Comeback Kid

Not long after his 33rd birthday in January, Johnny Mitchell's planned return to professional football hit rock bottom. Even though Mitchell was one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the past decade and even though he's in better shape than many rookies, nobody was interested. He could run the 40-yard dash in the smoking time of 4.5 seconds, but not even the National Football League's minor-league teams in Europe gave a damn. At 33, Mitchell was, in pro football terms, a dinosaur. But it's not easy for an athlete like Mitchell to believe, long before middle age, that he's too old. So Mitchell turned to the man who has fueled many comebacks.

He called Cris Carter, who has been credited with the turnaround of hundreds of mediocre athletes. A retired wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings and future Hall of Famer, Carter runs a training facility in Boca Raton that has become known nationwide as a place athletes can come to get their game back. "Cris, I need your help," Mitchell told his friend. "Call your people at the Vikings. I've got speed, and they need speed. See what you can do." Carter agreed and phoned Vikings Head Coach Mike Tice to get Mitchell a tryout that could revive his dying career.

With no return call from the Vikings, though, Mitchell decided in late February that it was time for something drastic, maybe even a little insane. As Mitchell himself tells it, he jumped into his silver Toyota 4-Runner and began the 27-hour drive from Florida to the Vikings training facility near Minneapolis. On the way, he left a message with Assistant Coach Jeff Robinson to tell Tice he's on his way. Robinson called back minutes later. "Don't come here," he told Mitchell. "Coach Tice, his schedule is full. Don't bother coming here, because he won't see you."

Mitchell pulled into a highway rest stop in Illinois. "That's when I decided I was going anyway," he recalled. "I knew it was crazy, but this was my last chance. If Tice sees me, he's going to see that I'm ready to play. If he doesn't, then that's it for me."

When he arrived in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, Tice's secretary was less than welcoming. "He's busy," she told Mitchell. "And you can't wait here." At six-foot-two and 240 pounds, Mitchell is a handsome man, with dimples, a broad chin, and a bald head that looks sculpted. He has moonlighted as a model. He turned his charm on the secretary, but that only got him as far as a seat in a waiting area.

Finally, Tice walked through the lobby on his way to lunch. Maybe Tice saw a bit of himself in Mitchell. The gruff coach spent 14 years as a tight end in the NFL and was a starter well into his 30s, playing long after everyone said he was too old. Mitchell was only asking for a shot to do the same. Both of them, it seemed, shared an unexplainable drive that wouldn't let them listen to naysayers. "All right," the coach said, as Mitchell recalled it, "we can sit down and talk."

Everything rested on a speech that could convince Tice to give Mitchell a chance. Mitchell can speak with wild passion in his voice, like a desperate man before the parole board, using wild gestures and emotional peaks and valleys. He began his plea to Tice by explaining why he had left football in 1996. It was to watch his daughter die, he said. Gabriela was born with a rare genetic disease, leaving her with no arms or legs, stunting her neonatal growth so that, at birth, she was no bigger than a softball. Doctors had given her a month to live.

But miraculously, Gabriela hung on. She is now 8 years old. She still can't speak or walk, and she weighs barely 25 pounds. Mitchell, a man who easily shows his emotions, goes from tears to laughter talking about the tiny child. "What I've been faced with will make you stronger or it'll make you crazy," Mitchell said. "I don't want to go out this way that I'm going out now. With my passion and my desire, it's unreasonable that I'm not playing football."

The coach agreed to give him a tryout. A perfectionist about his physical condition, though, Mitchell insisted on getting in top shape before the workout. It was a gamble, really. If he had taken Tice up on the offer that day, perhaps the coach would've been impressed. But Mitchell wanted to make sure he wouldn't fail. "Give me some time to get in shape," Mitchell said, "and I'll be back."

That week, Mitchell enrolled in Carter's training program, beginning a grueling workout regimen to return him to football-playing condition. In just over a month, Mitchell would have to drop 20 pounds and return to the intense, hard focus of a football player.

There are plenty of aging athletes struggling to make it back into the pros. But Mitchell's fight to return, an eight-year battle that has mostly ended in failure, has dragged on perhaps longer than most. Mitchell credits it to a never-ending quest to better himself. Like Mitchell, many marginal players end up at Cris Carter's Fast Program in Boca. The place has attracted athletes with its proven regimen that promises to increase the speed of anyone. It has helped hundreds of pros, including the likes of already-speedy Marlins player Juan Pierre and Baltimore Ravens star running back Jamal Lewis.

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.

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."

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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