Comeback Kid

Johnny Mitchell gave up football for his tiny, disabled daughter. But the dream dies hard.

Mitchell's eight-year quest is either about fortitude or stubbornness, a man refusing to retire, even when there's so little chance of success. As Mitchell trained for his Vikings workout, even his mom back in Chicago wondered about his chances. "A lot of people say I need to talk to him and tell him the NFL is over," she said. "I'm not going to sit him down and say, 'You're an old man now.' A lot of people could do that, but I can't."

By the end, two months after that first meeting, Mitchell would either have a job or come to realize what his mom is afraid to tell him.

At left, trainer Artis Atoa has the secrets to speed at Carter's gym. At right, the Jets made Mitchell a pro at just 20 years old.
Colby Katz
At left, trainer Artis Atoa has the secrets to speed at Carter's gym. At right, the Jets made Mitchell a pro at just 20 years old.
Mitchell left football to be with daughter Gabriela.
Mitchell left football to be with daughter Gabriela.

On a Monday morning not long after the meeting with Tice, Mitchell got ready to make a frightening leap. He straddled a treadmill in the Fast Program's office, the track beneath him looking out of control. Mitchell had his feet on either side of it, his hands clenched to metal bars. The track zoomed beneath him like the road passing under a car speeding down the highway. The treadmill wasn't quite at its top speed of 28 mph, but it wasn't far off. One of Mitchell's two trainers at Fast, Artis Atoa, told him it was time to run. "OK, let's see what you've got," Atoa dared him. Mitchell skipped his right foot on the track, and it kicked back like the treadmill spit it out. He repeated the skipping motion three more times before jumping on and immediately sprinted full-out to keep up, arms pumping and chest heaving. "God damn," Mitchell roared, finally jumping off the track in less than a minute of full-on running.

Later, trainer Matt Gates loaded a video tape of Mitchell's sprints into a laptop. He analyzed the angle of Mitchell's arms, the length of his stride, and the distance of his elbows from his body. If his arms are too far out or his stride too short, small adjustments could help drop Mitchell's time by just enough to get him a job, in that inexact science NFL coaches use to gauge a player's strength, smarts, and speed. The trainers must make sure he's leaning his torso forward 5 to 7 degrees, that his arms hang at a 70-degree angle from his body when in front of him, and 90 degrees when in back. "You see that right there?" Gates said, pointing to the lines he drew between Mitchell's arms and his body. "His arms are at maybe 86 degrees when they're in back of him, right there. If he can get it to 90, he can get that much more power."

The picayune details of running styles are much of what Carter's program is about, and pro athletes have come to respect the demanding approach. Carter founded the Fast Program back in 1997 in Boca Raton, where he spent his offseasons while playing in the NFL. Not long after opening, Carter brought in a new teammate, a first-round draft pick who most people thought was too lazy and too boisterous to be successful in the pros. Star Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss, who showed up that summer, gave the program its first national attention.

Then came running back Jamal Lewis, who dropped his 40-yard-dash time by more than a second. Originally considered a second-round pick, Lewis was selected fifth overall, in part because of his improved speed. The difference meant an extra $2.5 million on his contract. Lewis' story immediately put a dollar figure to the value of the training, said Leslie Calvagne, the program's general manager.

While the stars have made the program famous, it's the marginal athletes who pay the bills. Hundreds of local high school students work out here every summer, aspiring for college scholarships. The high schoolers pay $450 for a four-week program, and the pros spend from $350 to $750 per week for a six-week course. Then every spring, college athletes flood the place to get in shape for pro workouts. Canadian and arena football league players come in their offseasons.

But throughout the year come the players like Mitchell, the ones who refuse to quit or who have never had what it takes. Two of the NFL's most notorious disappointments, Ki-Jana Carter and Rashaan Salaam, have trained at Carter's gym. The pair were the top two college running back prospects in 1994; Salaam won the Heisman Trophy, the top award for a college player, and Carter was runner-up. Both were first-round draft picks the following year, but since then, they've done little in the NFL. Carter sat out 2002, and then the Saints cut him last year to end his most-recent comeback attempt. Salaam hasn't played since 1997. Both worked out last year and may return again this summer in what's likely a hopeless attempt at stardom.

Part of what attracts the marginal players is that they train with the stars. During Mitchell's training sessions, the man often throwing him passes was 18-year-old Matt Brooks, a senior at Boca Raton High School. For three years now, Brooks has gone to Cris Carter's place five to ten times a week in the summer, then at least a couple of times weekly during school. This summer, Brooks will play football on a partial scholarship at University of Arizona. It's not enough to guarantee him a spot with the team, so he knows he needs to get better. "When you're working out with these pro football guys, it's going to make you better," Brooks said. He spent last summer working out with Mitchell. "I've worked out with him 30 or 40 times, and this year, he's in the best shape I've seen him in. I really think he's going to make it."

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