Three years ago, in Jay DeMerit's previous life, Sir Elton John didn't ask to shake his hand. Three years ago, before he scored one of the most lucrative goals in soccer history, yellow-clad Englishmen didn't chant his name, didn't wear his jersey, didn't burst into tears of joy over his flying header into a rippling net. Three years ago Jay DeMerit, late of Green Bay, was a soccer vagabond in a foreign land, an MLS reject plying the fields of London's city parks, a Sunday pub leaguer sharing a friend's attic bedroom in a dodgy part of town and subsisting on $70 a week and a steady diet of beans on toast.
Now, of all places, he's here: on the emerald grass of sold-out Vicarage Road, the cozy stadium of the English Premier League's Watford FC, a small-market outfit like DeMerit's beloved Green Bay Packers. It's an early-autumn afternoon 15 miles north of London, and this time DeMerit's foes aren't a bunch of hungover blokes from the pub but rather the superstars of Manchester United, the world's most famous team. The sight of the Red Devils should intimidate the Hornets defender (Welcome to the Premiership, Yank), but not today. Not after his journey from the sport's lowest levels to a league with a global audience of 600 million.
When DeMerit dispossesses Man U forward Ryan Giggs early in the first half, the stand behind Watford's goal erupts: U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! Later, after DeMerit swipes Cristiano Ronaldo's sneaky back-heel pass, the Watford hard cores launch into another favorite (also seen on yellow-and-black T-shirts):
Jaaaaaaaaay ... Jay DeMerit!
Jay-Jay-Jay from the U.S.A!
Man United ends up winning 2-1 on a second-half goal, but the Wisconsin cheesehead with Matt Damon's mug and David Beckham's old rooster-tail haircut has played a nearly flawless match, organizing Watford's back line while using his speed, smarts and aerial prowess to help keep the game close. "I like the challenge of going up against some of the best players in the world each week," the 26-year-old DeMerit says afterward. "If I can hold my own, it's only going to make me better. It's just another level I can get to."
Rare these days is the foreign crowd that embraces a U.S. athlete with such fervor. Even rarer is the still-unfolding fable of DeMerit, the unlikeliest of the record 13 American imports in the Premiership this season. How many Yanks go from mid-major college soccer to starting in the Premier League? From not being drafted by MLS to scoring a historic goal in front of 65,000 fans last May? From toiling in obscurity -- DeMerit has never played for a U.S. team at any level -- to staring down renowned strikers such as Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney and Andriy Shevchenko?