How former UNC football player became reunited with his long lost jersey

UNC's Matt Merletti (25) enters Kenan Stadium for the Tar Heels' game against Georgia Tech in Kenan Stadium on Saturday November 8, 2008.
UNC's Matt Merletti (25) enters Kenan Stadium for the Tar Heels' game against Georgia Tech in Kenan Stadium on Saturday November 8, 2008. News & Observer File Photo

Eventually Matt Merletti will frame it and hang it up. Once he and his wife move into a new house, that’s what he plans on doing with his old North Carolina football jersey, the navy one that he just found after hoping, for years, that he’d be reunited with it.

For now, though, it will sit on a shelf. It will be home, anyway, and to Merletti, the former UNC safety and special teams captain, that’s the most important thing – that he has his navy No. 25 jersey back after years of separation.

People who have never played might not understand what this means. Those who have never put on a jersey, week after week, might not get it. It’s only a jersey, after all, and besides, Merletti only ever wore that navy one twice, the two times UNC wore navy during his time there.

And yet it’s not just a jersey. Not to him, anyway, or to many he played alongside. Merletti, who played at UNC from 2007 through 2011, tried to explain it on Thursday after he had his jersey back.

“The UNC jersey in general is just the epitome of what being a UNC athlete is,” he said. “It’s what you think about coming out of high school, picturing yourself in that jersey. So it meant a lot to me, to get that jersey, and the icing on the cake is that it’s the coolest jersey we ever wore.”

Merletti, now a medical device salesman based outside of Raleigh, had wanted that jersey since he left UNC. He had asked UNC for it and had hoped to buy it back.

He found it, finally, through a combination of persistence and social media luck. The story began – or continued, really, since he’d been trying for a while to find the jersey – when UNC last month held what it called a “Tar Heel Yard Sale.”

Other schools had done this before – had held a “yard sale” in which it sold off old athletic department equipment, including jerseys. For UNC it was a first.

Days before the event the school sent out a press release and posted on its official athletics website a list of everything that could be purchased at the yard sale: black football game jerseys for $20, Carolina blue football game jerseys for $10, men’s basketball game jerseys for $20, men’s basketball game shorts for $25, argyle wristbands for $5.

Jerseys for sale

The yard sale included baseball helmets and baseball bats and lacrosse shorts and men’s shirts and headbands and hats and Nike Jordan brand basketball shoes. It included white football jerseys and navy ones, too, on sale for $50.

The instructions for the yard sale, which was to open at 7 a.m., told people they could start lining up three hours early, at 4 a.m. People ignored those instructions. They started lining up hours before 4 a.m.

Not long before the yard sale began, anticipation built. Some who’d been in line for hours shared their experience on social media. A consensus about the yard sale emerged on Twitter: if you were planning on simply showing up at 7, when it began, forget about it.

Word of the yard sale spread. Several former UNC football players learned their old jerseys might be for sale.

The realization inspired emotional responses. Tre Boston, a Carolina Panthers defensive back who played at UNC from 2010 to 2013, provided perhaps the most outspoken reaction.

In a series of tweets, Boston criticized the yard sale and expressed incredulity at his inability to buy the jerseys he once wore. Not only are college athletes not allowed to profit off of sales of jerseys with their numbers on them but now, years out of school, Boston couldn’t buy his own No. 10 jersey.

“Does the @NCAA know that @UNC just held a #YardSale That sold tons of old players memorabilia?” Boston wrote in one tweet. “I’m just finding this out and this is crazy!”

University property

In his next tweet Boston wrote: “How can they do that? I would of easily bought my jerseys if I had a chance. But a random person gets first dibs on my jersey I worked for?”

It was more complicated than that. For one, despite what players might believe, their jerseys don’t belong to them. Jerseys, and other equipment, are university property.

Nor is it common for a player to receive every one of the jerseys he wore. Kevin Best, a UNC athletic department spokesman, said most former players receive at least one, if not two, of their jerseys.

But they don’t receive all of them, because that would be impractical. If players received all of their uniforms, there would be no remaining uniforms. And universities would be in a perpetual cycle of reordering a completely new set of jerseys year after year.

In addition, UNC’s yard sale was subject to state surplus laws. Those precluded the university from offering special treatment to anyone, former athletes included, before the public sale of the goods.

If anyone bought a navy #25 UNC football jersey, please, I would love to purchase it from you.

From Matt Merletti’s open letter on Twitter

That left some former players confused and upset. And it left Merletti, and others, using social media to plead for help finding their old jerseys.

The morning of the yard sale, Merletti posted an open letter on Twitter. He wrote about how UNC wore the navy jerseys twice during his time there – once against Georgia Tech in 2008 and again during a Thursday night game against Florida State in 2009.

Merletti wrote that he’d been trying “for years” to obtain the jersey by going through the school.

“I had a few friends looking for my jersey at the yard sale today, but it was gone by the time they got there,” Merletti wrote. “If anyone bought a navy #25 UNC football jersey, please, I would love to purchase it from you.”

Proposing a trade

A couple of days passed before Terrence Handy responded to Merletti’s tweet. Handy, 29, a lifelong UNC fan whose family has had season tickets at Kenan Stadium “for a very long time,” he said, had bought a navy No. 25 jersey at the yard sale.

Merletti and Handy began a correspondence. Merletti offered money but Handy, it turned out, wasn’t interested. He didn’t want to sell the jersey, necessarily, but to barter it. What he really wanted was something related to Giovani Bernard, the former UNC running back.

Handy had arrived at the yard sale wanting to buy one of Bernard’s old jerseys. Handy began waiting in line for the yard sale at around 2:30 a.m. Earlier in the night he’d been to a Buckethead concert in Raleigh with a friend.

It’d been something of a long night, Handy said, and he’d consumed some drinks at the concert. While waiting in line for the yard sale he looked up Bernard’s number and saw that he wears No. 25.

Finally the doors opened at the field house where UNC had carefully laid out all of the merchandise. Handy estimates that he was among the first 100 people inside and with Bernard’s No. 25 in mind, he said, he “just bee-lined straight to the jerseys.”

Handy had it wrong, though. Bernard wears No. 25 now, with the Cincinnati Bengals, but during his three seasons at UNC Bernard wore No. 26. A friend pointed out Handy’s mistake and then Handy learned that Merletti was looking for a navy No. 25.

The rightful owner

Merletti and Handy reached an agreement: in exchange for the jersey Merletti would give Handy a football that Merletti and Bernard had signed. It wouldn’t take long for Merletti to sign a ball. It took some time, though, to send the ball to Bernard so he could sign it and mail it back.

Merletti and Handy went back and forth. When the ball came back, signed by Bernard, it was time.

Merletti and Handy met last Thursday outside of the Elmo’s in downtown Carrboro, not far from where Handy lives. They made the exchange, the signed ball for the jersey Merletti had coveted for so long.

“I felt like it was back with its rightful owner,” Merletti said.

He has plans for it: the frame on the wall of a new house with a memorabilia room. Eventually that’s where it will be, preserved.

Nearly three weeks after posting that plea on Twitter, asking for help tracking down his navy No. 25, Merletti on Thursday shared something else. He posted a picture of himself and his jersey, holding it up beneath a wide smile.

“I really hate that everybody didn’t get to experience that,” he said, “and that everybody didn’t get their jersey back.”