VANCOUVER, BC – As with any good story, this one never gets old.
At the age of 21, Jay DeMerit packed his bags and went off to Europe searching for an opportunity to play the game he loves. It was a fool’s errand.
DeMerit wasn’t supposed to make it.
He grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin – a non-traditional soccer market, to say the least. He played collegiately at the University of Illinois at Chicago, but wasn’t drafted or signed by Major League Soccer.
So with little money and no real plan, DeMerit took off for England. He stayed in a friend’s attic, while literally going club to club hoping for a tryout. Eventually, he started playing for ninth-tier Southall in the Sunday League, earning about $70 per week and traveling to games in the back of his coach’s van.
Then began his rapid ascent to the upper echelons of professional soccer.
About two years later, the centre back scored the game-winning goal for second-tier Watford FC in the 2006 Football League Championship playoff final. The announced attendance for that game, which promoted Watford FC to the top-flight English Premier League, was 64,736.
If playing at the top level in England wasn’t enough, DeMerit then beat all odds and represented his native United States at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, where he started all four games.
It’s a story that just kept getting better and better – to the point where it became the subject of an independent documentary named Rise and Shine: The Jay DeMerit story.
But all good stories must come to an end.
On Thursday, the Whitecaps FC captain announced his retirement after an improbable and inspirational 10-year professional career. For DeMerit, who suffered a torn tendon in his left ankle on June 7, it was just the right time to hang up his boots.
“Everybody knows that I wanted to come back for one more year and everybody knows the struggles I had last year coming back from an Achilles injury,” said DeMerit, who re-signed with Whitecaps FC in January after making a speedy recovery from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in Vancouver’s 2013 season opener.
“Now to be three months into the season and have another tendon go in my left ankle, I know what I’m up against because I was up against it last year. In my heart and in my body, I just know that I didn’t have that in me. And for me, if I can’t give my full effort or be the player that I know I am, then it’s time for me to walk away.”
There was a specific moment about a week and a half ago when DeMerit came to that decision. After finishing up a rehab session with club physiotherapist Graeme Poole, DeMerit stood on the sidelines and watched his Whitecaps FC teammates train at full throttle.
“These young able bodies were flying around at each other and tackling hard and playing at a level that we expect at the Whitecaps,” DeMerit told whitecapsfc.com. “I kind of thought to myself, I’m not sure I can do that anymore.”
But it wasn’t until a little later that afternoon that the thoughts of retirement really crept up. After his morning session with Poole, DeMerit drove over to Spanish Banks for a second session on his own.
The plan was to do some walking on the sand and logs to help strengthen his ankle.
“So I started walking around the beach … obviously looking at the shores and looking at the life I have, I just decided right there that I’ve had enough,” DeMerit said. “If I wasn’t at peace, it would have taken me more than an hour to make this decision. I know myself and I know when it’s the right decision. For anyone that knows me, whether it’s me as a person or the way that I play, it’s pretty much all in.”
All in – and then some.
If DeMerit wasn’t all in, there’s no way he would have ventured off to a foreign land as a recent university graduate with not much more than a back pack and $1,200 in hand. It wouldn’t have been a big surprise to anyone if nothing came of that trip.
He was overlooked in the United States, his home country, so what’s to say the same thing wouldn’t happen in England?
Fortunately, that’s not the way DeMerit saw things.
“I just knew that nobody else was going to give me a shot so I had to do it myself,” he said. “There are times in life when you’re kind of up against it, you’re at a crossroads, you don’t really know what’s going to happen. For me, it was just about going with my heart and saying you know what, I have something to give and now I’m going to give it.”
The rest is history.
- #ThxCaptain: An interactive look at DeMerit's career
DeMerit got his start in England’s ninth tier, then moved up to the seventh tier with Northwood FC. He never actually played in a league game with Northwood, only a couple of pre-season friendlies. One of those friendlies was against Watford FC, who cruised to a 4-0 victory on July 20, 2004 – just over 10 years ago today.
It’s not often that a centre back impresses in a game that his team concedes four goals, but DeMerit did and Watford FC manager Ray Lewington took notice. Lewington invited DeMerit to join the club on a two-week trial, which quickly led to a contract.
“We signed two good centre backs that season and you’d probably expect Jay to be the third choice,” said Whitecaps FC assistant coach Martyn Pert, who was Watford’s head of conditioning at the time. “But he showed his character and fought his way first into a contract, then getting himself into a game, and from there he got himself into the team.”
