Comeback Kid

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

Shortly after, Mitchell's mother got a picture in the mail of her new granddaughter. Yvonne Mitchell had regretted for years giving her son over to his grandparents. While they raised him well on the farm, she always wondered if she could've done better. She always carried the guilt of letting him go. She called her son. "I told him, 'This is your blood. You've got to take care of her.' I think it really affected him, what I said, because he listened."

Twelve days into training camp that summer, Mitchell went to Johnson. "Coach, my daughter's dying," he said. "Can I go see my daughter before she dies?"

"No, I need you here," Mitchell recalls Johnson telling him. "If you go, that's it." Mitchell gave back his $500,000 signing bonus and officially retired from the NFL.

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.

At 25, Mitchell decided to leave football stardom behind to care for his sick baby, a decision that would crush his career. "I had left the mother of my child without even comforting her," he explains, grasping for the right words. "I didn't even hold her or tell her it was gonna be all right. I ran away. I didn't know if she would take me back, but she did." At first, the couple thought they would watch together as their girl faded. Instead, she began to grow slightly, and they took her out of the hospital that fall.

In November, just months after his departure from the Dolphins, Mitchell brought his new family back with him to the States. He hoped the NFL would have him back. With just four games left in the season, Mitchell signed a contract with the Dallas Cowboys, a team that had won the Super Bowl the year before but was struggling late in the season. Mitchell ended the season with one catch for 17 yards. In the offseason, the Cowboys declined to give him a new contract.

While his career imploded, his family life improved. He married Eliana, and they now have two healthy children, a daughter, Nefertiti, and a son, Kemet. In Brazil during the off-season, Eliana used some of Mitchell's football money to open a couple of coffee shops that bring in a steady income. Mitchell explains how he can hold his disabled 8-year-old, as if cupping his hands together to hold a swallow of water. "She can't speak, but she can say 'Da Da Da' when she sees me, and she waves her little arms at me," Mitchell said, demonstrating by flailing his elbows in tiny circles. "She's an angel, and I know she was put here to change me. She made me a better person."

Mitchell left the NFL after his dismal time with the Cowboys, this time thinking his retirement might be forever. But in 1999, still dreaming of a comeback, he signed again with the New York Jets, the team that cut him three years earlier. It was the year renowned Coach Bill Parcells came out of retirement to head the team. In the first day of training camp, Parcells gave Mitchell trouble for running the wrong route, labeling him lazy in front of his teammates. Mitchell piled up his gear beside his locker and walked out. Mitchell said he wanted a comeback, but he didn't want public embarrassment. "I don't take to that drill-sergeant stuff. If he had trouble with me, he could've told me afterward." The spat with Parcells bode poorly for Mitchell. Parcells wrote a book on his season with the Jets. With no tight ends on the roster good enough to replace Mitchell, Parcells blamed Mitchell as one of the reasons his team did so poorly that year. "The guy turned out to be a phony," Parcells wrote. "In my opinion, the guy didn't have the heart for football or to do what it takes to be a great player. I'm sorry I ever gave him a shot."

Mitchell thinks the Parcells book ruined his football chances. "After that, nobody wanted me. Coach Parcells destroyed me with that book, and every coach on every team wanted nothing to do with me."

In 2001, Mitchell sent a fax to every NFL team that read: "I now realize and regret that I let a golden opportunity slip away from me previously. I am now here to try and get that back with a new outlook on life." The New Orleans Saints took a chance and gave him a contract, and sports writers labeled Mitchell one of the reasons the team might do well that season. Unexpectedly, the Saints never put Mitchell into a game, and he collected a paycheck while standing on the sidelines.

Last year, Mitchell again had a promising prospect for his return. The Jacksonville Jaguars signed him in April. He made it through the preseason looking as if he would be the starter. The reason was another twist of irony to Mitchell' s career. Jacksonville's starter, holding out for a better contract, was Brady, the man the Jets replaced Mitchell with in 1996. Then in August last year, Brady and the Jaguars worked out his dispute, and the team released Mitchell.

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