Mitchell rises to the occasion Redskins return man copes with tragedy

September 27, 1991|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Sun Staff Correspondent

HERNDON, Va. -- Brian Mitchell is proving that appearances can be deceiving.

With his outgoing personality, Mitchell has acquired a happy-go-lucky reputation.

"When I'm at practice, I have fun. I talk to everybody. I'm outgoing," the second-year running back and kick returner of the Washington Redskins said.

Off the field, he's a different type of person.

"I rarely go out," he said. "I rarely do anything."

What he has done the past year is live with tragedy. Four family members -- his brother, grandmother, aunt and father -- died between August 1990 and February 1991 during his first season with the team.

"I was just a 22-year-old guy alone by myself [last year], no family really to turn to," he said. "I fought through all that. I think I achieved a lot."

The death of his brother, Michael, at age 30 in his hometown of Plaquemine, La., near Baton Rouge, may have been the toughest to deal with. He still doesn't want to go into the details.

"They're still investigating it," he said. "They don't know what really happened. He was more or less murdered. I'd rather not talk about it."

The strange thing is that while he was coping with all the tragedy, he got the reputation of being something of a wild and crazy guy off the field. Being late for a couple of meetings and an arrest on a drunken-driving charge before the start of this season helped foster that reputation. But Mitchell still doesn't understand how he got that tag.

"Hey, I made a mistake. I made a couple of mistakes since I've been here, being late for meetings," he said. "But I feel I'm a good person. It's not like I was a party animal or anything like that. I'm more to myself than people think. If I was as wild as people think, I wouldn't have any energy once I got out here [on the field]. I was tagged with a reputation that I shouldn't have. I feel it's my job and duty to go out and prove people wrong."

If the start of this season is any indication, he's going to do that.

Mitchell has been one of the stars of the team's 4-0 start. He's returned three punts for touchdowns -- although one was called back by a penalty; the Redskins say it was a bad call -- and pulled off a successful fake punt against the Dallas Cowboys.

Just a month ago, when Mitchell was arrested on the drunken-driving charge for which he faces a court date in December, coach Joe Gibbs publicly rebuked him.

"We don't like that," Gibbs said at the time. "We don't want it. He's a smart guy. He knows he's got a lot at stake and to do something like that, we don't like it. We don't like it in our community. Hopefully, it'll be something that won't happen again."

Mitchell apologized at the time and said: "I did something stupid. I've made a mistake and I've just got to live with it."

But he didn't let it affect him on the field.

"That's one thing about me, I can put a lot of things behind me and get the job done," he said. "With all kinds of tragedies happening in my family [last year], I never really slacked off. I just went out there and did what I had to do."

Now he's got the coaches raving about his play.

"Brian's kind of leading the way," Gibbs said. "He's giving us a big return man who's hitting things very hard."

Wayne Sevier, the special-teams coach, said: "I don't think this is an accident. I expected him to be darn good, but this is beyond what you expect."

Mitchell was a quarterback at Southwest Louisiana, where he became the first player in NCAA history to pass for more than 5,000 yards and run for more than 3,000 yards in his career.

When the Redskins drafted him in the fifth round last year, he didn't mind making the switch to running back. In fact, he passed up a chance to play quarterback in Canada because he always wanted to play in the NFL.

Last year, he returned 12 punts and 18 kicks, but was still learning. He broke his first kickoff return for a touchdown in the exhibition season, but didn't do it in the regular season.

"I'm more settled now. I don't feel like I'm a second-year player. I feel a lot more mature," he said.

Even though he enjoys his role as a kick returner, he still has ambitions to be a full-time running back in the future.

"My time will come. I would love to be a starting running back," he said. "I feel if I get my chance, I want to be great at it."

NOTES: DE Markus Koch sat out yesterday's practice with a sprained knee, but Gibbs said he feels better and isn't ruling him out of Monday night's game with the Eagles. . . . Eagles coach Rich Kotite flew to Miami yesterday to visit his ailing mother, but will return to practice today. . . . CB A.J. Johnson and TE Don Warren, who are eligible to return from the injured reserve list this week, saw limited practice, but probably won't be activated.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.