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Seven years ago, the number of people who thought Jay DeMerit could forge any kind of professional soccer career, let alone become a member of the United States' World Cup team, was a very exclusive club.
"I was pretty much the only one who sensed I could make a career out of this," DeMerit said.
DeMerit's path to the World Cup reads more like that of a fan with a backpack, a fistful of dollars and a quick stop at the pub. His conviction has taken him all the way to South Africa, where the 30-year-old along with teammate Oguchi Onyewu are expected to form the starting defensive duo for Bob Bradley's American squad.
Yes, the planet's greatest soccer event comes laden with remarkable stories, but few are as unlikely as that of DeMerit, for whom the term "rags to riches" could have been coined.
Having gone undrafted by Major League Soccer following four years at the University of Illinois-Chicago, DeMerit emptied his bank account of its remaining $1,800, jumped on a plane to England and followed his dream. His first stop was straight into the soccer doldrums, sleeping in the attic of a friend's house while picking up $30 a week playing for Southall, a club that plays a full eight divisions below the English Premier League.
|Jay DeMerit (R) celebrates with U.S. teammate Jozy Altidore.
(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
On Sundays, he would also play in a pub league, alongside amateurs nursing the previous night's hangover and old-timers struggling with knock-knees, in order to get extra match practice.
"It wasn't exactly glamorous," DeMerit said laughing. "The thing is, whether I had made it or not, I would never have changed those times. I have always believed that you should follow your heart. If that means taking a chance and doing something unconventional, so be it."
In 2004, things took a turn for the better. After a season with Southall, DeMerit moved up to a slightly higher standard at seventh-tier Northwood. Then, after producing an outstanding performance for his new team against Championship's (second level) Watford in a preseason friendly, his big break arrived.
Watford offered a trial and then a full contract, and DeMerit established himself as a regular and valuable contributor to the team while playing in front of crowds of 20,000 instead of one man and a dog.
He had a proper wage, a proper career and some proper playing time as Watford won promotion to the EPL in 2006, thanks to his headed goal in the playoff final against Leeds. That moment went down in Watford history as the "10 million pound goal" – the estimated fiscal reward of gaining promotion at that time.
The 2006-07 campaign proved to be the only one DeMerit has spent in the Premiership, but his continually consistent performances for Watford grabbed the attention of Bradley in 2007. DeMerit has been a steady performer for USA since, especially during last summer's Confederations Cup in South Africa.
"Jay could have given up and done something else with his life," Bradley said. "He is an intelligent guy who would have been a success in whatever he decided to do. It gives you a warm feeling to see someone like that, who just went out there and backed themselves, getting rewarded."
However, DeMerit hasn't been content to rest on his laurels in soccer. He owns a restaurant called Villains in Chicago and has been involved in a vast array of projects, including working with fledgling technology company Songwhale, which provides interactive experiences for fans at NFL games and music festivals.
"It adds perspective to your life to be involved in things that aren't just about a little white ball," DeMerit said. "For me the attitude is to never look back because that is when you start taking things for granted. I am always looking for the next step and now I am finally at this pinnacle of my career. I hope I can make the most of this and see where we go next in life, soccer and business."
DeMerit's philosophical mentality carried him through one of his most trying times last year when he needed a cornea graft after an infection – caused by a piece of dirt lodged under a contact lens – stripped his eye of 70 percent of its tissue.
"The best thing about Jay is that you can't get him down," said Aidy Boothroyd, his former manager at Watford. "When someone has got themselves to where they have through the force of their own will, nothing is going to shake their belief."
"It's been a very interesting time," DeMerit said. "My journey started with a backpack and this dream was a long, long way away. It has been an adventure for sure, but it has all been worth it and I wouldn't have it any other way."
- Jay DeMerit