There’s an excitement in his voice that simply doesn’t dip as a 30-minute conversation moves from one topic to the next, from the power outages around his home in Houston, Texas, to his sons, to his faith and his new chapter with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Bryant Mitchell is in go-go-go mode, as if the gas pedal in his life is permanently jammed down to the floorboards.
It’s no wonder he’s so excited, given what the 28-year-old receiver has been through over the last couple of seasons and the mental and physical wringer he’s been pulled through to get to this point.
Yes, while there are many eager for the Canadian Football League to get back to business in 2021, it could be said Mitchell is at the very front of that pack.
“I can say that, for sure,” began Mitchell in a chat with bluebombers.com this week. “That first game back for me… I’ll be like a child opening a present after waiting for so long, after hearing your mother say you have to be good before you can get it. Man, I’ve been itching.
“There was a point where I thought, ‘I’m done.’ But if I had stopped then I know I wouldn’t have been truly satisfied. When I signed that contract with Winnipeg I was so excited.”
“I’m ready to lace them up. I want to put some shoulder pads on and hit somebody in the mouth. I want to catch that touchdown and really show people who I am, not just through catching touchdowns, but how I live my life and how I’ve responded in the face of adversity. Those things matter to me.”
Just over a week ago, Mitchell was introduced as a Blue Bomber in a media conference call. The game-breaking playmaker is one of the most intriguing signings in CFL free agency and was both engaging and confident in his interview, further fuelling the narrative the club had landed a good one in the open market.
During the interview, Mitchell focused on what is ahead for him in the Bombers offence and many of the reports after his session focused on his time last fall with the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers before his release.
What wasn’t really explored in depth were the many mental and physical roadblocks he’s had to work around since starring with the Edmonton Football Team in 2018.
And there have been many.
Consider that Mitchell left Edmonton by signing a free agent deal with the Arizona Cardinals, and was then scooped up by the Bucs after his release by the Cards. The Northwestern State product was tearing it up in a preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in August of 2019 when his script changed. Mitchell had caught his fifth pass of the game on an exit screen when…
“I take a step or two and I hear this loud ‘POP!’” he recalled. “As athletes we do things in milliseconds and in my mind I’m trying to process the moment. I knew where everyone was on the field and I knew there was no one behind me. I had heard before from other guys that an Achilles injury feels like someone had tripped you or kicked you in the back of your leg. I took another step and thought, ‘That’s my Achilles.’
“I just dropped on the turf. During the play I had heard my coach yelling ‘Get outside! Get outside!’ I was heading outside and had I been able to finish, I probably would have broke for 60 (yards) because it was blocked up that well.
“But I took that step, my foot went flat and I dropped. And that was that.”
Mitchell had surgery and the subsequent recovery wiped out his 2019 season. He was in a boot for 2 ½ months and drove around from meeting to meeting on a scooter, prompting Tampa offensive consultant Tom Moore to dub him ‘Scooter-Man.’
He then advanced to crutches, to wearing a shoe with a heel lift and then, finally, to a regular flat runner.
“It’s a long process. It’s like learning how to walk again,” said Mitchell. “And then when COVID hit it delayed my rehab a bit, I was on my own after the training staff at Tampa had given me everything I had. That injury has taken people out completely. Many have bounced back, but many others don’t play again.
“I had some kinks to work out when I first got back (during camp last summer), but by the end of it I was rolling. I felt like myself again. But it wasn’t just being back on the field that I was most appreciative of, it was just being able to run again. It was just a blessing to be able to simply run again.”
More on Mitchell and other Blue Bombers and CFL-related topics in this week’s edition of 1st & 10…
1. The last regular season game that Mitchell played in was the 2018 finale – ironically, against the Bombers – in a game that meant nothing in the standings. Edmonton, which had already been eliminated from the playoff race, won the game to finish 9-9 while the Bombers rested or limited the work of many of their starters to get ready for the playoffs.
Mitchell, for the record, had 10 catches for 104 yards and one carry for eight more in that game. What happened since – with stops in Arizona, Tampa and now Winnipeg, with the Achilles injury along the way – has taught him so much about himself.
“The mental part of it was that I had worked my whole life to get to the NFL,” he said. “Having the opportunity to be there and then on that team actually having the opportunity to be the 3-4-5 receiver… that was where they saw me. That was exciting.
“But then you start having the thoughts, ‘What if I hadn’t got hurt?’ You have to then start thinking about the other possibilities. I mean, (Washington QB) Alex Smith had over 20 surgeries on his leg. I learned to be grateful in that. I learned patience. I gained strength and resilience throughout all that. It’s something I can tell my kids to go through something like this and how to work your way back, that it doesn’t have to end when someone else says it does.”
2. A man of deep faith, Mitchell occasionally answers questions quoting the Bible. And his story of the moment immediately after suffering the Achilles injury is a reflection of that.
