It’s hard to imagine that in the football-crazed world we live in- where college football recruiting is tracked on the internet 365 days a year and followed by millions annually- that any player could fly under the radar, or struggle to get the attention of his peers and recruiting experts alike. Especially when that player is in every recruiting service’s consensus Top 30 nationally.
Then again, there is nothing normal about Ohio State football commit and U.S. Army All-American Mike Mitchell. Not in the family he came from, or his path to being labeled as one of the top outside linebackers in the high school class of 2013.
First to his family, and to the reality that whoever created the phrase “everything is bigger in Texas,” must’ve been neighbors with the Mitchell family of Plano, TX. Mike is one of nine children, where he is sandwiched in-between two older brothers, three older sisters and three younger brothers as well.
What makes Mitchell even more unique is that even as he gets set to sign with one of the top college football programs in the country, it’s up for debate whether he’s even the best athlete in his own home (unless you ask Mike of course). For that matter, it’s also up for debate whether Mike is even the best football player living under the Mitchell roof.
That’s because while Mike’s play has landed him on the top of just about every recruiting service’s ranking within the last year, he spent a good chunk of his youth largely overshadowed by his younger brother Mickey, who is widely considered to be the best sophomore basketball player in the country (as well as a highly coveted football recruit as well). Not to mention that Mike’s father Ken actually played in the NFL for four years with the Atlanta Falcons, and that incredibly, the eldest Mitchell’s time in the NFL wasn’t even necessarily Ken’s own greatest athletic accomplishment. Ken played minor league ball in the California Angels organization as a teenager before he eventually walked onto the UNLV football team, where he is still in the Rebels’ record book with the third highest single season sack total in school history (11 in his senior year). Since retiring from the NFL, Ken has run Ironman triathlons and a couple years ago became the first person ever to climb Mt. Everest with a knee replacement.
Yes, that actually happened. And that is the world that Mike Mitchell grew up in.
So how did Mitchell go from overshadowed in his own home, to a name that every college football coach in America knows?
It’s a story with more twists and turns than a Les Miles press conference, with a little happenstance and luck mixed in also.
Oh, and there was a whole lot of hard work involved as well.
The Makings of a World-Class Athlete:
Growing up in a house with nine children, there’s no doubt that Mike Mitchell was born into a competitive environment, yet despite it, his parents Ken and Candy never once pushed he or any of his brothers into the sport of football. Actually, they didn’t push him toward any sport at all.
Instead, the Mitchell’s took an old-school approach to parenting, despite living in a world where most kids seem to specialize in one sport by the time they’re through grade school, and burn out before they hit puberty. Rather than sticking their kids in one sport year round, the Mitchell’s emphasized participation and fun, and let the rest fall into place as it was supposed to.
“All we ever tell our kids is to work hard,” Ken Mitchell said recently. “If it’s baseball, basketball, the tuba, well, we’re going to work at it. Kids want to have a choice in life. The worst thing you can do is to try and force something on a kid.”
And it’s because of that somewhat unique approach, that Mike got a relatively late start to football. Despite his father’s NFL background, Mike didn’t hit the gridiron until his eighth grade year, preferring basketball as a youngster instead. Mike’s early days weren’t littered with football glory, but instead pick-up hoops games at the park with his brothers and sisters.
“That was my first start (in sports) was basketball,” Mike Mitchell said. “I remember we used to go to the park and play pick-up games, until nine, 10 o’clock.”
Despite his late start to the game of football, Mitchell thrived when he did hit the gridiron. Mitchell starred for a local youth team in his eighth grade year and as a freshman in high school in Florida, playing linebacker with ferocity that could only come after competing every day of his life with eight brothers and sisters. By the time his family moved to Texas prior to Mike’s sophomore year, Mitchell was a rising star, one who helped Prestonwood Christian Academy win a state championship in 2010.
“I didn’t know a whole lot about Mike when he moved in at the beginning of his sophomore year,” Prestonwood head coach Chris Cunningham said. “But I knew by the end of the year, man, this kid is special.”
Cunningham tells a story from early in that sophomore season, a story which proved beyond a reasonable doubt just how good of a football Mike Mitchell was and is. Even though he was one of the youngest players on the field, Mitchell showed athletic traits which proved he could compete with anyone, even a future college star.
“Ty Montgomery- the (current) starting receiver at Stanford- was from St. Marks here in Dallas,” Cunningham said. “His senior year we’re scrimmaging them. Mike blitzes- and this is the first time I said to myself ‘This kid is unbelievable’- he blitzes, they throw a short little hitch route to Ty Montgomery and he leaves our DB’s in the dust. He’s gone. I’m already jogging down to the other end of the field to set up for an extra point.”
Cunningham then paused for emphasis before continuing.
“All of a sudden I just see this body flying down the field,” Cunningham said. “Chasing and sucks him (Montgomery) up at the 10 yard line and they don’t score. It was Mike. And that was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’”
Yet despite Mitchell’s exploits as a sophomore at Prestonwood and junior at Plano West High School, Mitchell remained a largely unknown recruiting commodity. After transferring back to Prestonwood in the spring of his junior year, he garnered interest from local schools like Texas A&M and SMU, as well as Arkansas, who had come to Prestonwood to recruit another player.
