Dabo Swinney could hardly believe what he was watching. The Clemson football coach knew his godson, a star in the FC Dallas academy, was a good athlete. He knew the kid had a strong leg. But when Tanner Tessmann started kicking at a Clemson camp in the summer of 2019, Swinney wasn’t prepared for what he saw.
“I watched him a kick a 64-yarder and then he kicked a 52-yarder, left-footed, just for good measure. That blew my mind,” said Swinney, laughing in disbelief. “You have guys at kicking camp, that’s what they do every day year-round, and he hasn’t done any prep. No kicking a football before, he showed up and he was the best guy there. If you’re a kicker, he’s the kind of guy who is going to make you mad.
“It’s kinda like the golfer who works at it every day and then a guy comes out who hasn’t played in two years and shoots par. That’s who he is.”
He came in for one day, no pads to put on or a pass rush to face, but Swinney said Tessmann’s 64-yard field goal probably would have been good from more than 70 yards. It was a light-bulb moment for the two-time national-championship-winning coach. Tessmann was already being recruited by Clemson to play soccer, why not have him play soccer and football?
Both sports are played in the fall, but Swinney already knew it could work. When he became the head coach in 2007, Clemson’s kicker, Mark Buchholz, was also a midfielder on the soccer team. The logistical hurdles were manageable and in Tessmann, whose father, P.J., is Swinney’s best friend, he saw a kid with an NFL leg.
“I’m telling you, I am not lying, he could go into an NFL training camp and compete,” Swinney said. “Everybody would be like, ‘Dang, look at the ball come off this guy’s foot.'”
It wasn’t a hard sell. Tessmann left Birmingham, Alabama, at 14 years old to pursue a soccer career in Dallas’ residency program, but when the opportunity from “Uncle Bo” came, he didn’t think he factored into Dallas’ plans. Playing at Clemson meant he would be reunited with his parents — they had moved to Clemson from Alabama after P.J. took a job running Swinney’s charitable foundation — and could continue to develop in one of the nation’s best college soccer programs while giving this football thing a shot.
“At the time, Clemson was my highest potential,” Tessmann said. “Maybe I thought I was ready to play pro [soccer], but maybe [Dallas] weren’t ready to sign me. There’s a lot of things that go into it. I was going to have to go prove myself there to help me become a professional.”
In February, however, things changed quickly. Injuries during FC Dallas’ preseason led coach Luchi Gonzalez to integrate Tessmann with the first team and almost immediately, it became clear he was ready to contribute in Major League Soccer. On Feb. 27, roughly two months after signing an NCAA letter of intent, he signed a first-team contract with Dallas, becoming the club’s 28th Homegrown Player.
“He was just taking advantage of those opportunities, showing that he could rise to that level and do it with a lot of confidence and a lot of vision and technique and coordination,” Gonzalez said. “He’s absolutely going to have a career, an important career for this club for hopefully as long as possible and in this league. And maybe he can go on to do things like Reggie [Cannon] one day, who knows?”
While Tessmann, who turned 19 this week, was looking forward to the opportunity at Clemson, signing with Dallas was an easy call.
“That’s why I went there when I was 14,” he said. “That’s what had been my dream to do. That was the goal, and when that goal came, it was a no-brainer.”
Two days after Tessmann signed, he started and played 90 minutes in the team’s season opener against the Philadelphia Union, registering an assist in stoppage time. In 12 games this season, Tessmann has started six and been subbed on in three others. Coming up through the academy, he played primarily in an attacking role, but as an excellent passer at 6-foot-4, he’s more likely to settle in as a No. 8 or a No. 6, which is how he has been deployed so far under Gonzalez.
Due to several positive tests for COVID-19, Dallas did not play in the MLS is Back Tournament, and it took Tessmann some time to work himself into Dallas’ rotation when play resumed. After featuring for just 16 minutes in the first four games after the restart, he has appeared in each of the past six, including four straight starts.
