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Interesting Brian Mitchell article


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I know a lot of people here HATE Brian Mitchell...but for those that like him...here is a Yahoo article I haven't seen posted. They name drop a lot of former Redskins too.

One thing I didn't know about Mitchell that stuck out though was:

He never has missed a practice in 14 years, not one. For any player, much less a returner, that is incomprehensible.

Also...Mitchell has only made one Pro Bowl. (figured he made about 3 or so)


Let's establish this from the start: Brian Mitchell is the craziest man in football. There's no other explanation for why he has willingly -- no, eagerly -- stood under punts and kickoffs for 14 years now. And for why he has accepted as part of the job such inflictions of damage to his body, relished even the mere hint of possible contact and come away yapping and jawing every time, just daring anyone to hit him harder.

Talk about a man in serious need of job therapy.

Any sane player doing what he has done for so long would be retired, knowing that he already has far exceeded the norm for return specialists, who usually have a short shelf life because of the battering they take or become smart enough to find another role. But Mitchell, 35, in his first year with the Giants and setting records with every return, yearns for the next kick. He remains one of the most fascinating and wacky characters produced by a league that has churned out damn few of them lately.

He also is the best ever at his glamorously risky trade. He already holds every major NFL kickoff- and punt-return mark by such staggering margins -- his combined kickoff and punt return yardage of 18,263 is more than 5,000 ahead of No. 2 Mel Gray's -- that they never will be challenged. And he almost certainly will finish as the league's all-time leader in combined yards. With 22,561 yards, he has eclipsed Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith, and he's stalking No. 1 Jerry Rice, who has a 27-yard lead.

But it's not just all these yards and records that make Mitchell special. It's also the way he has gone about devouring these miles. He's nothing like the prototype returner, that wow-inducing, Dante Hall-type burner with dancing hips, questionable hands and an aversion to collisions. At 5-11, 220 pounds, with bully arms and a rock-like chest, Mitchell is tough, not fragile; powerful, not elusive; a monster among paperweights. He's quite happy to snap off a long return, but he gets his real jollies from a l0-yard gain that ends with him steamrollering a wannabe tackler.

Mitchell figures he has broken the arms of at least five opponents who tried to arm-tackle him. Then there are the foes he has knocked out; the most recent -- Bears safety Mike Brown, a notorious hard tackler -- got the worst of a sideline collision with the ball-toting Mitchell during a January 2002 playoff game. Earlier in his career, Mitchell cost himself maybe five additional touchdown returns -- he has a record 13 -- because, instead of heading for the end zone, he purposely sought out and ran over the punter or kicker.

"I just don't like them," he says. "But then I figured out I could punish them just as much if I scored on them." Then he laughs. He laughs a lot, a man still embracing a game that refuses to relinquish its shackles on his common sense. "This is what I love to do," he says. "I'm having too much fun to quit. I'm not going to kid you; I didn't think much of it at first. But once I figured out how much I could help my team if I did it the right way, I changed my mind."

But Brian, all these years, all these hits? "You have to be a little off to be a returner," he says. "If you are worried about getting hit, you won't be any good. It's going to happen sometimes. But I have a linebacker's mentality. I am trying to give it to them more than they are to me."

To prepare for this bizarre combat, Mitchell stays in impeccable condition. The result: Despite already having returned an incredible 306 more kicks than anyone in league history, he has missed just one of 212 games in his career, and that was in his rookie season with the Redskins (1990), when coach Joe Gibbs worried about him aggravating a sore ankle. Mitchell has kept playing despite four separated shoulders, assorted mangled fingers and feet and a knee damaged so badly it had to be drained at least twice a week during most of the 2001 season. But get this: He never has missed a practice in 14 years, not one. For any player, much less a returner, that is incomprehensible.