Still, Mitchell’s recruitment was mostly quiet, an ominous fact, especially for a linebacker with prototypical NFL size and 4.4 speed. Cunningham contributes it to Mitchell playing at three different high schools his first three years, as well as the small, private school competition he faced at Prestonwood, which some college coaches believed to be suspect. It also didn’t help that Mike had a general disinterest in attending summer camps, where a lot of the best high school players are identified and later ranked. As he explained it, Mike preferred to let his play on the field do his talking for him.
Yet for those reasons, it looked more and more like Mitchell might end up playing college ball locally, in or around his home-state of Texas. As recently as February of 2012 nobody could’ve imagined that he would eventually become a national recruit, one coveted by schools from Ohio State to Oregon and everywhere in between.
“I had maybe 10 offers,” Mitchell said about the spring of his junior year. “A&M, SMU, UT had interest. I was mostly thinking I was going to stay in Texas. It was convenient, close to home.”
Little did Mitchell know that within a few short months every college football coach in America would know his name, and they’d learn it when he exploded on the scene in front of a national TV audience.
The crazy thing? Mike’s national coming out party almost didn’t happen at all.
From a Little Sparq Bursts A Mighty Flame:
With his junior year winding down in the spring of 2012, Mitchell fully expected to spend his summer working out with teammates locally and visiting a handful of area colleges in his free time. That is, until he went to his mailbox one day to find an invitation to the Nike Training Camp in Dallas in early April. Mitchell had little use for the summer camp circuit, but on a whim he decided to go. Mitchell had nothing better to do that weekend, and a few other, decidedly teenage reasons drew him to the event.
“I got a letter in mail, and it sounded kind of cool, Mitchell said. “You got a lot of free gear.”
Whatever the reason when Mitchell showed up, he was joined by just about every big name on the Texas recruiting scene. Players like Tyrone Swopes (a Texas quarterback commit), A’Shawn Robinson (a recent UT decommit who appears to be headed to Alabama) and Corey Robinson (David Robinson’s son, who is headed to Notre Dame next year) were all in attendance, but in the end, it was Mitchell who turned into a headliner. Mitchell not only took home the Camp MVP for linebackers, but was also one of three players who tested out well enough to be invited to “The Opening,” an exclusive event held at Nike’s headquarters in Oregon later in the summer for the Top 150 players in the country. The Opening conducted “Sparq testing,” measuring someone’s overall athletic ability with combine style drills.
But even with all his successes in Dallas, Mitchell was hesitant to head up to Oregon. Like he had earlier in the spring with the Nike Training Camp, Mitchell almost elected to skip the Sparq event all together.
“At first I wasn’t going to go,” Mitchell said. “I think I had some (college) visits. We really didn’t even know what it was until my dad looked into it, and I said, ‘I guess you’re right. I didn’t really know it was that big of a deal.’”
Eventually Mitchell went, but even after his strong showing in Dallas, he entered the event with little hype. ESPN.com labeled Mitchell a “small school talent, with big-time upside,” following the Nike Training Camp, and when he arrived in Beaverton, Ore., there were plenty of other players who were already established recruiting commodities. Most expected Derrick Henry, a massive 6’3 243 lb. running back (who is going to play at Alabama next fall) to take home the title. Henry was one of only two underclassmen to compete in the event the previous year, and seemed to be the name on the tip of everyone’s tongue that week in Oregon.
“We got off the plane and one of our recruiting guys says, ‘Oh, there’s Derrick Henry,’” said Mitch Stephens, who was at the event for MaxPreps.com. “I don’t normally cover recruiting, and I said, ‘Oh, what NFL team does he play for?’ He was that big.”
But for all the hype, once testing began it was Mitchell that stole the show. Unlike the event in Dallas which featured mostly position-specific drills, the Sparq event was more NFL combine style testing, measuring a player’s overall athletic ability in events like the 40-yard dash, the power ball toss, vertical jump and others. And on that day, there was no one better than Mike Mitchell.
Come to think of it, there has never been anyone better in the history of Sparq testing than Mike Mitchell was on July 6, 2012.
His 42-inch vertical leap was the best number anyone put up all day.
His power ball toss was just inches off the all-time record, set years prior by a lineman who weighed significantly more than the 225 lb. Mitchell.
And speaking of those 225 lbs., when Mitchell ran a 4.39 with the bulky frame of an NFL linebacker, camp officials actually made him run it again, convinced that their stopwatches had mistimed him. When Mitchell ran a 4.39 later in the event, at a time when ESPN’s cameras broadcasting to a national TV audience, it left no doubt who the best athlete in the camp was. It also sent the 149 other players in Oregon that day into a frenzy.
“When I did that, everyone went nuts,” Mitchell said. “Everyone was on the field and got into a big huddle and started jumping around after I did that.”
Mitchell’s performance also led a slew of recruiting experts to scratch their heads and dig through their notes, looking for any information they could find on the previously unknown linebacker from Texas.
