (the audacious goal against Juventus that helped Fulham on the way to the Europa League final) and sometimes it doesn't (the bunny hop that fell pitifully flat against Brazil in the opening game of the 2009 Confederations Cup). Dempsey's style is gritty, utilitarian. One of the reasons it took U.S. fans so long to warm to him was likely because he doesn't have the vision or purring smoothness of the Latin playmakers imported into MLS. He's more concussion missile than homing.

"Though I'm quick with my feet you ain't seen the fist / it'd be a one hitter quitter then class dismissed / best think twice before you try and tread on this," he raps in his single Don't Tread, which featured Big Hawk.

By the end of the Confederations Cup he'd scored three goals in five games, with the USA losing to Brazil (again) in the final. Dempsey won the Bronze Ball award, and when he held the cold metal in his hands he openly wept. The tattooed Texan, tough as gristle and fierce as a jaw wired shut, cried like he had as an 11-year-old when he found out Diego Maradona had been expelled from the 1994 World Cup. He boycotted that tournament, hosted by the United States, and he's been smoldering with rage and determination and injustice and desire ever since.

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