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He stuffed Tom Brady into a canvas pouch, and then hung the precious cargo around his neck.
He wore a sweatshirt over the top of the neck pouch to conceal Tom Brady from the passengers on the redeye flight from Southern California to New Jersey, where he would find out if Brady was worth all this anxiety.
Attorney Jeff Korinko said he was so nervous on that flight, with Brady hidden under his shirt, that he feared his sweat would seep through the neck pouch and damage the greatest quarterback of all time.
In September, a guy named Jim Brown (not that Jim Brown) in Southern California had found a very valuable Tom Brady football card in a dusty cardboard box.
Brown's discovery also set in motion a series of events that would reveal the life of a troubled Army veteran who drove a tank in Iraq and, eventually, touch the hearts of the family of a girl who never got the chance to know her father.
More specifically, what Jim Brown found was a Leaf Mirror Gold Tom Brady rookie football card, one of 35 created, with an 8.5 rating, which is near mint condition, and may be worth a little bit more money than you could fit in a neck pouch.
The Mirror Gold Brady will be auctioned by Lelands, the New Jersey sports memorabilia auction house, beginning Sunday. The auction will be open until Dec. 11. Potential buyers must create an account on the Lelands website, have two references from other auction houses to participate, and they must have banking documents that prove they have at least $100,000 ready to spend.
The starting bid is expected to be between $15,000 and $20,000, and the bidding could go very high.
"We expect this to be immense," said Jordan Gilroy, Lelands' director of acquisitions.
The last three Brady cards auctioned by Lelands (they had Brady's autograph, and the newly discovered card does not) brought a total of $6.1 million to their owners.
When it became apparent a big payday was coming, Jim Brown said his mind went to one place.
"I had to find the kid who sold me the card," Brown said. "He's the only one who would truly appreciate the story."
Brown had no idea the kid's story would become more important than the card itself.
Inside 52 Mantle
The kid was a man named Mike.
"He had blond hair and a baby face," said Brown, 68, an arson investigator by trade. "He looked like he just got off a skateboard."
Mike Mittrick was 22 years old when he opened a card shop in Brea, California. He called the place 52 Mantle, named for the 1952 Mickey Mantle Topps baseball card that was the holy grail for many collectors. Mittrick was his shop's only employee. He worked seven days a week.
One day in 1992, Jim Brown had finished investigating a fire in Brea when he saw the sign: 52 Mantle Sports Cards.
Brown had never collected cards, but something compelled him to enter the store.
Brown had an idea. He would buy a couple of boxes of cards for about $35 each, and he would donate some of the cards to the nearby Orangewood Children's Home.
Brown introduced himself to Mittrick, who was then 23, and they got along immediately. Mittrick opened the boxes of cards Brown bought and set aside a couple he thought would be valuable someday. He put those in a box for Brown. The rest Brown donated to Orangewood.
For eight years, Brown kept going back to the store for the same routine. He would banter with Mittrick about sports and the memorabilia business. Brown would buy a couple of boxes of newly released cards. They would pick a few cards to set aside, and they would donate the rest to children's organizations around Orange County.
By 2000, Brown was paying $100 for each box of cards. He said he thinks he donated about 40 boxes of cards during those eight years. He had kept six boxes of "valuable" cards for himself.
The cards, Brown said, weren't the reason he kept going back. He said he liked hanging out with the kid behind the counter.
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By 2000, the kid was 31. He was about to start a family. Within a couple years, Mittrick would marry one of his customers, a single mom named Stacy, who got to know him just like Brown did. She would bring her son into 52 Mantle to buy Yu-Gi-Oh cards (Japanese gaming cards featuring battle characters).
Mittrick organized Yu-Gi-Oh tournaments in the alley behind the store. He would make plaques for the winners. Stacy said she fell in love with Mittrick when she saw the joy he got from making children happy.
Years later, Mittrick and Stacy would have a daughter. But that's getting ahead of the story.
Brown remembers the last time he went into 52 Mantle. He told Mittrick he was moving to San Clemente, and that would take him too far away from Brea. Brown wanted to buy one more box for old time's sake.
They opened that last box and Mittrick noticed something strange.
"He saw a glimmer," Brown said.