After Tessman went 90 minutes last week in a 4-1 win against the Colorado Rapids, his best performance to date, Gonzalez said he was texting with Clemson soccer coach Mike Noonan.
“He was wishing him the best and he’s so proud of him,” Gonzalez said. “So that just shows you there’s a lot of love and support behind him being with us and that decision. That’s not easy.”
Swinney wasn’t thrilled, initially, when he found out Tessmann wouldn’t be a Tiger, but he got past that disappointment quickly. And while he hasn’t turned into a soccer fan, per se, it’s no longer unusual for him to watch the sport on TV.
“I’ve seen more MLS than ever since he signed on, that’s for sure,” Swinney said. “I’ve seen him play many times over the years and P.J. keeps me up to date, daily, on how he’s doing. But we’re just so proud of him.”
P.J. Tessmann’s family moved from Georgia to Birmingham, Alabama, before P.J.’s junior year of high school and he met Swinney on the first day of school. They became like brothers. When Swinney went off to Alabama to play football, Tessmann went to South Alabama to play soccer and they spent their summers together working out in Tuscaloosa. P.J. was the best man in Dabo’s wedding and vice versa.
“We’re not related, but my wife’s brother married his wife’s sister, so we’ve kinda got this weird in-law relationship where we’re uncles to some of the same kids,” P.J. Tessmann said. “We’re super close.”
Tanner was kicking a ball by age 3 and by about 6 years old, there were indications he was a naturally gifted athlete. Whatever it was — soccer, football, basketball — he always had a ball in his hands or at his feet. He played all three sports in middle school, but soccer is what hooked him.
As a standout in Alabama’s Olympic Development Program, Tessmann had opportunities to spend time with the Philadelphia Union and Atlanta United academies before the chance to join MLS’ most proven academy arose. It was a difficult decision to leave home to live in Dallas just as he was set to begin high school, but two of his friends from Birmingham, brothers Brandon and Jaden Servania, had already made the move and encouraged him to do the same. Brandon made his first-team debut for Dallas in 2018 and serves as one Tessmann’s partners in midfield, while Jaden plays for the Birmingham Legion in the USL Championship.
“I was ready for that move when I was 14,” Tessmann said. “It was something where my parents had confidence in me. They trusted me in different things. So, I moved into a house with one supervisor from the club. And then it was about four or five other guys I already knew. The hardest part was getting a ride to school, pretty much. We walked a lot.
“Around that age is when I really knew that I could make it to the highest level if I put in the work. Before then, when I was in Alabama, it wasn’t really a thought.”
Last year, Tessmann won the U18/U19 U.S. Soccer Development Academy Golden Ball while leading FC Dallas to the U18/U19 Academy Championship and played 896 minutes in 16 appearances for North Dallas SC in USL League One. His season led to a call-up to the United States U20 national team, coached then by current Houston Dynamo manager Tab Ramos, and he figures to be in the mix for the U20 World Cup in 2021.
“It was really cool to be a part of that but, I honestly don’t know where I stand,” he said. “And I’m not too worried about it. If I get called in, I get called in and I’ll prove myself there.”
When Ramos left his post for the job in Houston, he was replaced by Anthony Hudson, whose most recent gig was as the coach in Colorado, following time leading the full national teams in New Zealand and Bahrain.
Like anyone in his position, Tessmann has dreams of taking the sport as far as he can and it’s becoming easier to envision a career in Europe as several young Americans have begun to find success an ocean away. It’s a group that includes Tessmann’s former Alabama ODP teammate, and fellow FC Dallas academy product, Chris Richards, who appeared off the bench for Bayern Munich in the European champions’ first game of the Bundesliga season.
Then, of course, there’s always a fallback option.
“Hey, you never know how it’s all gonna work out,” Swinney said. “I told him he’s still got all of his eligibility. He could be like [former Florida State quarterback] Chris Weinke. come back and be a 29-year-old kicker one day.”