INTRODUCING: Denise Boyer Merdich
COLLEGE: University of Puget Sound
INTRODUCTION TO THE GAME: Denise never considered herself athletic until John Dunlap, the father of a fellow future National Teamer, Joan Dunlap-Seivold, invited her to play soccer shortly after the Boyer family moved from California to the Seattle area. “I wasn’t competitive and I might have even been considered slow,” said Denise. “But somehow, when there was a soccer ball to chase, suddenly no one could catch me and stop me.”
THE SALVATION: Denise’s father had served in the military during World War II, the Korean War and also in Vietnam and she said she believed he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder by the time she was 10. When her father moved out of the home, Denise, her mother and brothers moved to Tacoma where, much to Denise’s surprise, a local soccer coach knocked on her door a week later. “Mr. Dunlap thought I should keep playing soccer, so he made a phone call and here was this man asking me to join his team,” she said. “I appreciated that. For those two hours on the field a few times each week, I was able to forget about everything at home.”
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME: In those days, the University of Puget Sound fielded a women’s team, but the part-time coach had never actually played the game and the competition was less than stellar. Fortunately, Denise had already caught the attention of the Dunlaps and the rest of the Washington area’s immense pool of other soccer talent that would form the cornerstone of America’s earliest women’s national teams: Lorraine Figgins Fitzhugh, Michelle Akers, Sandi Gordon Yotz, Cindy Gordon, Amy Allmann Griffin, Lori Henry, Denise Bender, Shannon Higgins-Cirovski, Gretchen Gegg Zigante, Kathy Ridgewell-Williams and Sharon McMurtry. Denise also played for a bevy of renowned coaches through the years, including Greg Ryan, the first National Team coach, as well as Berhane Andeberhan, Clive Charles, Larry Feir and Booth Gardner, a two-term governor of Washington.
THE NATIONAL TEAM: Denise was first selected for the National Team in 1984 when it existed only on paper and made it again when the infamous selection occurred in July of 1985 at the Olympic Sports Festival in Baton Rouge, La. She played in all four of the National Team’s games in Italy in 1985, then took 1986 off. She agreed to try out again in 1987 and appeared in three games — scoring the only goal of her National Team career on July 7 against Canada — before retiring from the team just prior to it leaving for an international tournament in Tianjin, China.
BETTER HER THAN ME: Denise said she always considered her soccer teammates sisters and found it difficult to watch players get cut from the team when Anson Dorrance began to make significant roster changes, including the addition of teenagers Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy in the summer of 1987. “I’d watch my teammates come out of a meeting with Anson and they’d be crying; it was just so sad,” said Denise. “I went in and told Anson, ‘They want this more than I do. Give one of them my spot.’ And that was that. It was the right thing for me to do, for me and for them.”
ENDURING MEMORIES: Denise said she cringes when she hears people say the first National Team in 1985, with its record of three losses and one tie, wasn’t very good. “We went over there to Italy after just three days of training together in New York, suffering from jet lag, and were competitive against every single team; we had a lot of moxie,” she said. Some of her favorite memories came off the field, including receiving what amounted to her first soccer paycheck — $10 a day in meal money. “I was so excited for that $10,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine why they were paying us after they already paid for the plane ticket and gave us uniforms. That was my mindset, honestly. I bought an Italian bathing suit and two pairs of sweat pants, and a bunch of us rented those paddle boats out on the Adriatic Sea. We had it in our minds that we were going to paddle to Yugoslavia!”
After the game against Denmark on Aug. 21 that featured the first two goals in American National Team history, by Michelle Akers and Emily Pickering, the two teams gathered for a celebration at a disco in Jesolo. “Our hosts played Bruce Springsteen’s song ‘Born in the USA’ for us. The music was blaring and all of the U.S. team was on the dance floor jumping up and down and bumping into each other, laughing and worrying about nothing.” Later that evening, Denise was presented with a flowers and a plaque with an inscription that, when translated, reads: “To the best American athlete of Denmark vs. USA.” She has held onto it all these years.
HOW TIMES HAVE CHANGED: When Denise called her father to tell him she had just made the National Team in 1985, his response was: “Why are you playing that stupid Mickey Mouse game?” When she gave her fiancé the news, he reacted similarly: “You’re not going to play, are you?” More than 35 years later, she’s proud of the legacy she helped build. “It allowed me to help be a part of laying the foundation for young girls to dream attainable, possible dreams — and for parents to have an idea of what that dream can look like for their daughters.”
LIFE LESSONS: A volunteer assistant coach for several teams through the years, Denise is perhaps most proud of the Washington Premier “B” team comprised of girls born in 1994. After losing a series of games by a lopsided score, the head coach asked Denise, who works in the physical therapy industry, to help out. Team administrators wanted to cut most of the players and rebuild the roster with new recruits, but she proudly protested: “Do you know how much talent we have on this team? They’re only 12 years old. They’re babies. Give them time!” Two years later, with virtually the same group of girls still considered a “B” team, they won Washington state championship and ultimately played for a national club championship. “I helped them stay positive the whole time,” said Denise, who played competitively well into her 50s. “I’d ask them to go ‘make a little magic for me,’ just like Berhane used to say to me. Be creative. Take risks. Make your teammates look good, and they’ll make you look good. Most of all, just have fun.”