NFL Nation: Honus Wagner

Fabric of the game does big business

July, 6, 2011
7/06/11
2:38
PM ET
TomlinsonAP Photo/Joe MahoneyThe gloves LaDainian Tomlinson wore when he scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a win over the Denver Broncos in Week 6 last season are for sale.
For sports card collectors, perfection is the goal. All four corners must be sharp. The photo needs to be centered. It has to be just so. Thankfully, there's hasn't been threat of bubblegum stains for decades.

In today's memorabilia market, however, cardboard is about as mundane as it gets. There are bigger thrills than busting open a pack to find another high-gloss Rated Rookie who might never crack a starting lineup.

Jarrod Oldridge looks for a bigger jolt. He buys his memorabilia by the shipping container.

"You open that box up and the smell comes out, the aroma of the unwashed apparel with the grass and mud and blood," Oldridge said. "You smell the game.

"You get goose bumps. Your heart's pounding."

Oldridge is involved in one of the hottest segments of the memorabilia industry -- game-used equipment.

He owns J.O. Sports Co. in Las Vegas and has exclusive contracts with several NFL teams to sell helmets, jerseys, spikes, gloves, game balls and just about everything else you can imagine from the field. Three of his clients are the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets.

Oldridge's website isn't quite as personal as Mean Joe Greene throwing his jersey at a kid in exchange for a Coke, but fans have access to the fabric of the game. Many of the game-worn jerseys -- and in some cases full uniforms -- are unwashed. That's the way collectors prefer them.

"You want the thing ripped off the guy's back," said Oldridge, who pitched for Emporia State. "It's a new wave of collecting. When I was a kid collecting baseball cards, I'd get a Mark McGwire rookie or a Bo Jackson. That was the best feeling you could have as a collector. You got the prized possession.

"Back then, you never could've thought you could own the jersey Adrian Peterson's wearing on his card."

Rich Mueller, managing editor of Sports Collectors Daily, can't think of another way collectors can get closer to the action than game-used equipment.

I suppose a hobbyist can make the experience more personal by collecting DNA samples. Then again, much of Oldridge's inventory is suitable for forensics inspection. Perhaps the next step is scraping some blood off a jersey to clone an NFL star and watch the game with him in your man cave.

[+] EnlargeSteve Johnson
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeThe jersey from Steve Johnson's three-touchdown game against the Bengals last season is available for purchase.
"If you've got in your hands the uniform the guy was wearing when he broke the tackle to score the touchdown and win the game, how much closer can you get than that?" Mueller said. "That's part of the allure. Collectors want a tangible memory of a game.

"And a lot of them are one-of-a-kind items. The T206 Honus Wagner card is one of the rarest collectibles on the market, but there are 75 to 100 of those in existence. Brett Favre wore only one helmet from his final game. That's a piece of NFL history."

Of particular interest to AFC East fans might be the jersey Bills receiver Steve Johnson wore when he scored three touchdowns against the Cincinnati Bengals. He lifted that jersey to expose his "Why so serious?" T-shirt underneath. The jersey Lee Evans wore when he caught three touchdowns against the Baltimore Ravens is for sale, too.

Also available are jerseys All-Pro center Nick Mangold wore last year against the Dolphins, the gloves Jets receiver Jerricho Cotchery wore when he snagged a touchdown to help beat the New England Patriots in Week 2 and the gloves Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson wore when he scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a four-point victory over the Denver Broncos in Week 6.

Dolphins material is limited because J.O. Sports Co. reached its agreement with them a couple weeks ago. As for the Patriots, Oldridge might need to strap on a helmet to protect his forehead from repeatedly striking a wall.

"Every team is different," Oldridge said. "The Patriots have just been notoriously difficult when it comes to their uniforms."

The big four sports handle game-used equipment differently, much to Mueller's wonderment. These items are commodities. Leagues presumably would maximize revenues if they handled them internally. Major League Baseball does, hiring on-site authenticators to affix holograms to merchandise for resale.

The MeiGray Group, a company founded by a pair of passionate collectors in 1997, has worked out deals to sell game-used NBA and NHL items. They also dominate the minor-league hockey ranks.

And to think clubs used to recycle uniforms until they fell apart, would pass them along to farm teams or sell them to sandlot groups. Mueller wrote about a pile of 1938 New York Yankees jerseys given to a church softball team for $9 apiece. In the bunch were game-worn Lou Gehrig pinstripes.

Today, uniforms are scooped up almost the minute they land in the hamper or fall to the locker-room floor as a player walks to the showers.

"It may sound sick," Oldridge said. "But as a man who played sports, the collectors, everybody who ever slid into second base or got his bell rung on the field, it's just great."

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