"What Brian Mitchell has done as a returner is truly one of the most remarkable accomplishments in the history of this league," says Texans general manager Charley Casserly, who, as the Redskins' GM, drafted Mitchell. "To do it at this level for this long and do as well as he has in a job where guys are gunning to wipe you out every time, that's unbelievable. But very few guys have ever had his passion and desire either."

Unquestionably, Mitchell should be the first pure return specialist elected to the Hall of Fame.

Don't let all this testosterone fool you. Mitchell has survived so long because he also is so damn smart. He made the transformation from just another high-risk returner to a craftsman once he realized consistency and putting his team first ranked ahead of an occasional ESPN highlight run. His delights now come from holding on to the ball, from earning strong field position, from even the slightest of positive return yardage. He doesn't dance; he always aims to go straight upfield.

"I've found I can change the game for my team if I can constantly give my offense good field position," he says. "If I fair catch and not fumble it and give them the ball at the 50 and they score, I had as much to do with that touchdown as the offense did. A stat that should be kept is how many yards returners save their offenses with smart decisions." This methodical approach has resulted in another amazing Mitchell fact: Despite his collision-addicted personality, he hasn't lost a fumble in years and has botched just a handful in his career.

"He has perfected his position," says Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent, who has played with or against Mitchell for the last 11 seasons. "He's turned it into a craft. He is the consummate pro, a throwback. Everyone knows him as a hard-nosed, hard-rock leader who takes no jive, stands up for what is right and goes about playing the right way. He doesn't wear gloves, he doesn't wear arm pads. He puts on his helmet and uniform the right way -- shirt tucked in, socks pulled up -- and then he knocks your block off."

And something else. "The guy has to be off his rocker a bit," says Vincent. "Thank God I blew out my knee on a return when I was with the Dolphins. It got me away from returning kicks."

You'd think that someone in Mitchell's position might want to assume a low profile in games. Why anger those who could deliver bodily harm? But of course, Mitchell doesn't see it that way. He lives to irritate opponents. He is a trash talker's trash talker, a high-energy whirlwind of tormenting remarks, a blowtorch stuck on high. His favorite targets are kickers and large foes -- the bigger, the more inviting. When Redskins linebacker Jessie Armstead, another great gabber, played for the Giants, he'd jump on coverage teams just to have a shot at Mitchell. Warren Sapp, hardly a poster child for silence, became so agitated at Mitchell last season that he spat on him. And Mitchell is everywhere on the sideline, holding everyone accountable, from coaches to teammates who aren't playing hard enough.

"When you play against him, you hate him," says Giants punter Jeff Feagles, who, until this season, spent most of his 16-year career kicking to Mitchell. "He's in your face all the time. He's playing mind games. He'd tell me, 'You got away with it this time, but next time I am bringing it back all the way.' You know what he is doing, but it still affects you. But now that he is my teammate, I love him."

Mitchell plans his verbal assaults. He'll find the name of someone's wife in the opponent's media guide. "During the game, I will say to him, 'How's Joyce these days?' " he says, grinning like a kid in the midst of a prank. "And you know now he's thinking, 'How does Mitchell know her name? What has she been doing?' It distracts him and gives me an edge. I just have to make sure after the game that I tell the guy how I found out her name; I don't want him going home and saying, 'What's this -- you and Mitchell?' "

"B. Mitch's way has cost him some Pro Bowls," says Lions guard Ray Brown, a former Redskin who befriended Mitchell when Mitchell began attracting the attention of Washington coaches in his first training camp with a fight a day, including one memorable showdown with 300-pound Jumpy Geathers. "He knows it. But he really doesn't like the people he plays against. That is an old-fashioned attitude, like Butkus and those guys used to have. He'd rather do everything he can to win than win a popularity contest."

Brown's right; Mitchell has made just one Pro Bowl.

Still, before Mitchell's first games with the Eagles and Giants -- clubs that had particularly despised him -- he was named by teammates as special teams captain for the year. Both gestures are among his most treasured career highlights. "You can't help but embrace him," says Giants running back Tiki Barber. "He's got this sort of old-man-at-the-cookout humor that always makes you laugh. He lights up the locker room every day. And the way he works, it earns him immediate respect. Even if you hated him before he got here."

