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 soccerhistory, 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 aforeign land, an MLS reject plying the fields of London's city parks, a Sundaypub leaguer sharing a friend's attic bedroom in a dodgy part of town andsubsisting 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-marketoutfit like DeMerit's beloved Green Bay Packers. It's an early-autumn afternoon15 miles north of London, and this time DeMerit's foes aren't a bunch ofhungover 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 theHornets defender (Welcome to the Premiership, Yank), but not today. Not afterhis journey from the sport's lowest levels to a league with a global audienceof 600 million.
When DeMeritdispossesses Man U forward Ryan Giggs early in the first half, the stand behindWatford's goal erupts: U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! Later, after DeMerit swipesCristiano Ronaldo's sneaky back-heel pass, the Watford hard cores launch intoanother favorite (also seen on yellow-and-black T-shirts):
Jaaaaaaaaay ...Jay DeMerit!
Jay-Jay-Jay fromthe U.S.A!
Man United endsup winning 2--1 on a second-half goal, but the Wisconsin cheesehead with MattDamon's mug and David Beckham's old rooster-tail haircut has played a nearlyflawless match, organizing Watford's back line while using his speed, smartsand aerial prowess to help keep the game close. "I like the challenge ofgoing up against some of the best players in the world each week," the26-year-old DeMerit says afterward. "If I can hold my own, it's only goingto make me better. It's just another level I can get to."
Rare these daysis the foreign crowd that embraces a U.S. athlete with such fervor. Even rareris the still-unfolding fable of DeMerit, the unlikeliest of the record 13American imports in the Premiership this season. How many Yanks go frommid-major college soccer to starting in the Premier League? From not beingdrafted 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 anylevel--to staring down renowned strikers such as Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooneyand Andriy Shevchenko?
"Jay DeMeritcame from nothing and made a decision to be something," says AidyBoothroyd, the Watford manager. "He's the Rocky Balboa of Englishfootball."
For five monthsthe good folks of Wisconsin have had a hard time grasping the magnitude ofDeMerit's finest hour: scoring the goal that clinched Watford's promotion tothe Premier League. "Some do, some don't," DeMerit says over coffee inCamden Town, the hip North London neighborhood where he recently bought theflat he shares with his girlfriend, Katherine Carter. "I had some friendsin Green Bay go, 'I heard you played in a game?' Yeah. I did. 'I heard youscored?' 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 itsmeritocracy. Not only can players rise (and fall) through the ranks, but so canteams. After each season the worst three Premier League sides drop down alevel, to be replaced by the three big winners of the second tier. Promotionand relegation, as the process is known, is a staple of England's four-divisionprofessional pyramid, and the stakes are enormous. These days each team thatmakes the jump to the Premiership is rewarded with television and sponsorshipriches of up to $45 million.
In England thesecond tier's top two finishers receive automatic promotions, but the thirdGolden Ticket goes to the winner of a playoff among the next four teams. Whichbrings us to the scene of DeMerit moving upfield at Millennium Stadium inCardiff, Wales, to receive the corner kick that would change his life. HisHornets, defying forecasts of relegation to England's third tier, had soared tothird and had already upset Crystal Palace in the playoffs. Now, with promotionon the line, they were facing favored Leeds United, winner take all, in asold-out, three-tiered stadium so large that Boothroyd, channeling Norman Dalein Hoosiers, had taken his lads to see the field earlier that week--just toshow that it was the same size as any other. "We came in with our mouthsopen," says DeMerit, "but everyone would tell you we weren't asintimidated when we walked out the tunnel for the game."
In the Watfordfan 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 acorner kick into the box and DeMerit crashed through for the game's first goal.Young delivers ... [deafening roar] ... and JAY DEMERIT! ... puts WATFORD infront! ... The AMERICAN! ... makes his MARK! ... in the playoff FINAL!
"Amiracle," says Jay's mother, Karen, who was in the stands that day with hisfather, John, and brother, Todd. A wall of Watford fans rose as one, dancedlittle jigs and unleashed their chant: Yel-low Ar-MY! Yel-low Ar-MY! At sportsbars in Milwaukee and Chicago, friends of DeMerit watching on satellite TVroared. By day's end, the Hornets had won 3--0 and DeMerit had been interviewedon TV as the Man of the Match. Up in the stadium's Watford section, KeirenKeane turned to his mates and let out a war whoop. For two years DeMerit'sdream had been Keane's dream. They wore the same ratty clothes, played on thesame crappy pub-league fields, attended the same fruitless tryouts withbottom-feeder clubs such as Oxford United and Bristol Rovers.
