Wheaties is the Breakfast of Champions. Matt Neely is aptly named the King of Wheaties.
With 800 boxes in his collection — including 60 of Jordan that include various box sizes of the venerable breakfast cereal — Neely, 55, has few peers. Even his website, which he said he has not updated “in about 10 years,” would blow you away.
“It’s just a hobby, I swear,” Neely laughed from his home in Richmond, Virginia. “I’ve got a wife and kids.”
Jordan is back in the sports world’s consciousness thanks to ESPN’s series, “The Last Dance,” the 10-part documentary of the Chicago Bulls’ final NBA championship run in 1997-1998.
The pro basketball Hall of Famer has graced 18 different Wheaties boxes since 1988 — the most of any athlete — since General Mills began putting athletes’ likenesses on its product in 1932 (Lou Gehrig was the first). However, when one factors in the varying sizes of boxes — 12 ounces and 18 ounces, for example — the total balloons to 60. And, don’t forget series numbers.
Series, or tracking numbers, are often overlooked by the casual observer but can be found at the bottom of the box’s side panels, Neely said.
“All it is,” he said, “is the General Mills tracking system.”
Jordan’s poses range from action shots to eating a bowl of the cereal, to pouring the cereal into a bowl. Some of the boxes advertise posters (blue or green) inside the box, a Trivial Pursuit offer, a collector sheet of Fleer NBA cards, or a video offer.
There is even a 1993 Wheaties Honey Gold box, which deviates from the traditional orange color that dominates the packaging. In 1996, a purple box of Crispy Wheaties ’n Raisins advertised a “Space Jam” jersey promotion.
“One of them is in French,” Neely said.
That box was issued in Canada.
Neely explained that in terms of money, there are no expensive Wheaties boxes of Jordan — at least none that would fetch the kind of money a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card might attract, for example. A check of eBay shows most can be had for the price of an inexpensive Jordan card.
“I don’t know. If you’re looking at it as some kind of Americana, then it’s probably worth something,” he said.
What is worth telling are some of Neely’s stories about building his collection. The first box he kept was from the mid-1980s that depicted Pete Rose, still with the Reds, swinging a bat.
A fan of the Los Angeles Lakers and Magic Johnson, Neely said he wanted a box of Wheaties that showed the team after it repeated as NBA champions. He asked a friend about it in California.
“It was the Lakers’ back-to-back championship box,” Neely said. “He said send $25 for the box and he’d send it.”
The money was quickly sent.
Born and raised in Richmond, Neely began collecting Topps baseball cards in 1973. After graduating from high school, he majored in business at Christopher Newport College (now University) in Newport News. He said he had only two boxes when he met his future wife, Tamara Lynn Tyndall. They were married in September 1990 and raised two daughters; their youngest daughter graduates this spring from Virginia Commonwealth University.
Neely said his wife was aware he liked to collect Wheaties boxes and continued to add to his collection.
“I remember when I got my 30th box and I asked her, ‘That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?’ And she’s a sports fan, and said, ‘Yes,’” Neely said. “When I hit 300 boxes I asked her, ‘Do you think that’s as cool as when I got to 30?’ and she said, ‘No.’”
With the dawn of the internet in the late 1990s, but before the emergence of online auction sites, Neely relied on chat rooms to find boxes he needed.
“This was long before eBay,” he said. “I guess it’s kind of creepy now, looking back, but this is the gospel. I’d go online (to AOL chat rooms) and trade with people.”
Neely would generally chat up women, figuring they were more likely to see the Wheaties boxes that featured regional heroes at a grocery store. Neely’s wife was privy to the online conversations, by the way.
“I’d find a female in a city and ask her, ‘Would you be willing to buy me a box?’” Neely would say.
Most would help, but some were skeptical.
“For the 1997 Franco Harris box (commemorating the 25th anniversary of the “Immaculate Reception”), I messaged a woman in Pittsburgh and she said, ‘What’s the joke?’ It turns out her husband worked on the deal that put Franco on the Wheaties box.”
Neely, the co-owner of Blue Ridge Exteriors, a home siding company in Richmond with Paul Rzasa, said his most interesting purchase was involved boxes that were swept under the rug: Three uncut sheets of eight boxes from 1947, which featured Paul Bunyan, Cleopatra and Klondike Jim, among others.
“The seller laid carpet for a living,” Neely said. “They were in this one house working and lifted the carpet, and there it was, right under the carpet.
“It was a legit uncut sheet of eight boxes,” Neely said. “So I called the guy and I played kind of dumb and said, ‘I wouldn’t know what to offer.’ he said, ‘Make me an offer.’ And I said, ‘I could offer you $100 but I don’t want to insult you.’ And he said, ‘If you make it $200 I’ll give you all three of them.”
One of those uncut sheets hangs on Neely’s wall.
While Neely’s collection is prolific, he said a man in Arizona has an even larger collection. And more importantly, a master list of boxes from General Mills, given to him by a friend who worked there.
“I keep ‘reminding;’ him to get me that list,” Neely said.
While Neely says his collection is not a big deal — “It’s hard to sexy up a bunch of Wheaties boxes” — he does enjoy the history of the cereal and the athletes who have graced its boxes.
“The way I see it, I use it for historical reference,” he said. “It’s the true history of sports. Wheaties chronicles the history of sports.”
That includes the career of Jordan, whose presence on Wheaties boxes have thrilled fans for years.
“I remember being in college and watching Jordan and thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m getting to watch this guy,” Neely said.
Going on Neely’s website and viewing the expansiveness of his collection has the same effect.
“It’s now an illness,” he laughs. “It’s a labor of love.”