Clint Dempsey is having a remarkable season. The American international is the fourth-highest goalscorer in the Premier League in 2011-12, with 16 goals (so far) for Fulham, and he has scored a further six in cup competitions. In the process, he has become the most prolific U.S. goalscorer in the Premier League and the first American to score a hat trick in it, in the 5-2 defeat of Newcastle. Perhaps it is no wonder that Dempsey's manager at Fulham, Martin Jol, called him a 'complete footballer' after his two goals in the 3-0 defeat of Bolton Wanderers last week.
Dempsey's completeness is of a particular kind. He is not a natural striker, in spite of his impressive goal tally this season, and yet (as a favourite Fulham song relates), Dempsey scores with both left and right foot, as well as with his head. Nor is he an instinctively graceful footballer, yet he passes -and often scores - with style. Dempsey's success is not due just to natural gifts, for all that he is a gifted player. He makes the most of each of his abilities and of every opportunity. His greatest gift appears to be his character, particularly his capacity for persistence.
Dempsey has flourished at Fulham, for example, in spite of initially finding the transition to England difficult; he's now survived four changes of manager and he is currently the club's joint longest-serving player. It is fitting that Dempsey's most sensational moment in a Fulham shirt came with his winning goal in the 4-1 defeat of Juventus in the Europa League in 2010. The victory was improbable. Fulham had been trailing 3-1 from the away leg and went 1-0 down in the first few minutes at home. Dempsey's goal sealed a victory that showed what it is possible to achieve, even where the hope of success appears all-but nonexistent.
His attitude can be seen in smaller moments too. After missing a penalty or shot, or at the end of a defeat, you will rarely see his head drop. He is always looking for the next ball, the next game.
You can also hear this perseverance in many of Dempsey's remarks about the game. For example, when asked about his early difficulty breaking into the Fulham team in an interview for Sports Illustrated, he said: 'It makes you hungrier and forces you to be better to make sure you're out on the field. Because overseas it's difficult not playing. You do miss home. When you're playing everything's great, but when you're not playing it starts to weigh on you and you have to dig in deep.' Not all players have such a capacity to learn from their experience when things are not going well.
Much has been made of Dempsey's origins and his affecting personal story. He was born in Nacogdoches, Texas, growing up for some time in a trailer park. He briefly had to give up football, due to his family's desire to support his elder sister Jennifer's burgeoning tennis career. Jennifer died tragically young, as a teenager, and Dempsey often dedicates his goals to her.
Yet his success is not simply a story of triumph over adversity. Nor does an emphasis on his persistence imply a reductive account of his abilities. Indeed, Ralph Waldo Emerson thought that persistency was 'the characteristic of heroism' - and he was keen to show that such heroism could exist in present-day America: 'all these great and transcendent properties are ours'. Emerson also wrote that 'self-trust' was the 'essence of heroism' and this quality too is recognizable in Dempsey; he believes in his abilities without seeming arrogant or self-satisfied.
The American novelist Bernard Malamud wrote in The Natural, a novel about baseball, 'Without heroes we are all plain people and don't know how far we can go'. Dempsey's persistence has taken him further than many might have predicted. Fulham fans will be hoping he will soon commit himself to a new contract at the club (his current deal is due to expire in 2013). But, regardless, there can be no doubt that he has earned his success - and he may yet go further still.
Dempsey's attitude can also be applied beyond the football field. As Malamud suggests, heroes show each of us the possibility of making the most of, or transcending, our gifts. Emerson advised that: 'All men have wandering impulses, fits, and starts of generosity. But when you have chosen your part, abide by it.' I recognize the sentiment. But I still prefer Clint Dempsey's characteristic version of the same advice: Keep grindin'.