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Spotlight on Former Athlete: Brian Mitchell - Football 1986-89
At USL, 1986-89
3,335 yards Rushing
5,447 yards Passing
8,782 yards Total Offense
286 Career Points
47 Career Touchdowns
In the NFL, 1990-2003
Washington, 1990-99; Philadelphia, 2000-2002; Giants, 2003
Kickoff Returns: 607-14,014-4
Punt Returns: 463-4,999-9
Passing: 7-18-2, 168, 1 td
Mitchell compiled Hall of Fame type statistics
By Bruce Brown
It was an emergency.
Brian Mitchell was a rookie with the Washington Redskins in 1990, trying to find a way to make an impact as a kick returner and running back.
But he was also the team's emergency quarterback, hardly expecting to be deployed in that role.
Then came the Body Bag Game, the one in which the Philadelphia Eagles were toppling quarterbacks like so much lumber in Oregon in the 1880's. Stan Humphries and Jeff Rutledge were suddenly out of commission.
Coach Joe Gibbs turned to Mitchell, who had thrown for 5,447 yards in leading USL's Ragin' Cajuns to four straight winning seasons.
“He said, 'You're in,' ” Mitchell recalled. “I said, 'In at what?'” Mitchell said. “Nine guys had gotten hurt, and I was the backup at five or six of them. (Running backs weren't faring much better than QBs in the melee.)
“ 'Quarterback,' ” he said. “It was terrifying, but at the same time it was fun. It was an opportunity. It was Monday Night Football, and this was a chance for people to see me play.”
Somehow, Mitchell managed to remain alive and hit 3-of-6 passes for 40 yards with no interceptions, as well as getting 11 yards on the ground including a late 1-yard touchdown, in a 28-14 loss. Mostly, he lived to fight another day.
“Coach Gibbs had given me a cut-down version of the playbook,” Mitchell said. “I told him I knew the whole offense. It was my job to learn it.”
Mitchell had already impressed the Redskins, returning an exhibition game kickoff for a touchdown the first time he touched the ball in the NFL. At 5-foot-9, he knew quarterback was not to be his meal ticket.
“My dream was always to play in the NFL,” Mitchell said. “I considered myself a football player first. I was willing to do what needs to be done to make that come true. If it didn't work out, my plan was to try Canada.”
Most would agree that it worked out for Mitchell, whose 14-year career ended in 2003 but who remains the NFL's all-time leader in kickoff returns (607), kickoff return yardage (14,014), punt returns (463), punt return yardage (4,999), obviously the combined crown, 9 punt return touchdowns and 4 on kickoff returns.
Throw in 1,967 yards rushing, 2,336 on receptions, and he accounted for 23,316 yards on 713 touches – surprising no one who saw him rush for 3,335 yards and 47 scores at USL.
After all, one of his favorite plays of his career was a peel-back block on a defender lumbering after a Cajun reverse, a hit that left the defender dazed and confused.
Oh, and Mitchell won a Super Bowl ring after the 1991 season. He also is a member of the all-time Redskins team.
Hall of Fame credentials
Many wonder why he's not in Canton in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I think about it,” Mitchell admitted. “There's a lack of respect for specialists in the Hall. But you've put place kickers (Jan Stenerud, Morten Andersen, punter Ray Guy) in there. Why not a kick returner? We're the ones who have to deal with the maniacs that come down the field.
“But I heard Gale Sayers say that I was a throwback who could have played in any era, and that I belonged in the Hall. If Gale Sayers says that, then I'm in the Hall in my mind. Bobby Mitchell, Tim Brown and Eric Dickerson all ask why I'm not in.”
Mitchell's No.1 jersey is retired at Cajun Field, and he is a member of the school's Athletic Hall of Fame, but he's still waiting for Canton to call.
Hall invitation, or not, Mitchell thrived in his daring role, which helped to pave the way for stars like Devon Hester.
“I like to compare us to (running backs) Barry Sanders and Jerome Bettis,” Mitchell said. “Sanders had all those great moves. That's Hester. Bettis would run over you. That was me.
“I'd hit you. I'd start a fight. Whatever I could do to motivate the team.”
Despite all those high-speed collisions, Mitchell only missed one game in the NFL. He was as durable as he was effective.
“You have to be quick to return kicks. You don't have to be fast,” he said. “You know there are going to be collisions. Punt returns are more dangerous, because the defenders are right on you when you catch it, but I loved them both.”
Mitchell understands the NFL's recent attention to fair catching kickoffs to cut down on injuries, but “you take away some of the excitement of the game,” he said.
Looking at Mitchell's staggering numbers, and with such rules cutting down on return figures, his records look safe.
“Oh, yeah, they're going to stay up there a while,” said Mitchell, who said if he could have made $9 or $10 million a year like today's players, it might have been harder to retire.
He's content with his Super Bowl ring and with working with coaches like Gibbs.
“Joe Gibbs is what a coach should be,” Mitchell said. “He knew how to talk to players – offense and defense – as people, members of the human race.
“That first year, he taught me how to be a running back. And this kid was ready to learn.”
