The great story that is Jay DeMerit just keeps getting better.
Had his rise from college player to pub-team scrapper to full-time pro ended there, he'd have woven a memorable tale: a Midwesterner raised in a family of athletics and education who headed over to Europe on his own and scored the goal that earned his club promotion to the English Premier League, then maybe play out his pro career in MLS with the Fire, for which he once played on the reserve team.
DeMerit, though, insists on rewriting and lengthening his remarkable, odd odyssey. Or maybe this is the sequel, "Back Road to Bloemfontein," or something similar. The kid from Green Bay who banged around the English semi-pro scene after playing at the University of Illinois-Chicago before catching on in the pro ranks is just months' away from every player's dream.
"I love that I'm able to do that and I feel that I'm very fortunate to be able to play that role and I've enjoyed every second of it, from the beginning to now, and obviously there's still a long way to go until the World Cup," says DeMerit, who despite carving out a starting spot as a central defender on the national team during 2009 isn't counting his chickens.
So highly regarded is DeMerit that U.S. coach Bob Bradley invited him to Washington, D.C., for the team's final Hexagonal qualifier in against Costa Rica in mid-October, even though an eye injury precluded his selection. "Bob just wanted me to come in here and help the team, be supportive, and I'm more than happy to do that," he says.
He joined a team rocked by an automobile accident in which forward Charlie Davies suffered multiple serious injuries that could end his career. DeMerit's enthusiastic, buoyant personality melted some of the stunned shock that draped over the U.S. players when they learned of the fatal single-car crash that sheared in half the SUV Davies and two companions were riding in.
"He's a great guy to have around, happy-go-lucky, always positive," says defender Jonathan Spector, whose English club West Ham United is a short hop across London from Watford's location. "Especially in difficult times, you need a character like that around a team. He's a fantastic person to have around when things aren't going your way."
DeMerit missed the final two Hexagonal games against Honduras and Costa Rica because of an eye infection that required corneal replacement surgery after a groin strain had sidelined him in September. The procedure and recovery will bench him until late November at the earliest; while not a major setback, it's a sour ending to a frustrating yet fulfilling year.
DeMerit debuted for the national team in 2007, and played capably in friendlies and the Copa America.
"It was great experience for everybody, but for me especially, because I hadn't had that kind of experience with the national team before," he said of playing against Argentina and Paraguay in Venezuela. "It wasn't our best team. We were all a bunch of raw, inexperienced guys down there, putting up a good fight, but being beaten rather badly in the end.
"A lot of guys from the Copa America have come through and they're not part of the national team any more. That's all part of the experience."
Watford's relegation from the Premier League and some tough luck with injuries stinted his progress, but strong games last summer in the Confederations Cup, South Africa's World Cup rehearsal, pushed him up the depth chart among the U.S. central defenders.
In South Africa, coach Bob Bradley paired him in the middle with Oguchi Onyewu when an injury sidelined Carlos Bocanegra, and Bradley retained his central pair and deployed Bocanegra at left back when the U.S. captain regained his health.
"Once I've been in here, there have been ups and downs with at times me being injured and not getting called in, and then finally getting a chance and playing well, and then coming into camp and getting injured again," says DeMerit. "That's the type of roller-coaster I'm on, but it is what it is. I try always to stay positive and that's why I'm here now. I'm here to be with the guys and support them, and to be a part of the team.
"Ultimately that's what it's all about. It's not about me or what I've done to get here or Watford or wherever. It's about all of us, and that's what the whole road [of qualifying] is about."
BRED AN ATHLETE. DeMerit's road is decidedly roundabout. He grew up in Green Bay a rabid Packers fan steeped in all sports, and surrounded by accomplished athletes turned coaches and educators. Both parents were physical education teachers, and his grandmother has a track meet in Reedsburg, Wis., named after her: the Betsy DeMerit Invitational. Mom was a state champion in track and field, which dad coached, along with football, after he'd been a three-sport star at Wisconsin-LaCrosse and a decathlete who went up against Bruce Jenner. And so it was.
"I was an active kid," DeMerit says, and one can only imagine the energy generated bouncing from the pole vault pit to the hardcourt to the soccer field. "Having athletic parents just breeds that into you. 'Go do something,' they'd say. I had an older brother and I always wanted to compete with him and his friends."
He ran track (hurdles, pole vault) and played basketball - he aspired for hoops, not soccer, at UIC - and in his freshman year on the football team played safety. And wide receiver. And placekicker.
When he found time for the other kind of football, like Spector he played up top until his teens. The switch to stifling scoring chances instead of producing them came naturally. Defenders need certain personality traits, and they are ingrained in DeMerit.