“I was on the field and I thought to myself, ‘This is it… my career is over,’” Mitchell recalled. “My hands are on my head and I’m saying, ‘No, no, no’ to myself.”
Tampa head athletic trainer Bobby Slater had run out onto the field to check on Mitchell.
“He leans over to me and says, ‘You’re going to be OK, kid,’” said Mitchell. “I heard that, but I didn’t know what it meant. Behind him it was like the sun was shining right through him, like God was speaking to me directly and he said, ‘I’m going to get the glory.’ He started to say something again and all I heard was ‘I’m going to get the glory.’ I sat up and said, ‘OK God, you’re going to get the glory’ and everybody was looking at me like, ‘What?!’
“I ended up feeling at peace in that moment to know it was going to be all right. Through it all, I can say he did get the glory, from me being re-signed to going through a whole training camp to finishing it healthy.”
3. One more from Mitchell…
The proud father of three sons – 10-year-old Amaur’e and five-year-old twins Kameron and Kaleb – he was ‘born again’ in 2016 and is a regular at the Refuge Temple Ministry. And prior to that?
“It was a life lived that I’ll just say I wasn’t happy with,” he said. “I was an angry child. I can’t tell you why I was angry, but I was blaming the world for everything that I was dealing with. You get the football pads on and you get to hit people… that passive-aggressiveness is no longer frowned upon.
“I’ve had two major injuries in my career – the Achilles and I tore my labrum in college. Overcoming that wasn’t easy by any means. There were some dark days. I thought I was over the thought of football being who I was.
“What I’ve learned is football is just a part of me, it’s part of what I do, but it doesn’t make me who I am.”
4. A cool statistical note related to Mitchell and courtesy Derek Taylor, the Saskatchewan Roughriders play-by-play man, who guested with Marshall Ferguson on the Canadian Football Perspective podcast this week: Mitchell was 10-for-10 in the red zone on catches and had just one drop in 126 targets in his days in Edmonton – by far the best ‘drop rate’ among CFL receivers during that span.
“I thought an enormous move was Bryant Mitchell to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers,” began Taylor on the podcast when he and Ferguson began ranking the biggest signings in CFL free agency. “He is going to make an incredible impact in Winnipeg.”
To check out that podcast, click here or search for Canadian Football Perspective in your podcast platform.
5. CFL fans are desperate for some sort of road map for the 2021 season but those details simply won’t be known until we see how the vaccine rollout unfolds over the next few months.
In that respect, commissioner Randy Ambrosie is in a no-win situation: he’s been criticized for not being forthcoming enough and when he did speak to some media members this past week, he was again blamed for not providing more details.
The full story by Dan Ralph of The Canadian Press, can be found here.
The takeaway quote, for what it’s worth, was this:
“We’ve got a schedule in place and we’re committed to it,” Ambrosie said. “Our real focus is on all the planning that’s going to have to go into executing against that and also having maximum adaptability because there’s no doubt we’re going to have to made adjustments to our plan.
“We just need to be ready at a moment’s notice to make those adjustments… that’s really how we’re planning our business. We’re committed to being on the field in 2021… we’re just keeping all of our avenues open.”
6. One more bit of business/political news that may ultimately help the CFL: Bill C-218 – the single-event sports betting bill – passed its second reading this week in parliament by a vote of 303-15. A quick read on the bill is here.
And here is the Conservative MP for Regina-Wascana, Michael Kram, recently speaking to parliament on how the bill could help CFL teams:
7. CFL teams continue to sign players, both veteran free agents and fresh new faces. One of those added by the Bombers this past week is an intriguing one – receiver/returner Quadree Henderson.
Henderson was sensational at Pitt in 2016 as an All-American returner. That prompted some to ask back then if he was better than Notre Dame’s Rocket Ismail, who ultimately signed with the Toronto Argonauts – spurning an NFL offer at the time. Check out these piece from 2016 and 2017 on Henderson.
8. It hasn’t been easy for the Bombers based in Texas lately – from Mitchell to Jackson Jeffcoat and Willie Jefferson – what with the winter storm that has hammered the state.
But I’ll tell you what, nobody seems to roll with the punches better than Willie, his wife Holly and their daughter Kelley.
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9. FYI: Not sure what to make of ‘Fan Controlled Football’ league, but it’s up and running. The four-team loop – featuring the Beasts, Glacier Boyz, Wild Aces and Zappers – has some CFL links including coach John Jenkins, who first came to the league with Winnipeg in 1994, and Johnny Manziel – who seems hell bent on playing in every league possible. The weekly minimum salary is $400-750, plus room and board… Nice piece here on James Deighton, AKA ‘Boomer’.
10. And, finally, please discuss amongst yourselves the latest 2021 Grey Cup odds, from betonline.ag: