If numbers spoke for themselves, there would be a bronze bust of Brian Mitchell in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. There might still be some day — we’re making the case there should — but right now numbers obviously don’t speak for themselves, so we’ll speak for them: 23,330 total yards as a kickoff returner, punt returner, running back and receiver over a 14-year career, mostly with the Washington Redskins.
Twenty-three thousand, three hundred and thirty. It’s long when you write it out — 13.25 miles when you run it through a yards-to-miles converter — and it’s second in total yards in NFL history. Brian Mitchell matriculated a football — to riff on a famous sideline exclamation of a Hall of Fame coach (Hank Stram) now in repose in a mausoleum down the road in Covington — up and down a gridiron farther than anyone who’s ever played in the National Football League except one: Jerry Rice — you’ve heard of him.
In a recent phone conversation, Mitchell is initially nonchalant about the bias among Hall of Fame voters against special teams players — only two, kicker Jan Stenerud and punter Ray Guy, have been inducted — but it clearly gets under his skin.
“I know how a lot of national media view the special teams thing, when every coach in the locker room is telling you there’s three phases to the game and special teams are as important as everything else,” Mitchell says from the Washington, D.C., area he now calls home. Twenty-three thousand, three hundred and thirty. Thirteen and a quarter miles. Not bad for a kid out of tiny Plaquemine High School in Iberville Parish who was not only an all-state athlete but an all-state scholar as well, graduating with a 3.8 GPA that had Stanford University and Ivy League schools calling. He ultimately chose the University of Southwestern Louisiana over Arkansas and Tulane because, he told one sports writer shortly after being drafted in the fifth round of the 1990 draft by the Redskins, USL (now UL Lafayette) also stressed academics.
Mitchell’s first year with the Cajuns, 1986, was also late head coach Nelson Stokley’s first. The pair had winning seasons all four years Mitchell played for the vermilion and white. Stokley became the first Ragin’ Cajuns football coach to have winning campaigns in his first four seasons, a feat matched only by current head coach Mark Hudspeth, who would later vacate 22 of his 36 wins over the 2011-14 seasons in the wake of NCAA violations.
By his senior season in 1989, Mitchell was being touted as a Heisman Trophy hopeful, which was more booster fantasy and box office marketing than reality — athletes from smaller schools like UL, no matter the talent or accolades, rarely get a glance from Heisman voters. He appeared on the cover of that season’s football media guide wearing his uniform, pads and all, and a pair of rubber boots beside the moniker “Sultan of the Swamp.” The hype in Cajun Country was that big.
By the time he completed his collegiate career, Mitchell held a number of NCAA records: only QB in Division 1 (now FBS) history with more than 3,000 yards rushing and 5,000 yards passing; most career rushing touchdowns (47) by a quarterback. He was twice voted Louisiana Player of the Year by the state’s sports writers — a superlative considering the highly recruited and much more heavily publicized players down the road in Baton Rouge.
Brian Mitchell’s first brush with speaking on the radio came just a few years into his professional football career when he would call in to take the sports-talkers to task for comments he felt were uninformed.
“I guess when I first stopped playing I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “I majored in engineering and started business stuff when I was at UL. When I left and I got here, my second or third year I got into the radio thing — getting upset with people saying stuff I didn’t think made sense.”
When he retired before the 2004 season, broadcasting was a natural transition.
“I felt it would keep me in sports without working out,” Mitchell cracks. “It keeps me involved with the sport without having to actually participate in it and get beat up all the time. But it also lets me be involved in other sports. I talk about the Olympics, hockey, World Cup; I talk about golf, tennis, whatever it is.”
He’s an avid golfer, and his broadcasting schedule gives him mornings for the links. But by early afternoon, he’s Brian Mitchell, broadcaster. He hosts a daily radio program, “Inside the Locker Room,” as well as a nightly TV broadcast, “Sports Talk Live with Brian Mitchell.” He’s also involved with the pre- and postgame shows for the Redskins during the season.
“I love it. I don’t know if there’s anything hard about it,” he admits.
Like many professional athletes, retired and not, he has an eponymous foundation that helps children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and he remains married to his high school sweetheart, Monica. They have four kids, three daughters and a son, ages 14-27.
Unlike many retired professional football players, Mitchell, now 48, has no lingering health effects from a very violent sport. He says he suffered one concussion in his pro career and, amazingly, never tore a knee ligament in 20 years of playing — from 8th grade all the way through the pros. He jokes that the only knee injury he sustained was when he stepped funny off a golf cart a few years ago.
