Amazing Story of American Playing in England's Premiership

t1_demerit2.jpgThis is a great and inspiring story of an American who saved his cash and went to England to try to play soccer. After a few years of earning next to nothing, he’s now, through an amazing series of events, playing for Watford in the Premier League. Here’s the story in Sports Illustrated magazine:

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LONDON CALLING

They said Jay DeMerit, a kid from Green Bay, didn‘t have what it takes to play professional soccer in America. So he went to England. England? Yes, and he’s now a bloomin’ favorite

Three years ago, in Jay DeMerit’s previous life, Sir Elton John didn’t ask to shake his hand. Three years ago, before he scored one of the most lucrative goals in soccer history, yellow-clad Englishmen didn’t chant his name, didn’t wear his jersey, didn’t burst into tears of joy over his flying header into a rippling net. Three years ago Jay DeMerit, late of Green Bay, was a soccer vagabond in a foreign land, an MLS reject plying the fields of London’s city parks, a Sunday pub leaguer sharing a friend’s attic bedroom in a dodgy part of town and subsisting on $70 a week and a steady diet of beans on toast.

Now, of all places, he’s here: on the emerald grass of sold-out Vicarage Road, the cozy stadium of the English Premier League’s Watford FC, a small-market outfit like DeMerit’s beloved Green Bay Packers. It’s an early-autumn afternoon 15 miles north of London, and this time DeMerit’s foes aren’t a bunch of hungover blokes from the pub but rather the superstars of Manchester United, the world’s most famous team. The sight of the Red Devils should intimidate the Hornets defender (Welcome to the Premiership, Yank), but not today. Not after his journey from the sport’s lowest levels to a league with a global audience of 600 million.

When DeMerit dispossesses Man U forward Ryan Giggs early in the first half, the stand behind Watford’s goal erupts: U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! Later, after DeMerit swipes Cristiano Ronaldo’s sneaky back-heel pass, the Watford hard cores launch into another favorite (also seen on yellow-and-black T-shirts):

Jaaaaaaaaay … Jay DeMerit!

Jay-Jay-Jay from the U.S.A!

Man United ends up winning 2-1 on a second-half goal, but the Wisconsin cheesehead with Matt Damon’s mug and David Beckham’s old rooster-tail haircut has played a nearly flawless match, organizing Watford’s back line while using his speed, smarts and aerial prowess to help keep the game close. “I like the challenge of going up against some of the best players in the world each week,” the 26-year-old DeMerit says afterward. “If I can hold my own, it’s only going to make me better. It’s just another level I can get to.”

Rare these days is the foreign crowd that embraces a U.S. athlete with such fervor. Even rarer is the still-unfolding fable of DeMerit, the unlikeliest of the record 13 American imports in the Premiership this season. How many Yanks go from mid-major college soccer to starting in the Premier League? From not being drafted by MLS to scoring a historic goal in front of 65,000 fans last May? From toiling in obscurity — DeMerit has never played for a U.S. team at any level — to staring down renowned strikers such as Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney and Andriy Shevchenko?

“Jay DeMerit came from nothing and made a decision to be something,” says Aidy Boothroyd, the Watford manager. “He’s the Rocky Balboa of English football.”

For five months the good folks of Wisconsin have had a hard time grasping the magnitude of DeMerit’s finest hour: scoring the goal that clinched Watford’s promotion to the Premier League. “Some do, some don’t,” DeMerit says over coffee in Camden Town, the hip North London neighborhood where he recently bought the flat he shares with his girlfriend, Katherine Carter. “I had some friends in Green Bay go, ‘I heard you played in a game?’ Yeah. I did. ‘I heard you scored?’ Yeah. I did. They don’t really get the implications, and that’s O.K. It’s hard for people to understand sometimes.”

