As he went up for a header early in the first game of the Major League Soccer season, Jay DeMerit knew something was wrong.
But even after undergoing surgery on a torn Achilles tendon two days later, the Vancouver Whitecaps captain refused to accept the prognosis.
Such a devastating injury, he was told, usually took six to eight months of recovery with actual times often on the upper end of the range. However, DeMerit was determined to come back sooner.
“For me, it was just a number,” he said after a practice at the University of British Columbia. “Those types of things, recovery times, those are ballpark figures. Those are things that people set on you based on other people’s experiences. But the only experience that you can have is yours.
“And for me, it was just about pushing those limits. I’ve built a career out of pushing limits and trying to prove people wrong, and this was another time when I could do that.”
DeMerit is close to returning to the Whitecaps lineup. He could get into the 18 for Saturday’s home game against the Los Angeles Galaxy or another one soon.
Depending on the date he returns, it will be just under or just over the six-month recovery minimum.
“It was always in my inner drive to succeed,” he said of his approach to recovery. “You’ve always got to push the limits to do the things that normal people can’t do.”
DeMerit, 33, was on the outer limits when he launched his improbable pro career after he went undrafted by an MLS club following four seasons at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Trekking off to England with no offers, he rose from London-based FC Southall in the little-known, ninth-tier Combined Counties Football League to Watford FC, which he helped gain promotion to the English Premier League before it was relegated to the League Championship.
The central defender went from an unheralded prospect to Watford’s captain in six seasons before becoming Vancouver’s first MLS signing in November 2010 prior to their first campaign in North America’s top league. He has also represented the U.S. internationally.
So he had ample fuel to prove naysayers wrong following his injury against Toronto FC at B.C. Place Stadium. The procedure re-attached the Achilles tendon after it was torn approximately in the middle.
After transporting himself on crutches in the first two weeks of his rehabilitation period on crutches, he spent six weeks in a walking boot that deployed a series of wedges that were incrementally removed. At first, his heel was elevated as high as possible to take pressure off the tendon and allow it to mend.
“Every couple of weeks after that, you take a wedge out of the wedge system,” said DeMerit. “So it drops your heel down. And throughout that time, your Achilles stretches into its normal shape. Everything has been a process.
“And once you get to the point where you can get out of the boot and start walking, you get on land and you first start walking. Then you start to move athletically after that.”
DeMerit spent about four months completing two-a-day workouts that included rehab with the team in the morning at UBC and afternoon sessions on an underwater treadmill, designed to alleviate pressure on the tendon and joints, at Fortius Sport and Health in suburban Burnaby, B.C.
“On an athletic standpoint, this is the worst injury that I’ve ever had,” said DeMerit. “This is the longest recovery period I’ve ever had. Normally, I’ve just had groin injuries, hip injuries and a couple of sprained ankles.”
In 2010 while playing for Watford, DeMerit also suffered a freak eye injury that kept him out four months. A piece of dirt became stuck under the contact lens in his right eye, scratching his cornea. As a result, he had to undergo a corneal transplant in London. The new cornea came from a cadaver in North Carolina.
The injury occurred six months before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but DeMerit recovered in time to suit up for the U.S.
“It was one of those things that was probably actually more serious (than the Achilles tear),” he said. “I had to go through a lot of mental-strength issues, a lot of not seeing (and) sitting in the dark. So for me, to at least be able to be on my feet and be able to walk around and be normal, I think it was a little bit easier.”
While the Achilles tendon was reattaching itself following surgery, DeMerit detached mentally from his ordeal. When not undergoing rehab, he focused on his wedding coming up Sunday in Whistler, B.C., where he will marry retired Canadian ski cross racer Ashleigh McIvor, who won a gold medal for Canada in the 2010 Olympics.
He also tried to get more involved with Whitecaps fans and in the community.
“The first thing I did was really start to unplug from the competitive side of what I do — because if you start to imagine yourself in certain situations, if you start to imagine yourself out there (on the pitch), you’re going to get frustrated, because you’re not there and you can’t be there,” he said.
“So, for me, it was unplugging from that and really trying to plug into the pulse of not only this city, but into this team. It’s about engaging in other ways and being a leader in other ways.”
Being engaged to McIvor has also helped, because she was there to provide inspiration after battling serious knee and back injuries of her own.
“If you put in all of the energy to heal, your body can do amazing things,” said DeMerit. “She’s more than attested to that. a She’s definitely a good example to live by.”
Now, as he prepares to return to the Whitecaps lineup, DeMerit hopes to help them get back to the playoffs and extend their post-season life after they were eliminated in the first round by eventual champion Los Angeles last year.
After passing all of his medical, strength and agility tests, DeMerit has spent the past two weeks trying to regain his conditioning, timing and other nuances required to succeed in games. But until he gets back into “real-time play” in a league game, his recovery will not be complete.
“The last hurdle, I think, can only be jumped with playing,” he said.