“I don’t have any issues from football,” he says. “At this point I’m fine. Football has given me so much. I hear all the stuff about concussions and I know all that stuff is possible, but everybody doesn’t get concussions.”
On the eve of the 2002 NFC Championship game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia Eagles, according to former Buccaneers defensive lineman Warren Sapp’s 2012 account, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden ticked off 10 things his team needed to do the next day to prevail over the Eagles: “But then he got to the number one thing we needed to do, and he started talking about their kick returner Brian Mitchell. ‘I want Brian Mitchell’s ass on a plate,’ he said.”
The Buccaneers won the game 27-10 on their way to a Super Bowl victory, but Mitchell’s ass ended up on the highlight reel, not a plate: He had four kickoff returns for 125 yards including a 70-yarder, a 31.25 average, and added 34 yards on four punt returns.
That was at the twilight of Mitchell’s stellar, 14-year pro career. He played his first 10 seasons in D.C., three more in Philly and one in New York — all within the NFC East. After he was released by the Giants before the 2004 season, he signed a one-day contract with Washington so he could retire a Redskin. Today, he’s a beloved figure in Beltway sports and earns a handsome living talking sports on radio and TV.
“I still had my house here, and the fans weren’t the reason that I left,” he says of his decision to remain in the District of Columbia after football. “It all worked out.”
He missed one game in his career — to a sprained ankle he says shouldn’t have sidelined him. That longevity and reliability are key to why Mitchell amassed so many yards — yardage worthy of the Hall of Fame. That longevity is especially remarkable considering his position — returning kickoffs and punts, with opposing players running at him full-speed. The risk of injuries from collisions on kickoffs prompted the league in 2011 to move the ball five yards forward to the 35 yard line for kickoffs to minimize returns and promote touchbacks. (If you’ve read this far you’re probably a football fan and don’t need further explanation.)
“There’s something about longevity and being accessible to your team,” Mitchell says. “I played 14 years, and I missed one game — the last game of my rookie season because I had a sprained ankle, but I practiced every day and every play. I played the next 13 years and never missed a game, never missed a practice or a preseason. But people don’t look at that.”
Some people do — unfortunately not enough Hall of Fame voters, most of them sports writers who never suited up in pads much less ran back a punt or kickoff.
On the list for the NFL record for total yards, Mitchell is sandwiched between two all-time greats: the aforementioned Rice and running back Walter Payton. Mitchell retired about 1,500 ahead of Payton but only 216 yards behind Rice, who played 20 years in the league.
“[Rice] played six years longer than I did. So how did he get past me? Why? Because he was able to play such a long time,” Mitchell notes. “Everybody in the Hall of Fame, mostly they played doubledigit years or more unless you look back at the ’50s or the ’60s — those guys didn’t play as long. I think there’s something about being always available, but many people don’t see that.”
Joining Mitchell in the Top 10 all-time NFL total yards is a who’s who of professional American football: Emmitt Smith, Tim Brown, Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson, Steve Smith, Barry Sanders and Herschel Walker — all of them either current or shoo-in Hall of Famers (except perhaps Walker, who “wasted” three years at the start of his career playing in the NFL’s ill-fated rival, the United States Football League).
Not even considering the inherent danger in Mitchell’s football specialty, his 14-year career is extraordinary: An average career in the NFL is 3.3 years, according to the players’ union; the league says players who make a team’s opening-day roster average six.
Mitchell won a ring with the Redksins in Super Bowl XXVI following the 1991 season, his second in the league. He was selected a first-team All Pro three times — 1991, ’94 and ’95 — considered the singlebest returner in the game those seasons. And he played with abandon.
“The way I look at it is, I played the game hard,” Mitchell says. “I played the game reckless, like you’re supposed to. I’ve always felt if you try not to get hurt, you get hurt.”
One sprained ankle in 14 seasons as a return specialist in the National Football League boggles the mind.
“It’s just amazing that the people who vote on it don’t feel that special teams are all that important — and it makes no sense to me,” he says.
Brian Mitchell is in the Ragin’ Cajuns ring of honor at Cajun Field. He’s in the ring of honor at the Redskins’ home, FedEx Field, too. That’s two down and one to go. Some day, Canton will call. It must.