Gibbs also knew how to prepare for a Super Bowl, winning after the 1982, 1987 and 1991 seasons with three different starting quarterbacks.
“We knew we were going to win at the beginning of the week,” Mitchell said. “The Bills were talking about which one was going to be the MVP. We were there for business, and from the start we were more dominant physically.”
It could have been the boudin that the Mitchell family furnished the team from Comeaux's grocery in Lafayette.
“We had a lot of boudin, a lot of Cajun and Creole food,” Mitchell said.
Growing up Cajuns
The boudin episode took Mitchell back to his south Louisiana days, and his growth at USL.
“It was fun,” he said. “I wouldn't change a thing. My father said to go someplace and make my own history, so that's what I did. And it taught me a lot.
“In my mind, I was ready to be the starter as a freshman (Mitchell and Richard Pannell split time in 1986). In 1987, I got in an argument and didn't play at Northwestern.
“Now I understand the mindset of (assistant coach) Dave Culley. He knew I needed to sit and watch, and see things in a different light. My dad sided with Culley and (head coach) Nelson Stokley.
“Things changed at that moment, and I started being the leader I needed to be.”
Late in that 1987 season, Mitchell led a furious 35-28 comeback victory at home over Colorado State – rushing for 271 yards and passing for 205 more in the first of many Superman efforts to come.
“Colorado State came in rough and ready,” Mitchell said. “They led at half, but the humid weather was starting to get to them. I suggested to coach Stokley that we go with misdirection plays in the second half. I think I had over 200 yards in the second half alone.
“I was definitely in a zone that day. I'd noticed their cheerleaders doing pushups every time they scored, and I didn't like it. So I started doing it and kept doing it when we scored.”
There were plenty of other highlights, capped by his senior year of 1989, including the near-miss 24-17 loss at Alabama when Mitchell was firing shots at the Tide til the end.
Or the epic 24-21 win that spoiled homecoming for Brett Favre and Southern Mississippi, when Mitchell threw for 313 yards and ran for 134 more.
Mitchell saved his best for last, carrying the Cajuns to a 29-28 victory over Arkansas State before a shamefully small crowd at Cajun Field to secure a 7-4 record.
“Everyone wants to have that 'greatest moment in your life' type of experience,” Mitchell said. “I had to hit my high school teammate, Corey Williams, twice for the winning score and two-point conversion.
“Afterwards, I was walking around without my shoes and socks. I'd given them to fans. My dad grabbed my jersey. You couldn't write moments like that.”
By today's standards and expanded pool of teams, those 1989 Cajuns would have been a bowl team. But they were snubbed.
“We felt we should have gone to the Independence Bowl, but they took Tulsa,” Mitchell said. “We had beaten Tulsa. It was a slap in the face.
“Now you can be 6-6 and go to a bowl, and there are so many of them. But it's still good to have them. I gives the players something to prepare for. It's what you work to get, and it's good for the guys to experience.”
Mitchell had to wait for the NFL to go to his bowl, and it was a ride that has landed him in the broadcast booth in both radio and TV in the Washington, D.C area handling Redskins' pre and post-game shows as well as commentary and internet promotions.
“It's been a lot of fun,” said Mitchell, who recognizes where it began in earnest.
“There have been a lot of pieces to that puzzle of my life and USL was a big part of it.”
Sidebar * * *
Leave some things alone for a better game
By Bruce Brown Athletic Network
Brian Mitchell loved to execute crack back blocks for teammates when he was quarterback of USL's Ragin' Cajuns from 1986-89.
So it's no surprise that rules protecting the quarterback from harm are not his favorite part of the modern game.
Mitchell, the all-time leader in kick and punt return yardage in NFL history and a member of the All-Time Washington Redskins Team, was asked about the current status of pass rushing in the league.
“I understand why they're doing it, but I can't comprehend the calls they're making,” he said. “If a defender hits a quarterback and both of them are off their feet in the air, it's hard to stop where you're going to land.
“Now, if a defender dives at the quarterback's knees, or they hit heads (helmet-to-helmet), I can understand. But it's physically impossible to stop yourself from landing on him.”
Mitchell, a broadcaster still attached to the Redskins, can see the argument for letting Chicago's Khalil Mack, Houston's J.J. Watt and others play like they were taught.
“Part of football is intimidation,” he said. “If you have a quarterback who's more concerned about whether he's going to get hit than where he's throwing the football, then the defense has the advantage. This (rule) takes that out of the game.
“I know they're trying to protect the quarterbacks. They make the most money. But the defensive players are hamstrung in doing their job. There's (already) holding on every play (that isn't called).”
Mitchell is also unhappy that rules have made kick returning safer but less exciting, saying “you're taking away some of the excitement of the game.”
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Click here for Brian's Athletic Network profile.
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1989 Senior Class Row 1-Keith Annulis, Brian Mitchell. Row 2-Felton Parquet, Anthony Gilmore, Patrick Collins. Row 3-Dexter Gatewood, Keith Zimmerman.
Please click Photo Gallery, Football, then the 1986, 1987, 1988, or 1989 years to view those galleries with photos of Brian and his teammates.
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Click here for the chronological listings of the Spotlight on Former Athletes.
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