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Not long after his 33rd birthday in January, Johnny Mitchell's planned return to professional football hit rock bottom. Even though Mitchell was one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the past decade and even though he's in better shape than many rookies, nobody was interested. He could run the 40-yard dash in the smoking time of 4.5 seconds, but not even the National Football League's minor-league teams in Europe gave a damn. At 33, Mitchell was, in pro football terms, a dinosaur. But it's not easy for an athlete like Mitchell to believe, long before middle age, that he's too old. So Mitchell turned to the man who has fueled many comebacks.
He called Cris Carter, who has been credited with the turnaround of hundreds of mediocre athletes. A retired wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings and future Hall of Famer, Carter runs a training facility in Boca Raton that has become known nationwide as a place athletes can come to get their game back. "Cris, I need your help," Mitchell told his friend. "Call your people at the Vikings. I've got speed, and they need speed. See what you can do." Carter agreed and phoned Vikings Head Coach Mike Tice to get Mitchell a tryout that could revive his dying career.
With no return call from the Vikings, though, Mitchell decided in late February that it was time for something drastic, maybe even a little insane. As Mitchell himself tells it, he jumped into his silver Toyota 4-Runner and began the 27-hour drive from Florida to the Vikings training facility near Minneapolis. On the way, he left a message with Assistant Coach Jeff Robinson to tell Tice he's on his way. Robinson called back minutes later. "Don't come here," he told Mitchell. "Coach Tice, his schedule is full. Don't bother coming here, because he won't see you."
Mitchell pulled into a highway rest stop in Illinois. "That's when I decided I was going anyway," he recalled. "I knew it was crazy, but this was my last chance. If Tice sees me, he's going to see that I'm ready to play. If he doesn't, then that's it for me."
When he arrived in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, Tice's secretary was less than welcoming. "He's busy," she told Mitchell. "And you can't wait here." At six-foot-two and 240 pounds, Mitchell is a handsome man, with dimples, a broad chin, and a bald head that looks sculpted. He has moonlighted as a model. He turned his charm on the secretary, but that only got him as far as a seat in a waiting area.
Finally, Tice walked through the lobby on his way to lunch. Maybe Tice saw a bit of himself in Mitchell. The gruff coach spent 14 years as a tight end in the NFL and was a starter well into his 30s, playing long after everyone said he was too old. Mitchell was only asking for a shot to do the same. Both of them, it seemed, shared an unexplainable drive that wouldn't let them listen to naysayers. "All right," the coach said, as Mitchell recalled it, "we can sit down and talk."
Everything rested on a speech that could convince Tice to give Mitchell a chance. Mitchell can speak with wild passion in his voice, like a desperate man before the parole board, using wild gestures and emotional peaks and valleys. He began his plea to Tice by explaining why he had left football in 1996. It was to watch his daughter die, he said. Gabriela was born with a rare genetic disease, leaving her with no arms or legs, stunting her neonatal growth so that, at birth, she was no bigger than a softball. Doctors had given her a month to live.
But miraculously, Gabriela hung on. She is now 8 years old. She still can't speak or walk, and she weighs barely 25 pounds. Mitchell, a man who easily shows his emotions, goes from tears to laughter talking about the tiny child. "What I've been faced with will make you stronger or it'll make you crazy," Mitchell said. "I don't want to go out this way that I'm going out now. With my passion and my desire, it's unreasonable that I'm not playing football."
The coach agreed to give him a tryout. A perfectionist about his physical condition, though, Mitchell insisted on getting in top shape before the workout. It was a gamble, really. If he had taken Tice up on the offer that day, perhaps the coach would've been impressed. But Mitchell wanted to make sure he wouldn't fail. "Give me some time to get in shape," Mitchell said, "and I'll be back."
That week, Mitchell enrolled in Carter's training program, beginning a grueling workout regimen to return him to football-playing condition. In just over a month, Mitchell would have to drop 20 pounds and return to the intense, hard focus of a football player.
There are plenty of aging athletes struggling to make it back into the pros. But Mitchell's fight to return, an eight-year battle that has mostly ended in failure, has dragged on perhaps longer than most. Mitchell credits it to a never-ending quest to better himself. Like Mitchell, many marginal players end up at Cris Carter's Fast Program in Boca. The place has attracted athletes with its proven regimen that promises to increase the speed of anyone. It has helped hundreds of pros, including the likes of already-speedy Marlins player Juan Pierre and Baltimore Ravens star running back Jamal Lewis.