He adored the sport, but he had fallen in love with baseball long before the experience of Friday night lights.
"Not to play football in Texas is probably a sin," Merritt said.
But when the small-town kid authors a masterpiece on the mound on the grand stage in October, that certainly suffices. He received an outpouring of support from family, friends, former football coaches, old track-and-field advisors after his postseason opus.
"Everybody just wanted to tell me they were proud of me and that I'm a good role model for the town," said Merritt, who hails from Celina, about an hour north of Dallas.
He also became a Cleveland folk hero. Fans stopped him on the street for his autograph. They emptied out his wedding registry. He morphed from anonymity to overnight sensation in a matter of 4 1/3 scoreless innings.
No crazed Indians fans crashed his wedding; it took place in Minnesota in late January, after all. Merritt and his bride, Sarah, shivered as they posed for photos outside.
The wild ride is over, though. The 2016 postseason is in the past. Merritt has a new season ahead of him, and possibly a ticket to Triple-A Columbus to start the year. He doesn't want to simply be an overnight sensation. He'd rather just be sensational.
"The more time you get to spend up there, you get more comfortable," Merritt said, "but then again, it's still just baseball. I'm still trying to get better. I'm still not satisfied. I tell myself every day that I have to get better and not be satisfied."
The Indians' rotation is all but set for Opening Day. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin will begin the season as the Tribe's starting five, barring any injuries over the next three weeks. It's a better-stacked hand than the club was dealt last October, when Carrasco and Salazar were recovering from ailments and Bauer only had the full use of nine fingers.
It also leaves Merrit on the outside looking in, alongside Mike Clevinger. It's not an unfamiliar position for either young hurler.
"Always be prepared just in case something does happen, you can go up there and try to help the team win," Merritt said.
He learned that first-hand last year. He wouldn't have even made the American League Championship Series roster had Bauer not sliced his right pinkie with a drone propeller.
Then, he stymied Toronto's potent lineup in Game 5, which vaulted the Indians to their first World Series in 19 years.
Merritt hasn't reviewed the tape from that performance, but he'd like to one day. He figures it would make for a fun bit of nostalgia down the road, or it could offer him some pointers in the event he runs into some midseason struggles.
His brother has a recording of the game on his TV. Merritt would prefer to add some DVR-worthy performances to his brother's collection.
That one, magical afternoon north of the border isn't enough to appease the soft-tossing lefty, no matter the degree of recognition he has received.
"I really don't pay attention to that much," Merritt said. "I still try to go about my business and not trying to change at all. Yeah, you do know more people, but I just try to be the same person I am."
He's a quiet kid with a Texas drawl. He's unimposing on the mound, too, with an average fastball last season of 88.1 mph.
He's proven he can be effective, though. He owns a 3.39 ERA across parts of six minor-league seasons, including a 3.70 mark in 24 starts last season for Columbus. He allowed only two runs on six hits over 11 innings with the Indians during the regular season last year.
And he saved his best for October. Fans haven't forgotten.
"It's definitely quieted down since right after, but I still get mail," Merritt said. "I have people, distant friends, asking me to sign their card and saying, 'Good job. We're supporting you.' It's a good feeling.
"It was kind of an overnight thing. It happened really fast. It's a little overwhelming. I'm just trying to have fun with it, enjoy it. It's a chance for me to interact with the fans better. That makes it better when they know you."
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