Comeback Kid

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

Joe and Lou Ollie Mitchell became his parents that day. He still called them his grandparents, but they raised Mitchell into his teens, teaching him to pick the fall cotton and sow the wheat fields every spring. But shortly after he turned 16, Mitchell tired of farm life. His grandfather agreed to send him back to Chicago. His parents had settled down now, his dad still working as a janitor, and his mom was making a steady income as a nurse. While his home life was settled, Mitchell had to learn how to deal with the Black P-Stone Rangers, the local gang. "He really had his own mind right from the beginning," recalls his brother, Steven Mitchell, who's ten years younger. "I think his accent saved him. They called him country. They would ask him to say things, and he did it. I think it kept him on their good side."

In high school, he played everything from defensive end to quarterback, but in the city finals, his team lost the championship his senior year. After high school, Mitchell agreed to play for University of Miami under Coach Jimmy Johnson. But then Johnson took a job as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Angry that Johnson abandoned the program, Mitchell enrolled in Nebraska. It would not be the last time Mitchell and Johnson crossed paths. Mitchell would face Johnson's Miami team in his final college game in 1992. The loss crushed him, and he returned to Mississippi. He found his grandfather sick with pneumonia, and the farmhouse's only heat, a fireplace, unable to warm the place. Mitchell decided right then to go pro.

At best, Mitchell was considered a late first-round pick, maybe even not that good. But the Jets that April used their first pick, 15th overall, on Mitchell. Right away, he wasn't popular. Jets fans had been screaming "de-fense" all day, and a tight end wasn't going to help that goal. In his first year, he caught 16 passes for 210 yards and a touchdown. In his second season, though, he really started hitting his stride, becoming one of the league's best, catching 39 passes for 630 yards and six touchdowns.

Colby Katz
At 33 years old, Mitchell still has an unrivaled workout routine.
Colby Katz
At 33 years old, Mitchell still has an unrivaled workout routine.

Mitchell lived large early in his career. He had a penthouse in Manhattan, drove a cherry-red Porsche Carrera, and spent the offseasons at his home in Boca Raton.

But after his fourth year in the pros, with over 2,000 yards and 16 trips to the end zone, his career would fall apart.

Clearly the underachieving Jets didn't see Mitchell in their future. In 1996, the Jets used a first-round draft pick to select Mitchell's replacement, tight end Kyle Brady. Going into the offseason, Mitchell hinted to the media that he wanted a trade, and with Brady behind him, the Jets management agreed. In April of that year, unable to work out a trade, the Jets released Mitchell. "I went from the best to nothing, just like that," Mitchell recalled. "Do you know what that can do to a man? It was the beginning of my fall backwards." Meanwhile, his personal life wasn't going any better. The previous summer, he had met Eliana Santos while walking on a beach in Rio de Janeiro. He didn't speak Portuguese, and she spoke no English. But they began a relationship, translated by her friends and family. She moved with him to New York not long after. What they had in Brazil didn't work in America, and she left for home in January. She called him not long after to say she was pregnant.

In the summer of 1996, Mitchell took a flight to Brazil a couple of weeks before Eliana was to give birth. Her mother picked him up at the airport with the news: The baby had been born premature, and there were complications. At the hospital, the doctor pointed to a description in an English medical book of his daughter's illness, Cornelia de Lange Syndrome. It described a genetic disease that would severely stunt the growth of the baby, leaving her brain forever slowed. Complications from being born premature meant his daughter had little hope. The doctor gave her 30 days, probably less.

Mitchell wanted to see her. In the incubator, he saw a girl no bigger than his fist. "She had just little-bitty arms and legs, and her nose looked missing. I looked at her and couldn't take it. I just fainted." When he came to, he fled. "I just ran. I was like Forrest Gump. I kept running and running. I ran to where I was staying. I ran to the airport. I ran all the way back to New York."

He called Eliana from home and told her he didn't want anything to do with his daughter. "I just thought she must have taken drugs or something. It didn't make any sense, you know? How could my baby look like that. I was a coward, and I ran."

Mitchell turned back to football. He had gotten offers from several teams. He took one from an unlikely source: new Miami Dolphins Coach Jimmy Johnson, the man Mitchell believed had betrayed him years earlier at the University of Miami. Mitchell signed a $1.4 million-a-year contract to be Dan Marino's new target.

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