One card was literally shining, a Leaf Gold Mirror rookie card. "You got one of the lucky ones," Mittrick told him.
The player on the card was Tom Brady. Jim Brown didn't know who he was. Brady was a sixth-round draft pick from Michigan, and he had never played an NFL game.
"He probably won't make it out of training camp," Mittrick said.
But the card was one of a set of only 35.
Mittrick immediately encased the card in plastic. Brown said he suggested if the card was so rare, Mittrick should try to sell it in the store.
"No, just hang onto it," Mittrick said.
Brown put the card in a box and said goodbye to his friend.
For the last time.
Don't I have a rookie card?
Jim Brown realizes his name adds an element to this story. The famous Jim Brown played running back for the Cleveland Browns and his rookie card is also a prized possession among collectors.
Here's the thing about Jim Brown, the fire inspector. He never touched the cards he got from 52 Mantle. They sat in cardboard boxes for more than 20 years.
A few years ago, his wife, Carmen, told him she was done moving those boxes. So Brown moved them to an evidence locker in his office in San Clemente. He had never opened the boxes or sold any of the cards he had bought from the kid at 52 Mantle.
In September, he was sitting at his desk looking at his computer when he noticed a news headline: Tom Brady Rookie Card Sells For $3.1 Million.
Wait, he thought, don't I have a Tom Brady rookie card?
He said the Mirror Gold Brady was in the second box he opened.
He called his friend, attorney Jeff Korinko, who contacted Lelands.
"Jeff sent me a photo of the card, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh,' " said Jordan Gilroy at Lelands. "We need to get this graded and into the market."
That's when Korinko got on the redeye with Brady in his neck pouch. He rented a car in Newark and drove to Matawan, New Jersey. It was a Sunday morning when he handed Gilroy the Brady card.
"That's when I got most excited," Gilroy said.
As it turns out, this Brady card "is one of the top-graded ones in the world," Gilroy said.
Back in California, however, Jim Brown was troubled.
He couldn't think of the name of the kid who had sold him the card, who had told him it was valuable and who had told him to "hang onto it."
Brown wanted to give some of the money to the kid. Two days went by before it came to him in the middle of the night: Mike.
Brown searched Google for "Mike sports cards Brea." He found Mike Mittrick.
That's when he discovered his obituary.
A troubled soul says goodbye
Mittrick and Stacy were married in 2003. They had a daughter Megan in 2004.
His wife and daughter had no idea the trouble he was having. Mittrick had been in the Army from 1987-91. He had driven a tank in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.
"When he came back, he was not the same," said John Sennikoff, who is Stacy's father. "What he was involved in weighed really heavily on him."
In March 2008, Mittrick told Sennikoff he would be seeing his daughter for the last time.
Sennikoff didn't understand. The card business was doing well. Mittrick had a good marriage and a beautiful toddler.
The next day, March 20, Mike Mittrick took his own life. The kid was 39.
In 2008, Mittrick was one of 6,216 U.S. veterans who committed suicide. That is an average of 17 per day.
"I didn't see any of the signs," Stacy said.
When Jim Brown heard the story, he broke down and cried. He decided to use some of the money to help Megan go to college.
"I'm going to give Mike something," he said. "I'm going to pay it forward."
Megan is now a senior at Brea-Olinda High School, where her father went. She has very few memories of her father. She wants to go to either NYU or Pace University in New York.
He called Stacy and Megan to tell them about the card, how he got it and that he may come into some money soon. He told them he wants to give them something.
"I got teary-eyed," Stacy said. "Are there really people this nice? What a wonderful person. Whatever he gives us is just so generous. We're grateful for anything, even if it's just money toward a car for her to drive to college."
Neither Stacy nor Megan could name the team that Tom Brady plays for. They didn't know who his wife is or anything at all about him.
Sennikoff said Brown's generosity is a sign of better angels in our universe.
"Mike is coming back from the grave to help his daughter," Sennikoff said.
Jim Brown doesn't know how much the card will sell for, but he knows part of what he gets will go to Megan.
"The destiny of this card is to help that girl," Brown said.
Reach Keith Sharon at 615-406-1594 or email@example.com or on Twitter @KeithSharonTN.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tom Brady rookie card connects Army veteran and a man named Jim Brown