Not that hard, though. The beauty of the Premiership — indeed, of most overseas leagues — is its meritocracy. Not only can players rise (and fall) through the ranks, but so can teams. After each season the worst three Premier League sides drop down a level, to be replaced by the three big winners of the second tier. Promotion and relegation, as the process is known, is a staple of England’s four-division professional pyramid, and the stakes are enormous. These days each team that makes the jump to the Premiership is rewarded with television and sponsorship riches of up to $45 million.

In England the second tier’s top two finishers receive automatic promotions, but the third Golden Ticket goes to the winner of a playoff among the next four teams. Which brings us to the scene of DeMerit moving upfield at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, to receive the corner kick that would change his life. His Hornets, defying forecasts of relegation to England’s third tier, had soared to third and had already upset Crystal Palace in the playoffs. Now, with promotion on the line, they were facing favored Leeds United, winner take all, in a sold-out, three-tiered stadium so large that Boothroyd, channeling Norman Dale in Hoosiers, had taken his lads to see the field earlier that week — just to show that it was the same size as any other. “We came in with our mouths open,” says DeMerit, “but everyone would tell you we weren’t as intimidated when we walked out the tunnel for the game.”

In the Watford fan shop you can still buy the DVD of the nationally televised broadcast, including the goose-bump moment in the first half when Ashley Young sent a corner kick into the box and DeMerit crashed through for the game’s first goal. Young delivers … [deafening roar] … and JAY DEMERIT! … puts WATFORD in front! … The AMERICAN! … makes his MARK! … in the playoff FINAL!

“A miracle,” says Jay’s mother, Karen, who was in the stands that day with his father, John, and brother, Todd. A wall of Watford fans rose as one, danced little jigs and unleashed their chant: Yel-low Ar-MY! Yel-low Ar-MY! At sports bars in Milwaukee and Chicago, friends of DeMerit watching on satellite TV roared. By day’s end, the Hornets had won 3-0 and DeMerit had been interviewed on TV as the Man of the Match. Up in the stadium’s Watford section, Keiren Keane turned to his mates and let out a war whoop. For two years DeMerit’s dream had been Keane’s dream. They wore the same ratty clothes, played on the same crappy pub-league fields, attended the same fruitless tryouts with bottom-feeder clubs such as Oxford United and Bristol Rovers.

Now one of them was going to the Premier League. “I knew he would score!” Keane screamed, half in ecstasy and half in anger that he hadn’t taken the 22-to-1 wager offered by William Hill on number 6 to bag a goal. “It was in the stars!”

It started, like any good buddy movie, with two friends seeking an adventure. C’mon, Jay, let’s go to Europe and give it a crack. The year was 2003, and the more DeMerit listened to Keane, his Irish-American teammate on the Chicago Fire Reserves, a nonpaying MLS minor league affiliate, the more it made sense. DeMerit’s Danish ancestry meant he could acquire a coveted European Union work permit. What’s more, DeMerit was convinced that he could hang with anyone after a solid college career at Illinois-Chicago, even though no MLS team had drafted him or made a contract offer. “If someone had, I probably would have stayed,” he says, “but no one did. So I said, Screw it, I’ll go.”

With little more than their backpacks, their soccer cleats and enough dollars to cover overnight buses and youth hostels, they toured Europe for six weeks in search of a tryout. In the Netherlands they rented old bicycles and doorstepped the manager of Sparta Rotterdam. (All they got were free tickets to that night’s game.) In Belgium they waited half an hour to speak with the coach at Royal Antwerp before giving up. (They left a note — Your loss! — under his door and skedaddled.) Only when their money ran out did they return, suitably chastened, to the cramped house they shared with Keane’s mother, three brothers and a sister in London’s hardscrabble Wembley neighborhood.