Now one of themwas going to the Premier League. "I knew he would score!" Keanescreamed, half in ecstasy and half in anger that he hadn't taken the 22-to-1wager offered by William Hill on number 6 to bag a goal. "It was in thestars!"
It started, likeany good buddy movie, with two friends seeking an adventure. C'mon, Jay, let'sgo to Europe and give it a crack. The year was 2003, and the more DeMeritlistened to Keane, his Irish-American teammate on the Chicago Fire Reserves, anonpaying MLS minor league affiliate, the more it made sense. DeMerit's Danishancestry meant he could acquire a coveted European Union work permit. What'smore, DeMerit was convinced that he could hang with anyone after a solidcollege career at Illinois-Chicago, even though no MLS team had drafted him ormade 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 morethan their backpacks, their soccer cleats and enough dollars to cover overnightbuses and youth hostels, they toured Europe for six weeks in search of atryout. In the Netherlands they rented old bicycles and doorstepped the managerof Sparta Rotterdam. (All they got were free tickets to that night's game.) InBelgium they waited half an hour to speak with the coach at Royal Antwerpbefore giving up. (They left a note--Your loss!--under his door andskedaddled.) Only when their money ran out did they return, suitably chastened,to the cramped house they shared with Keane's mother, three brothers and asister in London's hardscrabble Wembley neighborhood.
That summerDeMerit returned to the U.S. and saved $1,000 working as a bouncer andbartender in Chicago. He went back to London in the fall looking for moretryouts--and any way to stay fit in the interim. "I knew I'd have to playin whatever park I could find," says DeMerit, who earned $70 a week playingwith Keane for a ninth-division team called Southall Town on Saturdays and nota 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 drinkingon the sidelines at 11 in the morning." At one point when their financialsituation looked particularly grim, DeMerit and Keane took temporary jobspainting houses.
Yet after nearlytwo years of grinding, the big break came with astonishing swiftness. In July2004 an old coach from Southall Town invited DeMerit and Keane to play a coupleof preseason games with his new team, seventh-division Northwood FC. In onegame both players impressed then Watford manager Ray Lewington enough that heoffered them two-week trials. Pro sports can be cruel indeed--Keane couldn'tcrack Watford's roster and has since bounced around clubs in England, Scotlandand Spain--but DeMerit thrived with the reserve squad, and Lewington told himto 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'dget five minutes at the end," DeMerit says, "but I got to the stadiumand I was in the starting lineup. I'd never even trained with the first team,so I was s------- myself."
DeMerit kept hiscomposure 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, whorecently signed his fourth contract in two years, a three-year deal that payshim $465,000 this season.
"Jay's gottotal respect from all the players here," says Watford defender MalkyMackay, a Scottish international. "He's always had the physical attributes,but his development has come in deciding when to challenge, when to drop offand when to play the pass. He's certainly good enough to play in thePremiership and get into his national team." Second-year Watford managerBoothroyd goes one step further, predicting that DeMerit will someday becomethe 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 hisplate in a Premier League season that will test him like no other. Success forWatford, which has the Premiership's lowest payroll, will mean finishing noworse than 17th out of the 20 teams; the fight to avoid relegation could bejust as thrilling as the race at the top of the standings. Two months into a38-game season, Watford stood in 19th place through Sunday on four ties andthree one-goal defeats. But like his Hornets, DeMerit had held his own innearly every match--despite playing out of position in recent weeks at rightback. "My goal is to keep progressing," he says, "whether thatmeans being on the national team, continuing to move higher with Watford or, ifnot, then moving somewhere else. There's no reason I can't continue to sethigher goals and get to the pinnacle of my profession."
And if that meansturning pop icons into his starstruck fans, hey, no problem. Before lastspring's regular-season finale, a small man in a blue suit and pink glassesbustled into the Hornets' locker room. Sir Elton John, Watford's lifetimepresident, had a question: Where's the American? "It was kind ofsurreal," DeMerit says of their meeting. "We talked about Brett Favre,of all things."
These days, infact, 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 recordingstudio with some old friends who own an indie music label in Minneapolis. Theresulting track, a guitar-screeching ode to Watford called Soccer Rocks,celebrates the fairy-tale story of an Everyman and his underdog team whosomehow make it to the Premier League:
Let me bring yourdream to you/Show you all what you could do/Soccer rocks!
The singer, likethe 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 rightpeople take notice. Boothroyd says he's sending the demo to Sir Elton.
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In England, DeMerit can measure his skills against those of powerful forwardssuch as Man United's Louis Saha.
DeMerit's goal on a header against Leeds in May helped get Watford promoted tothe Premiership.
DeMerit (by the Thames and with Carter) no longer liveshand-to-mouth.