ATHENS – By this time, Malcolm Mitchell figured he would be wrapping up his rookie season in the NFL. He was supposed to have three great years at Georgia, turn pro, and start raking in the money.
Then the knee injury happened, and the surgery. Another setback followed, followed by yet another. All through this Mitchell found his outlook on life changing.
“I grew up and started thinking differently,” Mitchell said. “And school was one of those things.”
And it’s for that reason, at least mostly, that Mitchell recently decided to return to the Georgia football team in 2015. The dynamic receiver who once assumed he would be gone after three years is set to return for a fifth.
“If I stay I get a degree,” said Mitchell, who is one semester away from graduating. “I don’t think the NFL plans on shutting down any time soon.”
Mitchell came to interviews Wednesday carrying “Unbroken,” the Laura Hillenbrand best-selling book that was made into a movie. It comes out on Christmas Day, and Mitchell wants to finish it by then. He’s reading it on his own, neglecting the book chosen this month by his book club.
The story of a star college football player joining a (previously) all-women’s book club made for a feel-good feature, picked up by "CBS Sunday Morning”, among others. But it was also a window into the changed person that Mitchell became after the injuries.
“It placed a value in a lot of different areas,” said Mitchell, who grew up in Valdosta. “Coming from not a financial stable home the first thing in your mind is to make the most money you can. Just make the money so you can take care of your family.
“But there’s ways of going about it, from long term to short term. So you can leave early, and you can make the money. But it probably won’t be a long-term process, as if you stick around and get a little more educated.”
The long-term goal still includes playing football as long as his body will let him. Mitchell said he believes he always could and still can play at the next level.
“For how long, who knows,” he said. “But I want to know after that I still can provide a positive outlook on student-athletes somehow, based on how my mind can produce, not my body.”
He said he hasn’t decided where that would be. The hope is a long NFL career – starting in 2016 – will give him time to figure it out.
For now, Mitchell’s decision is a huge one for Georgia next season. Its two leading receivers, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett, are seniors, and so is quarterback Hutson Mason. Mitchell will provide some stability.
“He adds playmaking ability, and everyone knows that. And I think the plays that he will make and the touchdowns that he will score will be secondary to his leadership,” Conley said. “He’s been in every situation, he’s played in those big games, he’s made those game-saving plays.”
Mitchell was Georgia’s top receiver in 2011 and 2012, combining for 85 catches for 1,237 yards and eight touchdowns. He averaged more than 14 yards per catch.
Then he tore his ACL early in the 2013 season opener, before a pass had even been thrown his way. He sat out the season and took a medical redshirt, suffered another minor injury this past spring, then tore the knee meniscus days before preseason practice last August.
So he didn’t return to the field this season until the fifth week, and it took awhile for Mitchell to get back into form. But by the end of the regular season Mason was feeding him the ball, and he has three touchdown catches heading into the Belk Bowl.
There was a dramatic decrease in Mitchell’s yards-per-catch – only 8.2 this season, versus 14.3 as a sophomore. Mitchell attributes that to Georgia’s offense, rather than his health. The Bulldogs started the year without Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley, two of the more explosive receivers, and were heavily reliant on the run.
“They couldn’t adjust to my style of play because I wasn’t playing at the beginning of the season,” he said. “So I wasn’t expecting them to change all of a sudden when I came back.”
But Mitchell answered “yes” when asked if he was every bit the deep threat he was. He doesn’t feel he’s lost any explosiveness because of the injuries, which also included hamstring injuries as a freshman and sophomore.
Yes, Mitchell knows he’s never made it through a season healthy.
“We’re looking forward to seeing that if that can happen (next) year,” Mitchell said. “Then you’ll really be in for a show.”