INDIANAPOLIS –Growing up near Annapolis, Md., undrafted rookie free agent safety Matt Merletti's childhood had many aspects of normalcy. He played football, went to school and had friends. He even had to pack up and move to Cleveland when he was 11 because of his dad's job – pretty typical for many kids his age.
Merletti's childhood, however, was anything but traditional. How could it be when your dad, Lew, was the Director of Secret Service under President Bill Clinton? How about the 12 years he served as a senior vice president of the Cleveland Browns?
Normal or not, Matt's childhood experiences have seemingly put him right where he needs to be if he is going to earn a roster spot with the Colts.
Lew served in the Secret Service for 25 years, working for the agency during the Ford and Carter administrations, prior to being assigned to protect Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton before retiring in 1999.
Because of Lew's job as a Secret Service agent, the Merletti house had weapons, gadgets and a phone line that connected directly to the President so Lew could be reached at all times, day or night.
"It was almost like living cowboys and Indians," Lew said of his two boys' childhoods. "They grew up around weapons and knowing that we were on counter-terrorist assignments. They grew up with all this stuff that you would read about in Tom Clancy novels."
Matt said he knew from a young age that his father's job was unique.
"How didn't it differ from my friends?" said Merletti of his childhood. "I got to meet all the Presidents (my dad protected) when I was growing up. I got to sit in the Oval Office. I have pictures sitting at the President's desk. I got to do quite a lot. I was very fortunate."
Many kids Matt's age had dads that coached little league and did the occasional business trip. Lew's business trips were to Israel and Russia beside some of the most powerful men in the nation's history.
Most seven-year-olds learn how to tie square knots in Cub Scouts and how to build tree forts. After a dangerous run-in with an undisclosed terrorist organization in the mid-1990s, Matt had to go to a Secret Service training facility to learn a skill set unknown to most first-graders.
"My dad's name got brought up in radio transmissions with (the terrorist organization)," Matt said. "They wanted to find out if he had a wife and kids and where we lived. We had to go to the Secret Service headquarters and learn how to shoot sub-machine guns, detect packaged bombs, all kinds of stuff. I was very young.
"My brother and I really didn't know the magnitude of what my dad was doing, but we figured that out soon after he was done (with the Secret Service)."
Matt also did not realize the magnitude of the life lessons in discipline his dad's job offered to him, either.
"We were tested constantly physically," Lew said of the Secret Service. "(My sons) saw this and would hear me talking to my colleagues. When they would see that, they would see the self-discipline and how important it was to a well-designed mission.
"I never had to stress that stuff with them. They just saw it and realized that it was a key to my success, and they just feel that's how they would approach their own careers and their own lives."
The physical self-discipline of Lew's career with the Secret Service jump-started Matt's journey toward professional football and his brother Mike's career as an Army Ranger, whether they realized it or not.
In the early 1980s at a state dinner in the former Soviet Union, a Soviet Olympic trainer told Lew and other agents that the key to Soviet Olympic success was to teach young children to do pull-ups with positive reinforcement starting on their sixth birthday.
Like his older brother, Mike, Matt did his first pull-up when he turned six. He needed his dad's help to lift him to the bar, but he lowered himself without any assistance. The two marked the pull-up on the calendar, starting a father-son tradition that would last more than a decade.
According to Lew, Matt amassed more than 43,000 pull-ups since their last tally when he was in high school.
"It was something that we could do to make our children better prepared for not just athletics, but for life," said Lew. "It was absolutely amazing what it did for them mentally and physically. When they played sports at a young age, they looked normal, but they dominated because they had such upper body strength."
Matt said that physicality was a big part of athletics from a young age. Sometimes, he said, it was to a fault.
"Honestly, it has always come to me a little naturally," Matt said. "As a kid, we had to stop me playing soccer because all the parents kept complaining that I was tackling their kids, not really playing soccer. It's always kind of been there for me and I've always enjoyed it. Some people kind of tend to shy away from it, but I kind of look for it. It's always been part of my game."