Mitchell developed his feisty personality while growing up as the youngest of seven kids in southern Louisiana under a father who spent 20 years in the Army and considered complaining a sign of weakness. Even now, Mitchell remains so insecure that he doesn't want anyone else to return kicks in practice. Since the Redskins released him in June 2000, claiming he was old and slow, he has feasted on these perceived slights to revitalize his career. Mitchell believes he had his best season in 2002 with the Eagles, averaging 27 yards per kick return and 12.3 per punt return.

"My father used to tell us that a Mitchell could do anything," he says. That's why he just wanted a chance in the NFL after finishing his career as a highly successful quarterback at Southwestern Louisiana, where he became the first player in NCAA history to pass for more than 5,000 yards and rush for more than 3,000. The Redskins scouted him as a running back during a postseason all-star game practice and drafted him in the fifth round in 1990. They discussed moving him to safety in his rookie year before trying him as a returner. Mitchell balked at the suggestion; he never had returned a kick on any level.

"I thought those returners were nuts," he says. Still, this was a way to make the team. In the opening preseason game, he brought back a kickoff for a touchdown. By his second season, he also was the primary punt returner. But he fumbled too much and lobbied too much for a bigger role at running back.

When Pete Rodriguez became the Redskins' special teams coach in 1994, he convinced Mitchell about the value of a quality return specialist to a team's success. "I knew he was tremendously talented, and you find out quickly how really smart he is and how much desire he has," says Rodriguez, now with the Seahawks. "But he wasn't spending enough time on the little things that make a difference, like securing the ball, understanding blocking schemes, making good fair-catch decisions, studying kickers to find advantages. He wanted to be the best, and he finally saw what it would take to get there."

Rodriguez had Mitchell work with a ball stuck under each arm, so he couldn't reach to catch the ball on kicks; instead, he had to secure it to his chest, a technique that eliminated his fumbling problems. He also was smart enough to pattern his work habits after the most conscientious Redskins, players such as wide receiver Art Monk and running back Earnest Byner, who, even at the peak of his career, would fill in wherever he was needed in practice. Byner became Mitchell's role model. Once Mitchell began focusing better and training harder, his career exploded; now, he talks of playing another three seasons.

"You don't win championships with an occasional 80-yard return but with 9- and 12-yard returns all season and no fumbling," says Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who signed Mitchell as a free agent the day he became available this past offseason, part of the franchise's effort to upgrade its special teams. "But I really signed Brian more as a professional football player than a return guy. You can't put a value on his experience, his leadership, his savvy and the fire and passion that come with him."

But even Accorsi and coach Jim Fassel were shocked when Mitchell volunteered to be the scout team running back in practice. It's a thankless job involving considerable battering and usually is handled by an expendable practice team player. "No vet ever wants to do it; they run from it," says Fassel. But not Mitchell, who thinks the duty makes him game-tough. His eagerness also has helped carve out some playing time; he already has been used as a third-down back, something the Giants never envisioned. Mitchell has a pedigree here, too; he has gained 1,948 yards as a running back. He also has caught 255 passes and made an appearance at quarterback as a rookie, completing three of six passes and rushing for a 1-yard score in his lone series. Didn't shut up then, either.

The only time Brian Mitchell has been knocked out on a return came in 1994. Curtis Buckley of the Bucs caught him under the chin with his helmet; the impact was so violent, both players were out cold. Most returners might not have played the next week, much less that day. But Mitchell believed that if he didn't come back, it would be a sign that someone finally got the better of him. And no Mitchell can let that happen.

So in the next special teams situation, he sprinted onto the field. That might not make sense to us. But, for Mitchell, it was the only way he could maintain his sanity within the nutty world he has continued to rule.

E-mail senior writer Paul Attner at pattner@sportingnews.com.


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