CHAPEL HILL —
"Where do you want to start?" Matt Merletti asks.
A fair question.
Do you start with the UNC safety's bond with his brother Michael, a Captain in the Army Rangers deployed in Afghanistan? Or do you start with their father, Lewis, a former Secret Service director?
Or how about Merletti's schooling before the age of 10 in counter-surveillance tactics, or his casual conversations with the President of the United States?
Football seems like the safest place to start. Football has served as a balm for the real-world pressures in the lives of the Merletti family. Football brought the Merletti brothers closer to their father, and Matt's football career continues to bond them together.
Now 14 months removed from a season-ending knee injury, Merletti has been a key contributor on a North Carolina defense depleted by suspensions.
"I don't know if it's a form of escapism, but it's definitely what we talk about," he said. "It's not that I don't want to know what's going on with Mike, but I don't want to sit around and worry about him every minute of the day. I think it helps both of us to have football to talk about."
There has been more football to talk about this year for Matt. In August of 2009, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and missed the entire season.
He worked his way back, and when safety Deunta Williams was suspended by the NCAA for the first four games this season, Merletti stepped into the starting lineup and anchored an inexperienced secondary. The highlight came on Sept. 25 when he grabbed the clinching interception against Rutgers in a 17-13 Tar Heels win.
"Matt has definitely made the most of his opportunity this season, and I think it brings his recovery from ACL surgery full circle," wrote Mike Merletti in a recent e-mail sent from Afghanistan. "I couldn't be more proud of the way he pushed through rehab to get back into playing shape and come back at a higher level than he's ever been before."
A 'Tom Clancy novel'
Merletti readily admits, without a hint of a boast: "I didn't really have a normal childhood."
You could consider normal, as Merletti's UNC teammate Ryan Taylor puts it, if your life is "like a Tom Clancy novel." It's as normal as it gets when your dad is in the Secret Service.
Mike, 26, and Matt, 22, didn't always know where their dad was, but they knew his job was important.
"Lew" Merletti began his career in the Secret Service in 1974 and was promoted to the Presidential Protective Division in 1983. He served as an agent in the protective teams for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
In 1994, he was named the special agent in charge of Clinton's presidential detail.
"He traveled everywhere with Clinton," Matt said. "He couldn't tell us everything, but I thought it was awesome."
There were perks to having your dad in charge of the President's life. In 1997, Matt, 9, and Mike, 13, were breaking down the Green Bay Packers' Super Bowl win in the Oval Office with Clinton.
"I walked in and there they were and I thought, 'My God, they are actually engaging the President of the United State in conversation,' " Lew said.
The boys left such an impression that Clinton sent them both engraved invitations for the Packers' visit to the White House later that year.
"You two really know a lot about football," Lew Merletti remembers the President telling his sons.
There also are some drawbacks to having your dad in charge of the President's life. When Matt was 9, he was taught how to detect suspicious packages, identify suspicious characters and handle a 9mm submachine gun after international terrorists made threats against Lew and his family.
"There was some weapon training," Lew Merletti recalled, using the same tone most parents would use to talk about their children's piano lessons or soccer practices.
A chance to be together
In 1999, Lew made a career change, one that would allow him to spend more time with his sons and one that eventually led Matt to UNC.
Lew Merletti retired from the Secret Service to become the head of security for the new Cleveland Browns, after the city of Cleveland was awarded an expansion franchise following the original team's departure to Baltimore four years earlier.
"They [Mike and Matt] asked me to take that job," Lew said. "They were young, but football meant so much to them. It also meant a chance for us to be together as a family."
Two years into Lew's job with the Browns, Butch Davis became the team's head coach. Both Matt and Mike were ball boys for the Browns while Davis was the coach. After Davis resigned in 2004, he kept in touch with Lew Merletti and saw Matt, then a running back, play in high school.
When Davis was hired by North Carolina in Nov. 2006, he offered a scholarship to Matt, who chose UNC over the chance to play running back for Paul Johnson at the Naval Academy.
A special gift
Captain Mike Merletti, of the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade, spent nine months in 2008 in Iraq. In February, he went on a mission to Afghanistan.
In general terms, as his father describes it, his platoon is "hunting the Taliban."
On Mike's first tour, Matt wanted a birthday gift from his brother. He mailed an American flag to Mike to take on his mission. The gift would be that same flag when Mike came back from Iraq and returned it to Matt.
On Nov. 21, 2008, the night before the UNC's annual game against N.C. State, Lew Merletti and his son Mike went to UNC's team hotel. The Army Ranger, the Secret Service man and the football player hugged and cried as the Merletti brothers reunited in a tearful moment that their father said he will never forget.
The scene unfolded in front of some of the other players and their parents. They began clapping, like a scene from a movie.
"It was so emotionally moving," Lew Merletti said. "I couldn't speak."
"I broke down crying," Matt said. "I couldn't help it. I was just so happy he was there."
"The situation is hard to describe because it was such an emotional event," Mike wrote in an e-mail. "Being away from your best friend for that length of time strains both sides and to reunite like that releases the built-up anxiety."
Ever since Mike returned Matt's gift, a Tar Heels player has carried the flag while leading the team onto the field before each game.
Mike took the flag to Afghanistan in March and brought it back in September when the three met again in Atlanta in another emotional moment.
"It was very moving, to have Mike return from a dangerous assignment and to be able to hold them and hug them," Lew said. "I don't think you could have written that better in a book."
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