- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2000

Brian Mitchell is the rugged individualist who has the temerity to express what he believes and then do something about it.

America cheers these types in principle, in theory. They are the ones who save the day at the end of the movie. They are the ones celebrated in fiction.

They have a strong sense of self, and they do not need your validation. They do not need to hear that they are all right and you are all right.

America loves these swaggering souls from a distance, either on the big screen or between hardback covers.

But in practice, in the everyday world of the office or the football compound in Ashburn, America discourages these singular sorts. America is uncomfortable around them, because they don't play the game. They don't always say what you want to hear. They don't kiss up to the boss. They don't come down with the brown-nose affliction.

Mitchell did not play the game within the game in his last season with the local football team in 1999. He did not try to curry favor with the new regime, although he could sense the end coming and it might have behooved him to get down on all fours and wag his tail. He could hear the whispers. It was said he was slowing down, and in his mind, even if he was slowing down, this was not how you should handle it, not while he was in the midst of his 10th season with the franchise.

But this was a new ownership, a new way, fraught with smoke signals, tea leaves and tarot cards, and Mitchell could see that as well, and he did not necessarily subscribe to all the words of devotion.

Mitchell would go on the airwaves and say what he thought. It was the only way he could live with himself, being honest, while eschewing the one-game-at-a-time insight employed by most of the drones in cleats.

No, he was not the perfect company man. He was distinct from the herd, the pack, and if that meant finishing his NFL career in another city, then he was prepared to do it. He had that much confidence in himself, and he said that with conviction as well.

"They say one of the reasons I was released was because I was a bad influence," Mitchell told colleague David Elfin this week.

Mitchell means he was released because of the Boy Owner and his private hand-holder.

That is how it sometimes goes if you're someone like Mitchell. You are perceived to be a threat to the status quo, a pollutant, a loose cannon.

Mitchell saw himself as a leader in the locker room, and still does, and leaders, trite as it sounds, stand up for what they believe. Leaders are inoculated against peer pressure. Leaders demand to be looked in the eye and told the deal and not have to gauge the sources familiar with the thinking of those at the top. Leaders expect to be treated like men, like equals, and not like corporate serfs.

This is against the unspoken rules. You are not supposed to be strong. You are not supposed to think for yourself. You are supposed to conform and bow before your employers. They need this confirmation. They need to hear how smart they are, how important, powerful and special they are. They need to hear you go "moo."

That is called getting ahead, knowing which backsides to kiss. Put it there. Smack.

Lots of people play it this way, and not just in football. They hang out with the right people. They are seen at the right places. They say all the right things. They desperately want to belong, to be accepted, to be part of the right social circle, and they only have to be able to stomach their reflection in the mirror.

They don't measure a person by what's inside the person. They measure the person's status and wealth, all those things that don't measure up when you are down to your last 30 minutes on earth.

Mitchell is the guy you want next to you in a dark alley. He is the guy you want pleading your case. And he is the guy you want on your team, whether it is a football team or a dot-com team.

Mitchell believes that one person can make a difference. He may not put it that way. He just lives it. You tell him he can't do something, and he will bust a gut to show you otherwise.

They told him he was too old. They told him he had lost a step. They told him he was leading others astray, not spouting the Stalinist line. They told him he was a very bad machine, and this very bad machine wound up in Philadelphia, too old and broken to do much about it.

That was the thinking last summer.

They miscalculated the man's spirit. The competitive fires burn deep inside Mitchell. He does it his way. He is chasing NFL history after five games this season. He's not half-bad for a senior citizen.

Is that number correct, the 290 all-purpose yards against the Falcons? No, it can't be. Check it again: 290 it is.

As usual, Mitchell refuses to be quiet. He does not blame his parting on Norv Turner. Turner is merely following orders, trying to stay employed after making the playoffs last season. Turner is more viable today than he was two seasons ago. He'll be out of here one day anyway, and they can usher in another figure to discuss the three phases of the game, four if you count the politics.

Mitchell chafed amid the politics, and it didn't help that he was one of the last holdovers from the old guard, the Cooke family and Joe Gibbs, and he had the franchise's last Super Bowl ring to prove it. He couldn't endorse the revisionist history, the purging of the old that stopped only at airbrushing certain faces out of photographs, because he couldn't deny that defining part of himself, the glorious 1991 season, capped by that remarkable game in Minneapolis.

Mitchell could read the holes off the field as well as on it. The new faces, the yes men, spin, embellish and lie, and at the end of the day, they have nothing but their material goods and insecurities. They have no core. They have no identity. They are lost, and they don't even know it.

Mitchell, fiercely independent, knows where he stands now, and you know where he stands, too, and he makes no apologies. He did his part in Washington, and after 10 seasons, all he wanted was the straight stuff. He figured he deserved that. Nothing is forever, not in life and not in football, and he accepts that, but on his terms and not yours.

The local football team will have to address this man's heart in two days.

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