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Rise & Shine: Jay DeMerit's story

One of the classic stories of U.S. soccer is set to appear in movie theaters across the nation on Thursday night. Rise & Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story, which is being shown in more than 125 theaters, retraces the inspiring journey of an MLS reject from Green Bay who goes to London and somehow rises from playing in pub leagues in city parks to competing in the English Premier League and shutting down Wayne Rooney in the 2010 World Cup.

If Jay DeMerit played football or basketball, his fable would be known by millions of Americans already. And now, thanks to the documentary, it still has that chance. I first met DeMerit in the fall of 2006, a few months after he'd scored the $40 million goal that sent Watford into the Premier League, and wrote an article about him for Sports Illustrated. Yet the story of how the film got on the silver screen is almost as remarkable as that of DeMerit himself.

Made on a shoestring budget by two amateur directors -- Nick Lewis is an attorney, while Ranko Tutulugdzija is an acupuncturist -- Rise & Shine nearly shut down production on several occasions as the directors borrowed money to make things work. In order to pay the expensive rights fees for Premier League footage, the filmmakers set a goal of raising $215,000 on the Kickstarter fundraising website and achieved it, thanks to donations from soccer fans and such figures as U.S. national-teamer Stuart Holden (who gave $10,000), Weezer lead singer Rivers Cuomo and comedian Judah Friedlander. The total amount raised on Kickstarter ($223,422) made it one of the highest-funded independent film in the website's history.

Even then, the directors didn't bother to ask FIFA for the rights to show footage from the 2010 World Cup and 2009 Confederations Cup, in which DeMerit's U.S. team beat world No. 1 Spain before falling in the final to Brazil. "It was too expensive, so we were going to have to go without it," says Lewis. But then came a moment of serendipity. After the documentary was shown at the Kicking and Screening Soccer Film Festival in New York City in July, the directors met Alexander Klosterkemper, a freelance filmmaker who previously worked as the head of FIFA's World Cup office.

"The film is about more than soccer. It's really a great film about perseverance," says Klosterkemper, who took a DVD of the movie to the World Cup 2014 draw in Brazil two days later and gave it to David Ausseil, the head of FIFA Films. FIFA gets plenty of criticism for the way it's run, but there are a lot of good people doing positive things there, and Ausseil is one of them. He saw the film and agreed to let Rise & Shine use FIFA footage for essentially no cost for now, with the filmmakers only having to pay a market rate if the movie has broad commercial success in theaters.

"We were moved by what we saw and felt it was a compelling and uplifting story," explains Ausseil. "We thought Jay's story and the work of the producers behind the film embodied what FIFA stands for."

The film now features some of the memorable scenes from the Confederations Cup and World Cup, including Landon Donovan's group-winning goal against Algeria, as well as the U.S. players celebrating in the locker room after the game.

Just getting the movie into theaters is a major accomplishment for the filmmakers, who are hoping word-of-mouth and attendance at nationwide showings on Thursday will help extend the engagements for Rise & Shine. "We're trying to make it a time for soccer to get a bite of the mainstream," says Tutulugdzija. "It's Jay's story, but it's also propelling soccer as a sport. I think that's why FIFA was eager to work with us.

As for DeMerit, whose funding helped save the film more than once, he's hoping to drive down to Thursday's showing in Seattle from Vancouver, where he's currently in a 10-day postseason camp with the Vancouver Whitecaps. "The whole project has been amazing," says DeMerit. "To get to where we are now shows what the soccer community here is. It's astonishing how many people have gotten behind it."

And who knows? That group may get even bigger this week.

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