“When he won the event, I just remember people looking around a little confused like, ‘Who is this guy.’” Stephens said. “A lot of the media people there were thumbing through the notes, trying to find out who he was. Including myself.”
In the end, Mitchell’s score of 154.47 blew away the competition, with Alabama commit Altee Tenpenny finishing second with a score of 144.69 and Henry’s 144.60 in third place overall. Mitchell’s numbers were so good they actually set a Sparq world record; nobody before or since has ever had an afternoon quite like Mitchell did that day.
Yet if you asked those closest to Mitchell, his performance was par for the course, similar to what he’d done day-in and day-out on the football fields of Texas the previous couple years.
“Had you asked me if it was surprising for him to compete the way he did and win, that wasn’t surprising,” Cunningham, Mitchell’s high school coach at Prestonwood said. “Because of things I had seen him do, there aren’t many kids in the country better than this one. It didn’t take a genius to figure that out after you’d see him run and jump.”
Cunningham couldn’t help but add one caveat.
“But a 4.39?” Cunningham said. “That’s exceptional- I don’t care who the kid is- that’s an exceptional time. That was surprising.”
The College Football World Comes Calling:
Once Mitchell’s Sparq numbers went viral, it was only a matter of time before college coaches picked up on them and started touching base with Prestonwood. They did in bunches, all trying to angle their way into Mitchell’s recruitment.
“A lot of people at that point are really close to being done as far as their spots in the summer,” Cunningham said. “(People) that said they were full, all of a sudden had a spot.”
By the end of the summer Mitchell had over 50 scholarship offers in hand, and eventually narrowed his list down to Ohio State, Oregon, Florida State and Texas A&M, before deciding to wait until after his senior season to focus on recruiting. Not that the new-found hype and national acclaim impacted his play on the field. If anything, it only ramped things up.
“This year in practice we couldn’t let Mike go full-speed in a lot of the drills we did,” Cunningham said. “You know, we have a lot of young kids helping out on scout team… if Mike were going full speed they might not get up. So I had to sit down with Mike early on and say ‘You can go full-speed but without losing five, six guys throughout the year.’”
“What you see a lot of times in this profession is, you see these kids that are exceptionally talented beyond who they play, and who they play with are. They’re not extremely hard workers because they don’t have to be. Things come easy. I’ve never seen that in Mike,” Cunningham said.
With Mitchell and his younger brother Mickey leading the team, Prestonwood went 8-4 this past season, before losing to St. Michaels of Austin in the quarterfinals. When the year finally did end, Mike focused on his recruiting, which ironically didn’t end nearly as dramatically as it began over the summer. Mitchell took just one official visit, and committed to Ohio State at this year’s U.S. Army All-American game. The opportunity to play for an undefeated Buckeyes team and Urban Meyer in specific (remember, Mitchell grew up in Florida during Meyer’s heyday in Gainesville) proved to be the only selling points Mitchell needed to hear.
“I met Coach Meyer and he was awesome” Mitchell said. “I got a tour of the campus. All the people were really nice.”
Mitchell will head up to Columbus on his spring break and try and learn as much of the playbook before he enrolls for good in the summer.
Not bad for a kid who fully expected to play his college football locally in the state of Texas less than a year ago.
Reflecting on the Future, While Appreciating the Past:
When canvassing friends and associates about what makes Mike Mitchell so special, and such a large asset to the Ohio State football program going forward, all point back to the unique family environment he grew up in. The competitiveness of having nine children fueled Mike Mitchell to be the athlete he has become. But his family- and the close-knit culture they’ve created – helped produce the person Mike has become as well.
“One of my first impressions of Ken and Candy and the family was there was one Friday evening,” Cunningham said. “And we’ve got Homecoming and it’s a huge ball-game for Mike and you’ve got their whole family out there for that.”
“Then the next morning I’m at a Pee Wee football game and I’m watching a fourth grade game and their little brother is in it and their whole family is at that. Every single one of them. It’s that attitude of ‘We’re always going to be there for each other, and you’re going to come out and support your brothers.’”
But really, it goes even further than that. While his football prowess allowed Mitchell to make a name for himself publicly, it hardly defines him in his family’s eyes.
“You can tell by the way they look at their boys they love them and are so proud of them,” Cunningham said. “But it’s an unconditional love. The boys know ‘even if we weren’t great athletes, our parents are going to love us the same.’ It isn’t based on anything athletically.”
And above all, it’s that humility which separates Mitchell from so many other star players his age. Mitchell actually cut an interview with Crystal Ball Run short because he had to take one of his younger brothers to get tutoring.
“I’ve seen Mike a long time,” said Scott Pospichal, a family friend of the Mitchell’s, who coaches younger brother Mickey’s AAU team. “And to all of a sudden see a success to meet his character, and his kindness… I mean wow, that’s pretty good stuff.”
From the basketball courts of Florida to the manicured lawns of Nike headquarters and countless high school football fields in between, Mike Mitchell has certainly taken a unique path to high school football superstardom. It’s a path which will culminate with him signing a Letter of Intent with Ohio State on Wednesday.
But if the last few years are any indication, there are many more chapters to be written in his story as well.
Photos courtesy of UNLV Athletics and the Mitchell Family.