Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit shares his story in new movie, Rise and Shine
It's easy to assume that the best soccer players in the world hail from locations such as Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, London or Berlin. The biggest names in soccer generally come from small towns and cities across Europe, South America, and Africa: anywhere but Green Bay, Wisconsin, where the word "football" conjures up images of touchdowns and NFL Superbowls.
So how did a soccer player from Green Bay who initially failed to find a team in Major League Soccer (MLS) manage to play in both England's Premier League (the pinnacle of the UK's soccer leagues) and represent the United States at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa? Rise & Shine: the Jay DeMerit Story, looks at the experiences that led him there.
“The message in the movie is the coolest part about it,” said Jay DeMerit, speaking to the Observer over coffee and pie in Vancouver's Gastown. “It's an everyman story.”
The story goes that after failing to be drafted by teams in the MLS, DeMerit resolved to find a European club to fulfil his ambitions of becoming a professional soccer player. So, at the age of 21, he moved to London to start a journey that would eventually take him all over the world.
DeMerit's first year in the UK was spent shuffling around Britain and Europe attending tryouts, living in hostels, sleeping in friend's attics, and eating basic food such as baked beans. He practiced so much he nearly wore out his soccer cleats. Eventually, he managed to find a spot in Southall's Sunday league team - a team in the lowest rung of England's football ladder. The season proved to be successful, and DeMerit was offered the chance to play for non-league Northwood Football Club in a pre-season friendly against Championship side Watford (a team in England’s second tier). After putting in a strong performance, Watford offered him a trial, which culminated in a friendly match against Real Zaragoza of Spain's La Liga.
“That might well be the defining moment in my career,” smiled DeMerit, looking back on that crucial match. “I hadn't even trained with the first team, let alone played with the first team. But I just thought...if I get this right, if I play well, that's going to change my life forever. And I need to go do whatever it takes to do that.”
Watford subsequently offered him a year's contract and he soon found himself playing an integral part in the club's spectacular rise into the English Premier League in 2006.
DeMerit has since represented the US National team where he played in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He is now the captain of the Vancouver Whitecaps, where he faces another challenge - making the franchise a competitor in the MLS.
An engaging and energetic personality, Jay DeMerit has his own views on where his adventure has taken him so far:
“There's been times in big games like in the World Cup against England when I should be nervous and freaking out but I'm actually laughing at myself because I can't believe I'm standing there,” said DeMerit, reflecting in the contrast between success and anonymity. “I shake my head and get that fire in my belly because this is what life is about.”
Rise & Shine looks back on these moments and more. As with soccer, there are always two sides to a game, and although DeMerit's story is the main focus of the documentary, at its core the film is essentially an example of hard work, determination, and taking chances to achieve your goals.
It’s perhaps fitting that the making of Rise & Shine and its subsequent DVD release have shared a similar path to the film’s protagonist.
Like DeMerit, the producers of Rise & Shine started their filmmaking adventure at the absolute bottom of the pile. Nick Lewis is an attorney working in San Diego, California, while Ranko Tutulugdzija is a practising acupuncturist. Hardly New York film school or Hollywood. Both men have been friends with DeMerit since college and, like the protagonist, the two men had an idea and a burning desire to achieve it.
“About six months before the 2010 World Cup, I called Ranko and told him we had to make a documentary,” said Nick Lewis. “Ranko and I knew that we had a once in a lifetime opportunity to obtain the footage from Jay’s time in England and the World Cup and we couldn’t let it pass.”
Although with any independent film, an idea is one thing, practicality is another, and the two men, acting as producers, met unexpected challenges.
“We were supposed to oversee the process as we had a professional director lined up,” Lewis explained. “Then about two weeks before we were to begin shooting, the director had to drop out. At this point Ranko and I faced a decision -- to direct the film, or let it die.”
The two men continued with their goal, and directed the film themselves, paying the film’s costs as they worked. But with any independent production, funding is notoriously difficult to acquire. The international soccer community has helped finance the film, but fan-funding is where the project really found its legs.
“The rights to license footage from the English Premier League and the 2010 World Cup were expensive so we turned to “crowd funding” on a website called kickstarter.com,” said Lewis. “We ended up raising over $223,000, the most ever for an independent film project.”
The film has now been shown in 140 theatres in the U.S. and 55 in the United Kingdom, and has also recently played at a film festival in Berlin. Nick and Ranko are currently involved in promoting the film and trying to secure retail distribution. Rise & Shine is scheduled to be available on iTunes and Netflix in June.
DeMerit's story has been likened by former Watford manager Aidy Boothroyd to that of Rocky Balboa; a true underdog taking everything in his stride while rising to the top. It comes as no surprise that the story has successfully reached its intended audience of young kids and teenagers who are wanting to pursue their goals in life. According to Nick Lewis, each week brings a handful of new emails from players, parents or coaches who have all been inspired by the documentary.
“One of the reasons for doing this film,” said DeMerit. “Is that I thought about the thousands and thousands of kids each year in any sport or in any thing that are at a crossroads in their life. If we can inspire one kid to try something new because of this film then that's exactly what it's all about.”
Rise & Shine: the Jay DeMerit Story is available through Truth 2 Life Productions.
Check out an audio interview with Jay DeMerit, where he discusses the film, his story, and any adventures that occurred along the way.
UPDATE: Rise & Shine is now available via iTunes.