In 2005-06, DeMerit’s second season with the club, many expected Watford FC to be relegated to the third division. Instead, they gained promotion to the top-flight English Premier League after DeMerit scored the game-winner over Leeds United in the Football League Championship playoff final.
“That whole season was about being the underdogs,” Pert said. “We played Leeds Untied – in England, they’re a massive club with 40,000 in their stadium and a tradition of winning trophies and being competitive. They were in the semifinal of the Champions League I think four seasons before we played them. It just shows how big it was. It was a really big moment. We had that underdog fighting spirit and Jay sort of encapsulated that.”
On May 21, the eight-year anniversary of that game, DeMerit posted a photo of his historic header on Instagram, saying it “changed his life forever.” It was the first time DeMerit, an undrafted American who made his start playing in a Sunday league, was in the spotlight at the highest level.
“Jay DeMerit was kind of an unheard of name flying under the radar before that goal went in,” said DeMerit, who went on to captain Watford FC. “Once that goal went in, I was on every radar.”
Including that of the U.S. senior men’s national team.
After earning his first cap in a March 2007 friendly against Guatemala, DeMerit went on to make 25 appearances for the Stars and Stripes, including four starts at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Despite suffering a serious eye injury just months prior, DeMerit was a key piece of the puzzle for the American team that finished first in their group for the first time since 1930.
Predictably, DeMerit’s experience at the World Cup is at the top of the list when it comes to career highlights.
“As a professional, you just can’t beat it,” DeMerit said. “You stand at the halfway line with a hand on your heart and you know that a billion people are watching you. You’ve been selected as one of the 11 people to go and represent what your country is all about. You can’t match that pride and that feeling.”
DeMerit’s performance at the 2010 FIFA World Cup peaked the interest of Whitecaps FC, who were gearing up for their inaugural MLS season.
It was a match made in heaven.
DeMerit was a free agent looking for a new challenge, while the ‘Caps were in search of a player they could build the club around – a face of the franchise, if you will. And that’s exactly what DeMerit became when Whitecaps FC made him their first MLS signing in November 2010.
“They were really the only team that really fought for me,” said DeMerit, who also became the club’s first MLS captain. “They really tried to give me a role that I thought I was capable of and one that I really wanted in my life. Because what’s experience if you can’t use it? Whitecaps FC have always offered me the role to not only use my experience but to better myself, better the team, and better the people around me.”
If there’s a legacy that DeMerit is leaving behind in Vancouver, it’s one of commitment and dedication. No matter what he did – whether it was playing, putting in the extra work to return from injury, or making appearances in the community – DeMerit always gave his all.
“His level of compete is infectious,” said Whitecaps FC president Bob Lenarduzzi. “I can remember when he came back last year off the Achilles injury in San Jose – a very physical side especially up front. He came into that game after 30 minutes and really set the tone and battled. The one thing that you can look back on and say without hesitation is that every game that he plays, he brings 100 per cent commitment.”
The ‘Caps have been through some ups and downs over the last four years and DeMerit has been there every step of the way. His best memories are Whitecaps FC’s inaugural match victory over Toronto FC, including the “stomping on the aluminum bleachers and the fans throwing ponchos on the field,” representing the Blue and White in the 2012 MLS All-Star Game, and helping lead the team to the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time.
And what DeMerit did on the field is only half the story.
“The other side of Jay is that he gets that we’re still growing the sport in North America,” Lenarduzzi continued. “Having someone like him who understands that comes with the territory is important. Our guys are pretty good but he’s been exceptional in that regard.”
As he wrote in his open letter to fans, DeMerit is now proud to call Vancouver home. He’s embraced everything this city has to offer and is married to Vancouver-born Olympic gold medalist Ashleigh McIvor. And though his playing career is now over, DeMerit will be staying on with Whitecaps FC as part of the community relations team to continue what he set out to do when he first joined the club.
“That starts with the vision of coming here and being part of something that’s much bigger than yourself,” DeMerit said.
And that, in a nutshell, is the moral of Jay DeMerit’s story. It’s not about DeMerit or his various accomplishments – as impressive as they are – it’s about what he represents.
“The hard work, the perseverance, the way that you have to live life every day and take on challenges to be successful … that’s the real story,” DeMerit said. “To see so many people use that as inspiration is their own lives is the just the most gratifying thing ever.”