Not every NFL player gets to play 20 years like Tom Brady. Most won’t play five seasons. But for a select few, they’ll have one season, game or play that is truly historic. This offseason, we’ll highlight those special NFL performances in our “Moment of Glory” series.
If Tom Brady threw an incompletion and then didn’t convert on fourth down, the dream would have died. Brady took the shotgun snap and locked his eyes on one receiver.
Rookie Malcolm Mitchell.
Mitchell ran a hitch route. Brady threw before Mitchell had even made his break, anticipating the rookie would be open. He was. First down.
“It’s been the rookie, Malcolm Mitchell, who has played really well in the second half,” Fox play-by-play announcer Joe Buck said on the broadcast.
You know the rest. The Patriots won in overtime, executing the most famous comeback in sports history and turning 28-3 into shorthand for one of the greatest Super Bowls ever. Like Brady, James White, Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower, Mitchell was a key figure in that comeback. He had five catches for 63 yards after halftime. He was 24 years old and had just come through in the clutch for one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, in one of the most thrilling games of all time.
That was his last official NFL game.
Injuries wrecked Mitchell’s promising football career. He retired having played just 16 NFL games including playoffs, and admitted he was frightened about life after football.
Then, he took a path that is rare for a former NFL player. He spends his days promoting literacy to kids. He has written two picture books, “The Magician’s Hat” and “My Very Favorite Book in the Whole Wide World.” He runs multiple literacy programs, at schools and virtually. You can find out all about it at ReadWithMalcolm.com.
Nobody expected that twist on the night Mitchell was helping the Patriots win another Super Bowl ring.
“I think God had a plan for my life that I would not have realized if I continued to play football,” Mitchell said.
Malcolm Mitchell’s long injury history
The knee injuries started for Mitchell as a sophomore in high school. He tore his meniscus. That led to the first of many surgeries.
“Oh, I’ve had ...” Mitchell said before a long pause, trying to count all his knee surgeries. “I’m only counting the ones when I went under. So about six.”
But by Mitchell’s senior year at the University of Georgia, he felt good. He put up 865 yards. He ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine. The Patriots took Mitchell in the fourth round.
Mitchell was good as a rookie, especially considering he was playing on a loaded Patriots team and rookies often struggle to pick up New England’s complex offense. He had 32 catches for 402 yards and four touchdowns.
To get an idea of how the Patriots felt about Mitchell by the end of the season, just rewatch the Super Bowl. On that big third-and-11, the Patriots had three receivers to the right and only Mitchell to the left, and the play was designed to go to the rookie. Mitchell had another catch on practically the same play later, grabbing it for 11 yards on second-and-10 even after he fell down while Brady’s pass was in the air. That was another first down, this one on the tying drive.
In the fourth quarter of one of the most famous games in NFL history, the Patriots knew Mitchell would get open and called his number multiple times.
“I think he had earned that trust of everybody,” Brady told SI’s Peter King after the game.
The Patriots needed — and still need — new blood at receiver. Mitchell looked like he could be an NFL starter for a while. Had Mitchell gone on and had an injury-free career, he would have been a free agent this offseason, and it’s not hard to believe he could have become a very good receiver with Brady throwing him the ball. He could have commanded a big contract if everything went right.
His football future looked very bright on that night in Houston, when the Patriots won Super Bowl LI.
“I had a lot of momentum going into year two,” Mitchell said. “I had belief in myself, and others had belief in me.
“There wasn’t an inch of belief that the Super Bowl would be my last game.”
Mitchell suffers a preseason injury
When it comes to career-ending injuries, we think of the cart coming out while other players solemnly look on and then offering support as their injured teammate is taken away. That’s not what happened with Mitchell.
In the second quarter of a preseason game against the Houston Texans, Jimmy Garoppolo found tight end James O’Shaughnessy on a pass to the left. Mitchell was blocking. O’Shaughnessy hit the back of Mitchell’s knee as he was being tackled. Mitchell jumped up, grabbed his knee and limped a bit, but stayed in the game. He played the rest of the quarter, even catching a pass. He grabbed his right knee immediately after that catch.
That play in which his knee was hit, which looks like plenty of other NFL plays, started another spiral of surgeries.
Mitchell was put on IR a couple weeks later. He never got healthy after that. He was cut in 2018 and couldn’t get a shot anywhere else.
“I’d spent more time on crutches than my own two feet,” Mitchell said.
Nobody expects after one good year that their football career will vanish, especially after catching key passes from Brady in a Super Bowl with more than 111 million people watching. Mitchell has come to peace with it.
“Nothing was promised to me when I started to play football,” Mitchell said. “It was just a game.
“I got an education. I made a decent amount of money. I was part of the greatest comeback in NFL history. If I got all of that out of one year, I’m fine with it.”
Without football, Mitchell was able to throw himself into promoting literacy for kids.
Read With Malcolm
Mitchell tried to continue his football career, but in March 2019, he retired. He said at the time he felt “enraged, useless, scared” about leaving football behind.
It allowed him to commit to a passion of his that started in 2014 when he was at Georgia. Mitchell learned about literacy and how it affected disadvantaged communities. It hit him hard.
“I was raised in a community in which only athletics was praised and glorified, with the thought that if you play football and everything will be OK,” Mitchell said.
He knows the literacy statistics off the top of his head now. He said 61 percent of low-income families have no age-appropriate books in their homes, and new, age-appropriate books in a home can nearly triple interest in reading within months. Mitchell said children who grow up in homes with at least 20 books average three more years of schooling than children from homes without books. He said poor literacy is correlated with higher levels of bad behavior, incarceration, poor health, lack of education and poor financial stability.
“I read all these statistics and realized I fit with all of them,” Mitchell said. “The statistics said I’d fail in life even if I made it to the NFL and earned a lot of money. I didn’t have knowledge to sustain that lifestyle.
“That’s what fuels me today. I want to give every kid the chance to be literate and put themselves in a position to succeed.”
Mitchell said he doesn’t have poor feelings toward the NFL or football. He also isn’t seeking fulfillment out of his literacy foundation.
“I just hope to make the world much better than when I came in,” Mitchell said. “I do it with hopes of making a change in children’s lives so they can achieve whatever they want.”
Mitchell’s latest project is “ReadCamp 2020,” a free summer program for kids. All of Mitchell’s virtual reading programs are free. “ReadCamp 2020” started on Memorial Day but kids can sign up any time. Students who read eight books are crowned “Champions.” Kids who read 12 books are “MVPs.”
At the end of the conversation, Mitchell said he wanted to sum up his work. He paused for a while. He adjusted what he wanted to say. He is 26 years old, and with a little luck could have just signed a $10-million-a-year contract like Robby Anderson did this offseason. Anderson entered the NFL the same year as Mitchell and has never posted a 1,000-yard season. The Panthers signed Anderson to a two-year, $20 million deal.
Mitchell’s life took a different path.
“To transform the lives of children through literacy,” Mitchell finally said. “That’s my mission.”
Previous “Moment of Glory” stories
Vernon Perry’s four picks off Dan Fouts sets playoff record | Bert Jones wins MVP, earns Belichick’s respect | Dub Jones, one of three players in 6-TD club | Charles Fisher: 14 NFL plays to sports agent | The reason Reggie Langhorne vanished from NFL | “The A.J. Duhe Game”