FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The way Jay Heaps tells it, former teammate and prolific goalcorer Clint Dempsey didn’t immediately recognize what the greatness within him as a 21-year-old rookie.
Back in 2004, the Revolution drafted the Furman midfielder eighth overall, and while every first rounder carries high expectations wherever he lands, it took a few starts for Dempsey to find his trademark swagger.
“I think it was within 2-3 games of him joining the team,” Heaps said. “It was a little bit of him trying to find his way, and then all of a sudden once he realized he was confident enough to play, he took off.”
And once Dempsey took off, plenty of people took notice. In his rookie year, the Nacogdoches, Tex. native scored seven goals and added an assist in 24 games en route to 2004 Rookie of the Year honors.
But players, coaches and media within MLS weren’t the only ones who made note of Dempsey’s impressive form. Coaches from overseas clubs came calling, and it wasn’t long before he was getting regular callups with the U.S. Men’s National Team.
“In the first couple of national team games, he was feeling it out and (asking) ‘what can I do here?’” Heaps said. “When he realized that he was probably the best player there as well, his confidence went straight through the roof.”
Even though Dempsey’s confidence carried him toward a move to the English Premier League with Fulham, another former teammate says that Dempsey always remained grounded.
“He was always a good guy,” said Revolution midfielder Andy Dorman, who played with the Revolution from 2004-07 before returning last year. “He came into the league at the same time as me, so we always kind of looked out for each other, and made sure each other were doing well.”
Like Heaps, Dorman saw first-hand how dynamic Dempsey was on the pitch every week. But it was the way in which Dempsey played was what left an impression with the coaching staff and teammates.
“He played with a chip on his shoulder,” Dorman said. “It must have been a nightmare for the opposition. Obviously, as a teammate, it was great for us, you’d get a lift from his passion and his fight in every game, and never giving up on any tackles. I think, as a team, we used that as one of our strengths.”
While Dorman and Heaps both agree that they saw bigger things on the horizon for their former teammate, one thing the Revolution coach didn’t envision was the way he’d return to MLS one day.
“I didn’t expect him to come back and sign such a lucrative contract with MLS,” Heaps said, with a laugh. “I think that’s a unique case with him and (Toronto’s) Michael Bradley. I never thought that the league would be in that ballpark. But it’s exciting for both, I think it’s great for the player and great for the league.”