Clint Dempsey on His Heart, His Career and Another Chance at a Title
The tests had gone on for months, Clint Dempsey said, but the palpitations in his chest simply would not go away. They accompanied him to games and to practice, while he represented his club and then his country. Week after week, no one was able to tell him what was happening.
Confounded and concerned, his doctors finally implanted a chip in his chest to collect data, to try to figure out what was wrong. But still he kept playing.
“Then in one game,” Dempsey said, “they saw something.”
Dempsey was describing the moment when his soccer career could have been over, when his 2016 season was declared over just as his team started a championship run. Dempsey knows he could have lost much more than his career, but today, a few days before he will lead the Seattle Sounders against Toronto F.C. in a rematch of last year’s M.L.S. Cup final, he is not talking about that.
Instead, he is reflecting on how far he has come and on the night 12 months ago when he was forced to watch Seattle and Toronto play a final without him — while still processing the news that months of signals from an irregular heartbeat had finally shown up on a heart monitor and had become a career-threatening, if not life-threatening, concern.
Speaking in Toronto this week ahead of Saturday’s final, Dempsey was matter-of-fact about the sequence of events that could have forced him from the game for good.
“I started getting symptoms in February, having palpitations where my heart was beating fast and I didn’t really understand why that was happening,” he said. “And as the year was progressing we were trying to figure out what was going on, doing all different kinds of tests. And it wasn’t until after Copa América that I got a chip — a monitor — put in my chest.
It was the monitor that allowed medical professionals to spot an anomaly during one Sounders game. It was deemed significant enough to put Dempsey on the season-ending injury list, just as his team was hitting the form that swept it to its first M.L.S. championship.
Amid the emotions of the end of that campaign, Dempsey found himself beginning a longer personal journey, one where progress would be — at best — gradual and provisional. But after months of testing, he said, just knowing what he was dealing with, and having a path to follow, was a relief.
“When they put the monitor in and they were able to figure out what the problem was, that was kind of the most reassuring thing — that it’s not going to affect your life,” Dempsey said. “You know, I’m married with four kids, and the most important thing for me is family, so. …”
Dempsey left that thought hanging, but the suggestion was all too apparent. The importance of family is a recurring theme when Dempsey speaks, whether he is talking about the life he was able to provide for his wife and children when he chose to make the lucrative — but professionally risky — move from the Premier League to Major League Soccer, and the Sounders in 2013, or the financial and other sacrifices his parents made when he was learning the game in sharp-elbowed games on dusty fields in his native Texas.
Having suddenly lost his older sister to a brain aneurysm when she was 16, Dempsey knows more than most about perspective. “Obviously things happen in your life along the way,” he said. “I remember growing up, losing a sister and — life is short. Make the most of your opportunities.”
Pop psychologists in American soccer circles love to characterize Dempsey’s drive on the field in terms of his past. His former New England Revolution teammate Taylor Twellman, now an ESPN analyst, talks about the “urban legend” of the tortured Clint Dempsey. Yet in the next breath he will acknowledge that Dempsey has “a chip on his shoulder as big as Mount Everest — just this monumental drive.” His former national team coach, Bruce Arena, summed up Dempsey’s game in even simpler terms, using an expletive to describe the one thing that made Dempsey different from more cerebral players: He tries things others wouldn’t dare.
Dempsey, a striker, wound up playing in 29 games, and scoring 12 goals, and he has added three more in the playoffs. Now, a year after missing the final, Dempsey, 34, is back at full throttle with a stronger Sounders team than the one that prevailed last year, though it will face a Toronto team that is considered among the finest in league history.
Not that being an underdog will worry Dempsey. Nor will he be dwelling on the personal significance of this game, and of getting a title on his own terms, for his legacy. His own brush with professional and personal mortality has put his career into healthy perspective.
“I’m at peace with what I’ve been able to accomplish, not only domestically, but abroad, and what I was able to do on the international level,” he said. “Being able to be a kid for that long period of time, being able to do something that you love: Those are things I’m going to think about.