Texas tough: Dempsey's upbringing in Naco-nowhere led to U.S. dream
Growing up in Nacogdoches, Clint Dempsey played in an adult Mexican league
The experience led Dempsey into premier junior soccer, and later to Furman
After tragedy, Dempsey keeps soccer alive for his heartbroken friends
NACOGDOCHES, Texas -- Soccer makes Victor Rivera sick, and this is a man who once made sure that every minute he wasn't selling tacos he was coaching soccer, and when he wasn't coaching soccer he was watching it, and when he wasn't watching it he was playing it -- that is when his bones, lungs and middle-aged body would allow. But not now. These days there's only one condition when the sport doesn't hurt so much: when the boy he once affectionately called one of his bolillos (his white ones) takes the field -- something Clint Dempsey will do when the U.S. plays England on Saturday in the World Cup.
Dempsey bounced into Rivera's life and started raiding his fridge in 1995, not long after Rivera's teenage sons, Victor Jr. and Franky, moved 140 miles north of Houston from Chicago, where they had been living with their mom. "Are you going to make some chicken quesadillas, Pa," 12-year-old Clint would sometimes ask, peeking around the refrigerator door as Rivera returned home from a day's work at the family's taqueria. Clint had found a second home here, next to the expanse of grass where the boys dropped shoes and t-shirts as makeshift goals and played hours and hours of the beautiful game. So what if three tree stumps were in the middle of their field? They'd make them defenders.
While Clint dominated with his footwork, Victor Jr. countered with his speed. When Franky once slipped by Clint's little brother, Lance, for a game-winning goal, Clint turned around, pushed his brother and yelled, "Why did you let him score?" Rivera couldn't help but peek in on these games. Intense? Yes. Even with flip-flops on the grass as goal posts. But was it enough? He didn't think so. He'd grown up playing rough-and-tumble in his hometown of Zamora, Mexico, and knew that getting better meant getting beat -- and not just by each other. Thus began the remarkable journey in which a a kid from Naco-nowhere (the name some use to deride the East Texas town) would one day land on the game's biggest and grandest stage.
Dempsey grew up in a town in which the Hispanic immigrant kids would tell stories of men with fantastic names, like El Magico from El Salvador and Argentina's Maradona. When the East Texas sun beat the boys down on the pitch, they'd retreat to their friends' trailers to grab popsicles and wolf down Salvadoran pupusas. There they'd watch as their friends' fathers and uncles gathered 'round, beers in hands, screaming at a soccer game on the Spanish channel.
Dempsey's big brother, Ryan (five years his elder), pestered a family friend into letting him play on a team in a nearby Mexican League, and where Ryan went, Clint followed. He watched Ryan head in goals against men twice his age through the thick of smoke from the grills cooking fajitas. Fans lined the field, merchants, too, selling paletas from their hand-pushed carts with bells on them and horchata. "When you'd go to Mexican League it's not like you're just going to a game. It's like a party," Clint would later recall.
Organizers looking to build an offshoot of the Mexican League in Nacogdoches told Rivera, no. Absolutely not. Though they were looking for teams, he didn't need to bring a group of 14- and 15-year-old kids to play with the grown-ups. "Do you want to get them killed?" one organizer asked.
"Trust me," Rivera told them. "I know the kids and I know how they play. You're the ones who are going to get hurt."
He eventually recruited enough adults to please the organizers but was intent on getting Victor Jr. and Dempsey into games. They played at fields -- more like dirt plains interrupted by the thickets of grass -- with names like Under the Bridge, because of the South St. overpass in the distance, and Las Joyas (the Jewels), because the field had stadium lights that shined like diamonds in the Saturday night sky.
Victor Jr. and Dempsey had just started high school, and while they were skilled, they were going against men twice their age and some double their size. A handful had played in the Mexican professional ranks with teams like the Pumas in the Primera Division before injuries or economics sent them northbound, looking for work. They didn't know what to make of these boys and tip-toed around them that first game, even if the 6-0 drubbing that Victor Sr. recalls didn't reflect it.
The boys left the field downtrodden, discouraged. "You're learning, right?" Victor Sr. told his crew. "Remember that you're faster than them." Dempsey, unafraid, undaunted, ran the field, setting up plays he knew Victor Jr. would finish. Their team drew closer in the second game and lost the third by just one goal. It won the next game, and the next, and suddenly the opposition that once tiptoed around the boys pushed, elbowed and kicked them like they would've any other opponent. Except Dempsey. He had it worse.