Physicality was a very big part of his game while at North Carolina. A compact defensive back with good speed, Matt's collegiate career was plagued with knee issues. He received a medical redshirt in 2009 after tearing his right ACL in practice, and he had to miss significant time in 2011 after spraining his ACL and MCL in his left knee. He recorded 88 tackles, four interceptions, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery* *during his college career, which included a season-high 36 tackles in 2011.
With physical self-discipline and aggressiveness as engrained attributes, Matt needed a place to apply them. In 1999, football became the natural outlet when Lew took a job with the Cleveland Browns.
A FRONT ROW SEAT
Working a job that required a copious amount of time away from home, Lew and his boys did not get to spend much time together.
"Clinton liked to travel all over the world and at that time, my dad was the head of the Presidential Protective Division. He basically had his hand on Clinton's hip whenever they were going through public places, so he had to be there whenever (Clinton) traveled," said Matt. "I really didn't get to see him a whole lot growing up. He would still make it for our games and everything like that, but we really didn't get to know him that well until he was with the Browns."
When Al Lerner brought the Browns back to Cleveland in 1999, he needed someone to head up security, so he called his friend, Lew.
"That evening at dinner I told Mike and Matt," Lew said. "Of course they begged me, 'Please, Dad, take this job.' In the lifetime of a Secret Service agent it's tough on the family because you travel a lot. You miss some holidays. They said, 'Do this for us. Your second career will be for us.' "
His second career with the Browns not only gave the Merletti boys more time with their dad, it gave Matt an outlet to become a student of the game to some of the best teachers around.
"It was great just being around some of the great players that I got to see personally, and I was on the sidelines," said Matt, who became a ball boy for the team. "Just being that close to the game and having a front row seat literally right on the sidelines, that was the biggest thrill for me being a football fan. That was really big for me. It got me around the game and got me used to it as well."
Matt often tagged along with his dad to work on summer days to try to soak up all he could from the coaching staff and players. A true defensive mind, Matt asked anyone he could for advice to better his game.
"He would either get with an assistant coach or one of the players if they were working out and had some free time, and he would ask them, 'Teach me something, just teach me something that you do,' " said Lew. "The coaches and the players were great with him."
Matt picked up small skills each week from his mentors, and he would apply them in the backyard. The following week, he reported back to his teachers and they would offer a new, slightly more complex skill.
Eventually, his thirst for football knowledge began to pay off.
Matt attended St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, where he was a standout athlete. Not only did he break fitness records with a curiously-impressive upper body strength, but he was also recruited by North Carolina to play football.
"When he was in high school, it all began to show," said Lew. "He had talents that others his age didn't have."
The Merletti boys became men in Cleveland, growing up and moving toward their respective careers. Matt, who is four years younger than Mike, chose not to follow his older brother into the Army.
"As a kid, my brother and I were both very adamant about football, but also the military," Matt said. "I still am, but this has always been my dream to play in the NFL."
RUNNING DOWN A DREAM
Matt's locker at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center this past spring was next to rookie quarterback Andrew Luck's. Merletti wears No. 27 on his Colts practice shorts and is a member of the 90-man training camp roster. He goes about his business rather quickly and quietly in the locker room. By all accounts and purposes, he is a professional football player.
With the team for more than two months, the rookie said he feels comfortable on his new turf.
This is not his first experience at an NFL summer camp, but it is a new perspective for the aspiring NFL defensive back who claims that his time with the Browns does not give him any edge over other rookies trying to earn roster spots.
"I really don't think I do to be honest because this is my first time around the league as a player," he said. "It is an all-new experience for me. I've seen the speed of the game since I was in eighth grade because that was my first year as a ball boy. So I've been around the speed of the game for a long time, and this is just my first time playing in it. It is still different and it is still a big adjustment."
He is one of a number of safeties on the camp roster. The Colts had four safeties on the 53-man roster in 2011.
The elder Merletti said his son has the talent and knowledge to cash in on the opportunity of a lifetime and accomplish a goal 13 years in the making.
"He's a never-quit guy," Lew said. "He possesses a real resolve. He's been around the football environment, and he knows what it takes to succeed. He's disciplined enough that he knows what he has to do."