Mitchell has big-game feeling as he helps carry ball for Parks

July 07, 1996|By John Steadman

If outstanding citizenship awards were given to athletes, past or present, Lydell Mitchell would be a 24-karat qualifier. He was one of the most productive Baltimore Colts in the history of the franchise -- that's 35 years' worth -- but, quietly, without cheers ringing or trumpets blaring, his involvement in an ambitious business endeavor promises to make a more important impact.

He's surging toward another objective. Mitchell is a key player in the revitalization of the Parks Sausage Co., which was once at the top of its game but has fallen on hard times. Sales slumped because tastes, as well as marketing aspects, change. Production lines are silent. Jobs in the office and plant have evaporated. Bankruptcy proceedings are under way.

But unlike Humpty-Dumpty, the organization is being put back together again with new life and a variety of concepts. It's an immense challenge for Mitchell, who interested his business associate and former college teammate Franco Harris in examining the property and seeing what could be done to initiate a comeback.

They are in it together and bring with them a successful background in the food business, first as partners in three Wendy's restaurants in New Jersey, then as regional distributors of frozen fruit bars and now as officers of Super Bakery Inc., which supplies products to school systems in all 50 states.

Mitchell spent seven seasons with the Baltimore Colts and three a San Diego Charger while Harris was on his way to a Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. From a personality and character standpoint, Mitchell is an extraordinary human being. His sincerity, intellect, quiet determination and humility set him apart.

"That's true," said Allen Quille, a self-made success story in the Baltimore business community. "The only unfortunate thing is not too many people know about Lydell because he's reserved and so decent. I put him right with Brooks Robinson as an individual who played sports. He never makes a lot of noise. Some people to this day don't even know he made Baltimore his home after playing football."

Mitchell doesn't dwell on his achievements. But he says his relationship with Harris has a special meaning for him. They played in the same backfield at Penn State and were exceptional runners. "More importantly," said Mitchell, "we have a friendship that is rare. Not many athletes continue a close relationship once they leave college. But we have. The first person to call when I was released in the NFL was Franco. We are devoted friends."

Talking about Joe Paterno, his Penn State coach, brings fond memories, too. "I was probably going to go to Ohio State because my grandparents lived in Columbus. I also considered Maryland. But one afternoon I was called by Sam Venuto, my really great high school coach in Salem, N.J., who had played for the Washington Redskins. He told me Paterno wanted to see me.

"When Joe gets nervous, little beads of perspiration form on his upper lip. I could see he was upset. Then he told me the reason I didn't want to go to Penn State was because Charley Pittman was such a good back. He challenged me. And, just like a school kid, I answered, 'Well, if I come there, I'll break all his records.' That's exactly what happened."

As a sophomore, Mitchell felt he wasn't getting maximum use as the team prepared for the Orange Bowl. "I complained a bit, but Paterno told me to just do what I was told. I had only one play to run, which was a pass. And I beat Roger Wehrli [later an outstanding defensive back for the St. Louis Cardinals], and it was the only touchdown scored in the game. We beat Missouri, 10-3. I knew then, if I didn't before, that Joe Paterno knew what he was doing."

Mitchell's career with the Colts was exceptional, and it was a memorable moment when he surpassed the rushing record of Lenny Moore, another Penn State grad who came to Baltimore and was the finest runner in the history of the franchise. While Moore was flamboyant, endowed with deer-like speed and amazing moves, Mitchell was more heavy-duty, knowing how to slip and slide his way for yardage, in some ways reminiscent of Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys.

Mitchell ran with power plus control, and knew how to use blockers. He was kind of a hunt-and-peck runner inside the tackles, feeling for an opening, taking heavy punishment -- durable as steel cable. Holding on to the ball was never a problem; he fumbled the fewest times of any runner in Colts history.

But, temporarily, enough about football. What will Mitchell be doing with the made-over Parks Sausage Co.? "The last thing on my mind is a title," he answered when the question was asked. "We have to make this go. We've been having dry runs on what we'd do if we got the business since last November. We got to hit the ground running. When we get started, the public will buy our product out of curiosity . . . the first time. That's our only hope and why we have to make it exceptionally good."

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