June 29, 2011

BROOKYLN, N.Y. -- When he had down time in the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup, U.S. defender Jay DeMerit spent hours in his South African hotel room carving designs into his cleats.

One pair featured an etching of the African continent, a heart and a soccer ball, or, in other words, "Africa = love = soccer." He put stars and stripes and the number 15 on his second pair. "JD" and another soccer ball marked the third pair.

"I'm ready," DeMerit told a cameraman, banging a pair of black cleats together as he prepared to depart his hotel room for the U.S. World Cup opener against England. "Number 15, stars and stripes, baby. Who's ready?"

For DeMerit, the trip to South Africa marked the culmination of a dream, and those cleats are some of his most prized mementos. But DeMerit has only one of those pairs. The other two have since been pledged to two donors who each gave $10,000 to Rise and Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story, an independent documentary that details DeMerit's improbable rise to soccer stardom.

A decade ago, DeMerit went undrafted by MLS. Not ready to give up on soccer, DeMerit went to England and stayed in his friend Kieren Keane's mother's London flat, with DeMerit sleeping in the attic and surviving off the £40 a week he was paid by Southall Town, a team on the lowest rung of the English soccer hierarchy.

After failing at tryout after tryout, DeMerit eventually found a spot with seventh-division Northwood FC, where he was spotted by the manager of FC Watford, who gave DeMerit a trial and eventually a contract. From there, DeMerit enjoyed a stunning rise, scoring a crucial goal to get Watford promoted to the English Premier League and eventually being awarded the captaincy of the club.

Rise and Shine tells the story in dramatic fashion, but is currently facing an uphill battle of its own. Strapped for cash, filmmakers Ranko Tutulugdzija and Nick Lewis need $215,000 to pay for rights of footage in the film. Highlights have proved to be remarkably expensive; a minute of footage showing Landon Donovan's famous World Cup goal over Algeria costs $50,000. A few clips of DeMerit clashing with Didier Drogba and other Premiership stars? That'll be another $30,000.

"We can't even get free U.S. soccer footage, and I play for the team," said DeMerit, who now plays in MLS for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Luckily for the filmmakers, the U.S.' growing soccer fan base has helped.

From Hartford, Conn., to Santa Ana, Calif., to Brooklyn, N.Y., to DeMerit's hometown of Green Bay, Wis., screenings of the documentary have started to spring up across the nation. It is all part of a frantic effort by the filmmakers to use social media to raise money so that the nearly complete documentary can be released to the public. With just under three weeks left before the kickstarter.com fundraising deadline, more than 700 donors have given a combined $115,000 to fund the project.

At a recent low-key gathering at a Brooklyn bar, 30 fans of Hamburg's FC St. Pauli and Glasgow's Celtic FC (St. Pauli's sister club) watched the unedited version of the film -- complete with YouTube clips of the soccer highlights that still need to be paid for. A live auction of soccer jerseys was then held, and by the end of the night, about $450 was raised. It wasn't much, but it was something.

"The thing that struck me most was just watching all of these people staring at the screen, riveted to this story," St. Pauli fan and event organizer David Barkhymer said afterward. "It's the story of someone who started playing soccer just like I do with my friends. Somehow he makes his way up in the English professional ranks and ends up in the World Cup. It's just such a long way to go."

The week before, DeMerit's mother, Karen, organized two screenings in front of 75 people each night at DeMerit's former high school in Green Bay. Auctions of autographed DeMerit apparel yielded $2,500 over that weekend.

"Green Bay is a Packer town ... and I don't think they had previously understood the magnitude of Jay's rise," Karen DeMerit said. "It's always, 'Oh, where did he go? South Africa? Oh, that's interesting!' I think the film really shows the obstacles he overcame and the magnitude to which he rose."

In total, more than a dozen film screenings have taken place in the past month, with about 20 more scheduled by the end of July. Rival MLS teams have even started to get in on the action. The Houston Dynamo, who advertised a screening and silent auction on the front page of their website, saw a crowd of 125 raise more than $1,000 on Tuesday night. Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando is hosting another one at a local pub.

"The soccer community is such a close-knit group and it really comes together for good stories about its sport," DeMerit said. "It's very humbling to see how much they appreciate the story."

But screenings have been just the latest in an online campaign to get people to pledge money. For the past two months, the filmmakers have offered a dozen different incentives ranging from the film's DVD ($25) to a personal training session with DeMerit in Vancouver ($1,500).

Given the obstacles that they have already overcome to make the film, Lewis said he refuses to believe that he will let this final financial hurdle stop them from releasing the film.

From the outset, they knew film rights would turn out to be expensive, but $215,000 for footage? That came as a shock. After all, neither Tutulugdzija, an acupuncturist, nor Lewis, a lawyer, had had any film experience.

"With the English Premier League and the World Cup, we chose two of the most expensive sports events to get footage for in the world," Lewis laughed.

At the time, the filmmakers were in too big of a hurry to think about the financial details. Armed with just one other person in their crew (cinematographer Zach Salsman), the filmmakers flew to Green Bay to talk to DeMerit's family and friends. Pleased with the footage, they managed to get one of the last flights out to England before airports were shut down because of an Icelandic volcano's eruption. From there, the filmmakers saw DeMerit's final game with Watford FC, and a few months later, Salsman went to film the World Cup in South Africa to film by himself.

What emerged was an unforgettable look at the U.S. team celebrating in the locker room after a last-minute goal against Algeria sent it to the next round. Dancing in a circle, a group of players start singing about their teammate Donovan to the tune of Lady Gaga's Bad Romance:

He lost his temper, he lost his hair / But he scores goals so we really don't care / He lost his temper / Yeah -- yeah -- yeah, he lost his temper!

Beyond getting this memorable soccer footage published, though, both Lewis and DeMerit said that they are most focused on getting the film out because of the message it sends.

"While it's a soccer story at its core, it really a lot more than that," Lewis said. "When we saw how much people related to this story, we were blown away."

DeMerit, who has had to toe the fine line between being a self-promoter and an inspiration, says he has been so involved with the project because he wants to be an example to those whose dreams don't seem to be panning out.

"I don't want to put myself on a pedestal," DeMerit said. "The story is much bigger than me. I see it as a story for young people that I got to be a part of, that I got to live."

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