"Bob's always liked my competitive nature and that was his original assessment of me," says DeMerit, whose background also more or less guarantees he'd be a coach's dream. "Growing up in that kind of environment, and knowing how important it is to listen to people and listen to coaches, that was instilled in me since I was very young.
"There was no point in my progression up the ladder that anyone told me something negative or that I wasn't going to make it. It was always, 'OK, you have this, but this is what you need to get to the next level.' It's about listening to your coaches and trusting them.
"It's about thinking that they're right, but also looking inside of yourself and admitting, 'Yes, I'm not that good on the ball I guess I need to get better. So let's go do it.'"
He credits all of his coaches for his success - of course - but does give a special nod to former NASL defender and Sockers FC coach Brett Hall, whose own zealous persona helped mold DeMerit into a tenacious backliner.
"Brett is probably my biggest influence because he kind of came from a similar type of story," says DeMerit. "He kind of took me under his wing. He was a raw, committed defender and he loved me from the beginning.
"He was the first coach to say to me: 'I know you're a kid from Green Bay, and you aren't supposed to be here. Big deal. I don't give a sh** where you're from, or what you're doing, or what Indiana players you're playing against this summer, you're just as good as they are, so go out and prove that."
BACKPACKING FOR A BREAK.He came out of UIC undrafted and unheralded, so when buddy and Chicago Fire Reserves teammate Keiren Keane suggested they head over to Europe and live with his family while trying to find a team, he went for it. They tromped around Europe for a month or so, with sandwiches and their cleats in their backpacks, then settled in at the modest Keane household in London to see how long they could stick it out.
"I started out making 40 pounds a game and that paid for my food during the week and that was about it," he recalls of the princely sum of $70 he earned. "I was lucky enough to be living with my friends' parents, so we didn't have to pay rent, just pitch in our food money. I usually had about 10 pounds left so I'd have to decide if that was for drinks or something social."
Malt beverage or a movie? That's a tough choice.
DeMerit returned home for a summer to stockpile some money earned by working as a bouncer, then headed back across the Atlantic. His luck turned good in the summer of 2004 when the coach of his former team, ninth-division Southall United, invited him to play for his new team, Northwood FC of the prestigious seventh division, in preseason friendlies against Watford, whose coach Ray Lewington he knew from their playing days.
Trials were lined up with Division Two clubs Shrewsbury Town and Bristol Rovers when the Northwood opportunity arose. "[Watford] was looking for a [central defender] and I did pretty good and they talked after the game," says DeMerit. "[Lewington] said, 'We'll take him on trial,' and the rest is history.
"I'm thankful I chose to stay with Northwood for one more game rather than go up there. I think I picked the right one."
The days of baked-bean sandwiches and canned sodas were over. He started out with Watford, then a step below the Premier League in the renamed League Championship, at a salary of approximately $50,000. When he scored the first goal in the Premier League promotion final at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, the following spring in a 3-0 defeat of Leeds United, he paid back Watford a hundredfold.
Watford's stay in the top flight lasted just the 2006-07 season, and the team has changed coaches twice since he joined up. Though he's dropped down a level from one of the world's top leagues, DeMerit - whose knack for finding positives is unrelenting - believes getting away from the boom-it-upfield style favored by former manager Aiden Boothroyd will hasten his adaptation to the international game.
"At the time, Watford played in a very different way than the national team," says DeMerit. "We were a very direct team at Watford at that point. I had a couple different things to do with the ball and rolling the ball into midfield didn't happen too many times in a game.
"The first thing was to come in and develop yourself on the ball. The passes you have to make at the national team level come through the midfield. So learning to do that, or just passing the ball around the back, there's a lot of footwork that goes along with it. More than people would probably think about, but it's just something you have to get used to."
DeMerit has certainly gotten used to playing with Onyewu, giving the USA a much different central pairing than when Chad Marshall or Jimmy Conrad or Bocanegra is alongside Gooch. With DeMerit's eye surgery scheduled for the Monday after the Costa Rica game, the backline dynamics changed again in that match; Onyewu twisted his left knee and tore the patellar tendon, and is projected to miss three or four months.
"The good thing about Gooch and I and how we play together is we're different [central defenders]," says DeMerit, a bit short for a central defender at 5-foot-11 but certainly rugged enough at 180 pounds. "He's physically dominating, he uses his head, he uses his body very well, where I'll be more in terms of playing on the front foot and not letting people play, rather than let them get the ball and trying to wrestle with him. I don't have reason to do that because that's not my strength.
"I try to nip in front of people. I want to get the ball and be a pest. The better balance we have the better it will be for the team."
For DeMerit, it always comes back to the team. Still he can't help but acknowledge, with a chuckle and a beaming smile that flashes across his face readily, his story is a best-seller.
"It's awesome. It's a great ride man, and hopefully there's still greater things to come."
(This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)