Games reveal Mitchell's heart of gold ATLANTA OLYMPICS

August 01, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- When the United States boxers say coach Al Mitchell is hard-headed, little do they know.

The man has a plate in his head!

It was sort of Mitchell's little secret until yesterday, when a reporter asked him the name of the mom-and-pop store he used to run in Philadelphia, and a light bulb -- or maybe it was the actual plate -- went off inside his head.

"I've gotten a little brighter since it's been there," Mitchell joked.

Brighter?

Right now, Mitchell looks positively brilliant. Featherweight Floyd Mayweather last night became the sixth U.S. boxer to reach the medal round, beating Cuba's Lorenzo Aragon, 12-11 -- the first U.S. Olympic win over a Cuban since 1976.

Six medals.

That's twice as many as the U.S. earned in Barcelona.

And about twice what most boxing analysts expected.

NBC hates boxing, but loves winners, so it eventually will get around to telling you about the medals. Too bad the network probably won't bother profiling Mitchell. Reporters have spent weeks trying to piece together his life story. Yesterday, seemingly on a whim, Mitchell added a few missing details.

About his plate.

His three operations.

And, oh yes, his coma.

"It was about 12 years ago," said Mitchell, who admits to being in his "heavy 40s." "Three guys tried to rob me. I fought them back and got hit. . . . I was closing up. I was trying to check out and see some friends of mine. The next thing I knew, I woke up in a hospital."

Mitchell said his coma lasted about five days, but that wasn't the end of his troubles.

"After the second operation, my brother came to pick me up to take me home," he recalled. "We started driving, and I said, 'Frankie, you're driving a little too fast.' He hit another car. When I woke back up, I was back in the hospital again."

Hard to believe?

Welcome to boxing.

The sport is full of colorful figures, but the truth is, Mitchell doesn't fit the stereotype, not as the head boxing coach at the U.S. Olympic Education Center (USOEC) at Northern Michigan University.

Boxing and education -- there's a good one.

But the USOEC is no joke.

Each athlete is required to attend Northern Michigan or Marquette (Mich.) High School. The program is so tough, Mitchell's longtime pupil, U.S. light middleweight David Reid, left for a time, then came back.

Mitchell instills responsibility in his boxers, most of whom come from the inner city. His approach with the U.S. boxing team is equally straightforward, and at times, has created friction.

"Al, he's a hard guy," said Reid, who earned a 13-8 decision yesterday over Tunisia's Mohamed Salah Marmouri. "He's one of those coaches back from the 1950s or somewhere. He don't let you watch TV. He'll take away your phone. I think it's cool. never got my phone and TV taken away. But if you act up, that's what he'll do to make you better."

And if you don't fight well, he'll call you "lousy," as light heavyweight Antonio Tarver can attest. Tarver again started slowly yesterday, but by the end of the second round, he had built a 13-2 cushion. Mitchell, trying to push his fightm, told him he led by only two points.

"After the first round, he was up by only two points," Mitchell protested.

And after the second?

"Sometimes I get the rounds mixed up," Mitchell said.

Tarver didn't mind -- he stopped Puerto Rico's Enrique Flores at 1: 54 of the third round.

"You've got to understand," Tarver said. "Al just has heart is in this."

His heart, and his soul.

Mitchell understands these kids, having grown up on the mean streets of north Philadelphia. In fact, one of the neighborhoods where he lived was known as "Buckets of Blood."

"It's not a church," Mitchell said, as if there were some confusion.

"I'm from the 'hood," he explained. "I did some bad things, got caught a few times, too. I was just fortunate to have the right people there at the right time. My mom should be in jail now for abuse of a child for some of those beatings."

Still, Mitchell said he grew to understand the value of discipline, and that's one reason he put his boxers through a rigorous three-month training camp in various cities across the U.S.

They boxed, they played basketball, they even swam.

The ones who couldn't swim?

"They'd run up and down the pool," Mitchell said.

He talks tough, he sounds tough, he is tough, but that quality alone does not define his character. Indeed, it's his gentler side that helped land him the USOEC job, the springboard to his Olympic position, in April 1995.

Mitchell had taken a team of Philadelphia amateurs for a tournament in Marquette, Mich. The team was getting ready for its flight home when Mitchell noticed Vernon Forrest, a USOEC boxer from Georgia, stuck in the airport.

Mitchell sent his kids ahead to Philadelphia so he could stay with Forrest. Forrest informed the USEOC of the gesture, one thing led to another, and now Mitchell is at the Olympics.

Telling his stories.

Exhorting his fighters.

Using his soft heart, and his hard head.

Pub Date: 8/01/96

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