Comeback Kid

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

Many of the pro athletes hope they'll spend time with Carter himself, who works out there infrequently. Mostly, though, the athletes train with Carter's six employees, a group largely in their 20s and fresh out of college physical fitness programs.

It's easy to assume that, because Carter's program has attracted such star athletes, they employ some secret formula developed by Carter. But the lessons Carter's employees use are known to most high school track coaches. Those who come will be taught nothing more than the basics, like lengthening their strides and holding their arms at the correct angle. But the lessons will be drilled into them during intense workouts three or four times a day that will get them in peak shape, something more difficult if they train on their own. "We use the tried-and-true stuff," Calvagne admits. "What we do works."

The place looks no more impressive than the average hotel workout room. Carter rents an office about half the size of a basketball court inside the Gold's on Spanish River Boulevard, next to a nail salon and a Publix. Inside, there's a row of dumbbells on one wall, the treadmill, and a pole to measure an athlete's ability to jump. The bathroom doubles as a storeroom. The trainers and their interns share one office. The gray walls are largely bare, aside from a scattering of news clippings posted across from the front desk and a few pictures of the athletes who have come. For drills outside, the athletes drive to the practice fields of nearby Pope John Paul High School. The whole thing has the feel of something thrown together quickly and cheaply, then never improved.

Meanwhile, Carter's main competition makes his program look shabbily low-tech. Athletes' Performance has a 30,000-square-foot facility in Arizona, and a second branch recently opened in Los Angeles. The main facility has 25 employees, private massage rooms, a full-scale turf football field, an underwater treadmill, and a full-time chef. Still, its owner, Mark Verstegen, admits athlete training programs aren't dependent upon a great facility. "There are a lot of athletes who expect something great," Verstegen said. "I don't want to say anything negative about what they're doing over there [at Fast]. It's good to see anyone trying to make athletes better."

With Boca not exactly a mecca for pro athletes, most who attend the Fast Program spend their time in local hotels. Mitchell sold his Boca Raton home a few years ago, so he spends his time here living with his agent's mother.

While stretching on a rubber mat before his treadmill workout, Mitchell praised the simplicity of Carter 's program. The trainers put together a grueling daily regimen of treadmill work, weightlifting, and catching passes on the practice fields. The roughest of all the workouts is when the trainers attach a gigantic rubber band to a belt around Mitchell's waist. They pull on it when he runs his passing routes, requiring him to pull an extra hundred pounds or so as he catches passes.

After two weeks in the program, Mitchell looked like a rock. Muscles ran in sharp lines across his chest, over his shoulders, and down his arms. He pulled up his shirt, a long-sleeve spandex one with an NFL logo, and showed a stomach as ridged as a lobster tail. "This is how I looked when I was 20 years old," Mitchell said. "It makes it worth every penny."

Despite his condition and his progress, Mitchell said, the Vikings have not given him a date for his workout, though he says, "I know Coach Tice is a man of his word." Mitchell has two weeks to go in his workout regimen to resurrect his career and put behind him his spotted past.

A week before the college national championship, the media always look for a good quote from one of the players. Back in 1992, that sound bite came from Johnny Mitchell, who was the starting tight end for the University of Nebraska. He was just in his second year with the Cornhuskers, but he had already set records for tight ends and receivers, and on New Year's Day, he would play for the national championship against the University of Miami in the Orange Bowl. Before the game, Mitchell boasted to the reporters: "When the bomb hits, it's gonna be ugly."

But on New Year's Day, the bomb was the Cornhuskers. The Miami defense swarmed Nebraska, which managed a measly one pass for a loss of a yard. Mitchell never touched the ball. Mitchell's propensity to speak when he shouldn't, something that didn't help him in his pro career either, seemed out of place when you consider his humble beginnings and Southern upbringing and may be part of why he's fighting for a job.

In 1973, when Mitchell was 2, his grandparents came for a visit to his family's home on the south side of Chicago. Mitchell's father worked as a janitor. Things were bad in Chicago, recalls his mother, Yvonne Mitchell. The packinghouses were closing, businesses were fleeing the rough south side, and at 20, Yvonne Mitchell was pregnant with her third child. "His granddaddy said, 'You can't raise kids like this,'" she remembers. "There were a lot of murders in Chicago at that time, a lot of young boys getting killed. He told me he was taking little Johnny with him. I didn't want him to at first but know he was better off."

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