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Vanna White sells vowels for just $50. Mark Addison will pay 10 times that for a consonant.

Not just any consonant, however. Addison is looking for a big red J. And it must be sewed onto a blue cloth jacket with white leather sleeves. A small, brass-colored football might still be pinned to the fabric, just as it was a quarter-century ago.

Addison is trying to find his letter jacket. The lifelong Northern Virginian, with some help, lost the one he earned and wore in high school. He’s not sure exactly when it was lost. He is certain, however, that he wants it found.

“Reward! $500.00!” reads the lead of a flier now hanging by the counter at the Georgia Avenue Thrift Store. Addison and his family have passed out these memos trumpeting the details of his loss—his name and boyhood phone number, for example, are written on the inside tag—to various

Goodwill-type retail outlets around the D.C. metropolitan area. They think this gives him the best chance of ever seeing the beloved jacket again.

But not a good chance.

“I’m not holding my breath,” Addison says.

Though he hadn’t worn the coat since he graduated from Jefferson High School in Alexandria (class of ’81), Addison always kept a mental note of its location.

“The jacket was always in the same closet. I just always knew it was there,” he says. “But one day, I don’t remember why, I went to look for it, and it was gone. Even when I saw it wasn’t there, I thought the jacket had to be around the house somewhere in some box, or in storage.”

So he asked his wife if she’d seen his letter jacket. Uh oh.

“She told me she probably gave it away,” he says.

It turns out that last year, Addison gave his wife the go-ahead to include a load of his shirts in a collection of clothing she was putting together to donate to local charities. She figured the beat-up old jacket that hung alongside the shirts, a coat that was no longer worn or even taken out of the closet, was also part of the offering. She bagged it up, too.

The Addison household has made a number of donations to an assortment of benevolent groups in the months since the jacket was erroneously earmarked for giveaway. So nobody’s sure which organization got the garment, or even when. Hence the distribution of the reward fliers to about a dozen thrift shops.

About a million students earned letters this fall playing football for their schools, just as Addison did for Jefferson. But, for whatever reason, displaying the letters isn’t the big deal to kids today that it was to their elders. These days, at many campuses, a letter jacket is just a coat.

“It’s not the same any more,” says Adrian Dixon, a coach and athletic director for more than 30 years at Coolidge Senior High School, located just a few blocks from the Georgia Avenue Thrift Store in Brightwood. “I think that if a team wins a championship, some title, maybe then the kids want to have a letter jacket with that championship written on it somewhere. But to get a jacket just to put your letter on it, no, that’s not a big thing with the kids. Not like it was.”

Dixon says Coolidge’s 2004 football players won’t even get their big C’s until the spring, when a banquet for varsity athletes for the entire school year will be held. And nobody’s complaining about the delay in delivery of letters.

Addison, now 41, is not abashed about having once been a boy of letters. He promises he’s not suffering from a midlife crisis and in no way wants to be portrayed as some sort of Bruce Springsteen character hanging on to adolescent glory days. There weren’t very many glory days to dwell on, he admits: “I blew out my knee in the middle of my senior season,” he says. “And that was it for me and football.”

But his memories about being part of a team are all good ones. Other than a sore knee and some yearbook photos, the scarlet J was the only tangible symbol left from a football career that, like most football careers, never made it past the autumn of high school’s senior year.

And Addison thought that he’d always hang on to that letter, just like the memories.

“My wife might not have been aware of what the jacket meant to me,” he says.

So even though there’s a dollar amount affixed to the return, that figure in no way represents the value he places on the jacket.

“I just threw a ‘$500’ out there when we were making the fliers. I don’t know where it came from,” he says. “I doubt I’ll ever have to pay it. But if I do, well, somebody can consider that a bonus. I know it’s a one-in-a-million shot. But it’s a shot. I know my jacket’s out there somewhere. I want it back.” —Dave McKenna