When people think of Green Bay, Wisconsin, they usually think of one thing and one thing only, and that’s the Green Bay Packers.
A grape in the ocean of markets that make up the North American professional sports landscape, Green Bay certainly doesn’t possess the glitz of New York or the glamour of Los Angeles. However, what they do have is a team that truly belongs to the community – literally. The Packers are the only non-profit, community-owned major league professional sports team in the United States.
The green and gold have always had the character that comes from a small town: a blue-collar attitude, toughness and determination. But it’s not only the Packers who’ve made the community proud.
Green Bay is also the proud hometown of Vancouver Whitecaps FC captain Jay DeMerit – a man who possesses all the character of Packer town.
Throughout every stage of his soccer career, DeMerit has always been a bit of a late bloomer.
He grew up in the country on the outskirts of the city, “across from a corn field,” as he describes it. Sports were in his blood – especially track and field. Both of his parents were physical education teachers. His dad John was a decathlete who’d gone up against Bruce Jenner, and his mom Karen was a state champion in track and field. Even his grandmother has a track meet in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, named after her: the Betsy DeMerit Invitational.
Jay and older brother Todd were always very active in sports – in fact Todd himself went on to play college soccer at an NCAA Division III school. Jay played many sports growing up, including football and track – which made sense considering his surroundings and family background. But how did he get into soccer?
“Good question,” replied DeMerit, before revealing a clear answer. “Even in Wisconsin, soccer is actually the most popular sport for kids, just like everywhere else throughout North America.”
At 16, he decided to give up football and stick with soccer, partly because he “grew up kind of short and small”. John was the football coach at Jay’s Bay Port High School – as well as the track and field coach – but he was fully supportive of his son’s decision.
“My dad was actually a really big soccer fan,” said Jay. “He always kind of told me that if soccer had been bigger when he was younger then he probably would have played it.”
During his senior year of high school, Jay began to get some interest from colleges, but nothing too substantial. He ended up going to the University of Illinois at Chicago, on what he calls “somewhat of a gift”. His high school coach knew the UIC coach and recommended him. The UIC coach trusted the recommendation enough to give Jay a small scholarship at the school. It worked out well for Jay. He loved Green Bay, but he was happy to experience life in a bigger city.
“I’ve always been someone that’s kind of tried to do my own thing. I was ready to get out and go start a new adventure.”
True to character
Despite four strong seasons at UIC, DeMerit went undrafted, unwanted by every MLS club at the time. Just like that, it was back to square one.
He has never been one to give up though, so he packed his bags and headed for Europe with not even a hint of a professional contract in sight. There’s not enough space to get into great detail about his journey – you can watch his documentary, Rise and Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story, for that. In case you haven’t heard it though, the SparkNotes version goes something like this:
After starting out in glorified beer leagues in England, he was spotted by English Championship club Watford FC. He impressed the coaches enough to make the roster and earned a starting spot at centre back. In the 2006 Championship playoff final, he scored the winning goal to lift Watford into the English Premier League and shortly after became captain. Then he played for the United States national team and started all four of the team’s matches at last year’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
From beer league to World Cup starter, he always remembered where he came from. He could have never achieved all that he has without a massive dose of hard work, grit and perseverance.
“Those are things you learn naturally by growing up in a place like Green Bay,” said the 31-year-old DeMerit, the first MLS signing ever by Whitecaps FC. “Those are huge attributes that I still have today. It’s kind of a humility thing that you learn to work for what you have and appreciate what you have.
“When you’re supported the way I have been my whole life by my family and friends that I know from my hometown, it makes it a lot easier to go out there and do things. It’s something that I’m very proud of to say that I’m from there. I love to be the guy that goes out and represents that community.”
Now as Vancouver team captain, it’s those same characteristics that he plans to instill in the ‘Caps to lead them to future success.
“I’m somebody that likes to start things and finish things,” says DeMerit. “And this is just the beginning here.”