Comeback Kid

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

Many attributed Mitchell's fall from stardom to his age, coming into the league at just 20 years old. Former Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason once told the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper that Mitchell was a complainer. "I used to call Johnny '7-Eleven' because he thought he was always open," said Esiason, Mitchell's roommate in the 1995 season. "With Johnny, it was always something. He had every excuse in the book. I kept hearing that Johnny was going to grow up and mature. I've heard 20 different times that he is going to grow up."


Mitchell finished his training regimen at Cris Carter's place April 7 without hearing from the Vikings. Then he flew to Chicago, hoping the coaches would call him at the last minute. Finally, Jeff Robinson, the Vikings coordinator who had warned him months earlier against showing up, told Mitchell to return May 6. If he could impress the coaches, he'd start work the next day, Robinson said. With two weeks to burn, Mitchell flew to Brazil to spend time with his family. On May 3, Mitchell made a three-hour bus ride from the condo he owns in Balnerio to catch a flight in Curitiba. He flew to Sao Paolo, then Miami, made an overnight stop in Boca Raton, had a layover in Atlanta, and then took a flight to Minnesota. By the end, he traveled three days and thousands of miles to find out if his career was over. He had paid for all of it, except for the hotel room the Vikings covered that Wednesday night.

At 10:30 on the morning of May 6, the Vikings had Mitchell in for a physical. Afterward, he spotted Tice in the weight room. Mitchell knew this was his chance, again, to convince the coach of his dedication. "He saw me, and I shook his hand," he says, "but afterward, he just turned and walked the other way. I thought I needed to convince him I was his man, but then, you know, I figured I needed to do it on the field."

That afternoon, Robinson took Mitchell onto the practice field for his tryout. Mitchell figured they'd have him run the 40-yard dash, catch some passes, maybe do endurance drills. To his disappointment, Tice wasn't there. "It used to be if I worked out somewhere, I knew the coach would be there to watch. When I saw he wasn't there, I knew it didn't look good."

But the stopwatch made things look brighter. Mitchell ran his 40-yard dash in 4.55 seconds. Most rookies can't beat that. "I thought for sure they'd want me to keep going, catch some passes at least." Instead, Robinson told him that was enough. Mitchell says Robinson told him the coaches would discuss his chances that afternoon, and if they needed him, they would sign him that day so he could start training camp the next morning. Mitchell went back to his hotel to wait.

The Vikings' decision probably didn't take too long. As Mitchell prepared for his tryout, the team hired veteran tight end Jermaine Wiggins. Needing only two or three tight ends, the team now has six on the roster. At 6:45 that night, Robinson called back. The team wasn't interested.

As he did months earlier in his last, desperate attempt at returning to the pros, Mitchell called Cris Carter. "That's just the nature of the business," Carter told him, as Mitchell remembers it. Sounding like a coach giving that aging player a speech before being cut, Carter said: "Be happy you have your family and your health, and keep your head up."

With no other teams calling, with no interest even from football teams in Europe or Canada, Mitchell decided that night, alone in his Eden Prairie hotel room, that it was time to quit. He drove to Chicago the next day; he would spend some time in Boca Raton before going on to Brazil. No more of those electrifying moments when the football settled into his arms and there was a clear path to the goal line. No roaring crowds. For now, Mitchell will help manage the coffee shops, raise his children, and maybe write a book about it all. "I just stopped worrying about it, man," Mitchell said Sunday, three days after his workout. He spent Mother's Day afternoon eating ribs with his mom and, for the first time in a long time, sounded relaxed. At 33 years old, he was finally comfortable leaving behind his troubled football career. "I'm gonna walk away. That's it. I'm done, and I'm walking away."

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