After his mother separated his father and moved the family to Brandywine to live with as many as 10 other relatives in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house, Mitchell found a new home on the football field. Standing taller than 6-feet and wearing size-16 shoes, Mitchell earned a starting job as offensive guard and defensive end his freshman year.
Mitchell grew stronger and thicker and moved to inside linebacker his junior season, which meant he would have to pick a linebacker number. He chose 48. Mitchell acknowledges that it didn’t have a whole lot of significance; at least it didn’t at first. But as Mitchell developed into a powerful linebacker and the heart of a ferocious defense, opposing teams made sure they knew where 48 was on the football field.
He racked up more than 200 tackles, six interceptions and 24 sacks in his two seasons at middle linebacker and earned nearly every honor in the book: PrepStar and SuperPrep All-American, Maryland Defensive Player of the Year, All-Met Player of the Year. The list goes on and on. For his accomplishments, Gwynn Park made No. 48 the first jersey ever retired in school history.
“It’s a number that I did well with and got retired,” Mitchell said. “That’s why I carried it on to Michigan State and I carry it with me in the ring.”
A Spartan is born
It was big. It was powerful. It could conquer any hill or pull any load no matter the conditions outside. Michigan State linebacker coach Mike Cox told Mitchell about his brand new ride one afternoon while watching film, and perhaps it was only fitting that Mitchell, a man who embodied some of the same attributes, would also want a Hummer.
Cox told Mitchell not to worry. You’ll get your Hummer when you get to the NFL. “I’ve got a long way to go,” Mitchell said. But Cox reassured him: “I coached a lot of linebackers and you got what it takes. You’ve just got to get your knee right.”
If only it were that simple.
A self-described “bruiser” who loved to stop the run, Mitchell had his choice of about 30 Division I schools — most of the ACC, all of the Big Ten, Notre Dame. But No. 48 found a home in the physical Big Ten, a conference he defines as “a smashmouth league.”
Coach Bobby Williams called Mitchell into his office just a few weeks into the Spartans’ 2001 training camp to ask if he wanted to redshirt or play his freshman year. Of course, Mitchell wanted to play. “Williams said: ‘Good. Because you are starting at middle linebacker,” Mitchell remembers.
Just a few months into his college career, Mitchell bullied his way to the top of the depth chart, ahead of a fifth-year senior. Then, just as it seemed Mitchell was on the track to college success, another player rolled up on Mitchell’s massive legs in practice. As quickly as Mitchell jumped into the starting lineup, he was out of it with an MCL tear.
In five seasons at Michigan State, he limped through just 17 games on cortisone shots and painkillers. Watching the old, grainy game film today, Mitchell sees himself walking with a gimp by halftime. But coaches told him he was better at 75 percent than most of the team was at 100 percent, and they had a point. Even though he was healthy enough for just four games his redshirt sophomore season and was limited to less than 30 plays in each of those games, Mitchell led the team in tackles in conference play.
Unfortunately, the linebacker’s wounded wheel never fully recovered and prevented him from realizing his full potential. Seven knee surgeries later, Mitchell got fed up with the shots and the pills and the pain and gave up football once and for all.
“Everyone gets nicks and bruises. Sore this and sore that. It was just my left knee, I couldn’t shake,” Mitchell said. “If it wasn’t for that, I definitely feel that I would be in the NFL.”