That summer DeMerit returned to the U.S. and saved $1,000 working as a bouncer and bartender in Chicago. He went back to London in the fall looking for more tryouts — and any way to stay fit in the interim. “I knew I’d have to play in whatever park I could find,” says DeMerit, who earned $70 a week playing with Keane for a ninth-division team called Southall Town on Saturdays and not a cent for their pub-league games on Sundays. “We’d bring the nets and set ’em up and play,” DeMerit recalls. “Some of the guys would be drinking on the sidelines at 11 in the morning.” At one point when their financial situation looked particularly grim, DeMerit and Keane took temporary jobs painting houses.

Yet after nearly two years of grinding, the big break came with astonishing swiftness. In July 2004 an old coach from Southall Town invited DeMerit and Keane to play a couple of preseason games with his new team, seventh-division Northwood FC. In one game both players impressed then Watford manager Ray Lewington enough that he offered them two-week trials. Pro sports can be cruel indeed — Keane couldn’t crack Watford’s roster and has since bounced around clubs in England, Scotland and Spain — but DeMerit thrived with the reserve squad, and Lewington told him to suit up for the senior team’s preseason finale against Spain’s Real Zaragoza (which had beaten Real Madrid the previous season). “I thought maybe I’d get five minutes at the end,” DeMerit says, “but I got to the stadium and I was in the starting lineup. I’d never even trained with the first team, so I was s——- myself.”

DeMerit kept his composure for 90 minutes, and the next day Watford offered him a one-year, $45,000 contract. “I would have done it for free,” says DeMerit, who recently signed his fourth contract in two years, a three-year deal that pays him $465,000 this season.

“Jay’s got total respect from all the players here,” says Watford defender Malky Mackay, a Scottish international. “He’s always had the physical attributes, but his development has come in deciding when to challenge, when to drop off and when to play the pass. He’s certainly good enough to play in the Premiership and get into his national team.” Second-year Watford manager Boothroyd goes one step further, predicting that DeMerit will someday become the U.S. captain.

The 6’1″, 185-pound DeMerit would settle for receiving his first national-team call-up (he’ll have to wait until the U.S. hires a new coach), but he has enough on his plate in a Premier League season that will test him like no other. Success for Watford, which has the Premiership’s lowest payroll, will mean finishing no worse than 17th out of the 20 teams; the fight to avoid relegation could be just as thrilling as the race at the top of the standings. Two months into a 38-game season, Watford stood in 19th place through Sunday on four ties and three one-goal defeats. But like his Hornets, DeMerit had held his own in nearly every match — despite playing out of position in recent weeks at right back. “My goal is to keep progressing,” he says, “whether that means being on the national team, continuing to move higher with Watford or, if not, then moving somewhere else. There’s no reason I can’t continue to set higher goals and get to the pinnacle of my profession.”

And if that means turning pop icons into his starstruck fans, hey, no problem. Before last spring’s regular-season finale, a small man in a blue suit and pink glasses bustled into the Hornets’ locker room. Sir Elton John, Watford’s lifetime president, had a question: Where’s the American? “It was kind of surreal,” DeMerit says of their meeting. “We talked about Brett Favre, of all things.”

These days, in fact, it’s getting harder to tell which one’s the rock star, John or DeMerit. During his trip home over the summer, DeMerit spent a day in the recording studio with some old friends who own an indie music label in Minneapolis. The resulting track, a guitar-screeching ode to Watford called Soccer Rocks, celebrates the fairy-tale story of an Everyman and his underdog team who somehow make it to the Premier League:

Let me bring your dream to you/Show you all what you could do/Soccer rocks!

The singer, like the player, is still a work in progress, but you can’t fault his effort. Besides, you never know where the smallest opportunity might lead if the right people take notice. Boothroyd says he’s sending the demo to Sir Elton.

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6 thoughts on “Amazing Story of American Playing in England's Premiership
  1. Personally, I never use more than one life on this if I understand this correclty. I just wonder why so many do not understand how this is. I guess that is the beauty of it all. Good post though!!

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  4. The Green Bay Packers team returned to the top ranks in the 1990s,because of such star players as Brett Favre and Reggie White…..It was one of the most successful teams in the sport in its earliest years…..

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