A man once bent on the destruction of his peers, Keith Mitchell believes he's found a solution to the NFL's biggest problem.
It wasn't that long ago that Mitchell was lying on his back, looking up at the sky above through his facemask, wondering what had gone wrong. As his teammates crowded around him and the medical staff rushed over, it would be one of the last times he would ever step onto an NFL field.
It was all but the end of Mitchell's life as he knew it.
The place was Jacksonville, Florida, and the date was Sept. 14, 2003. Mitchell was new to the team and had been brought over by new head coach Jack Del Rio to provide a pass-rushing presence just as he had done for Del Rio when they were together with the New Orleans Saints.
Although he had been to the Pro Bowl in 2000, Mitchell's NFL career had not been going the way he had hoped. Always on the smaller side of pass-rushers, a move to the Houston Texans in 2002 was accompanied by a demand for excess weight and a position switch to defensive end.
Mitchell, like all NFL players, did what he was told, but his new, bigger body was anything but improved, and he struggled to stay healthy.
Not that he told anybody about it.
That's not how the NFL works.
Jacksonville was supposed to be the setting for Mitchell's return to dominance. He showed up lean, mean and ready to make an impact for the Jaguars.
Instead, there he lay, face up and stunned; punished for correctly reading an angle route by Buffalo Bills running back Travis Henry. Henry—all 230 pounds of him—lit into Mitchell like an unstoppable force, and Mitchell was anything but an immovable target.
Though, immovable was exactly the state in which Mitchell now found himself—both on the field and for months after.
Mitchell struggled to get up, but his body wouldn't respond. Just moments earlier, he was a finely tuned athlete. From this moment on, he would spend months struggling to remember just how to move his limbs in the manner he wanted.
Football defined him.
Then, football denied him.
Little did football know that Mitchell would be back, not as a glorified, overblown comeback story fit more for Hollywood than real life, but to fix the game that had thrown him away so many years earlier. Mitchell wasn't the first bright light snuffed out by the violence and malevolence of the gridiron, and he certainly wasn't the last.
His light reignited, he now believes he can keep the same thing from happening to so many young men in the future.
The All-American Dream ... Turned into a Nightmare
"Son, I don't know what happened, but if you want to come play for me, I'd love to give you a chance."
Those are the words Mitchell remembers from then-coach Mike Ditka of the New Orleans Saints in 1997 after the linebacker went undrafted. The year before, at Texas A&M, he had been a first-team All-American. Here's what the Aggies website said about his play that year:
Mitchell was named to the first-team Football News All-America team as an outside linebacker. He was a relentless pass rusher who was among the national leaders in quarterback sacks during his junior and senior campaigns. He tallied 34 career sacks and 18.5 career tackles behind the line of scrimmage. As a senior, Mitchell recorded 14.5 sacks and 10.5 other tackles for loss. Always one of the defenders the offense keyed on, he still managed 50 solo tackles as a senior. He intercepted one pass and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown against Oklahoma State.
That's impact, but the NFL draft is always more about what a team believes a guy can do in the future and less about what he's done in the past. Concerns about Mitchell's size and fit in an NFL scheme left him in that dreaded "tweener" category that has busted so many talented collegiate pass-rushers over the years.
Dan Shonka of Ourlads.com scouted Mitchell that season while working as an area scout in the Philadelphia Eagles front office. Looking back over his notes for that year, Shonka remembers Mitchell as a "well-built specimen with good strength who was a productive pass-rusher and an explosive tackler."
The problem, Shonka remembers, is that the then-240-pound Mitchell was "used almost exclusively as a down lineman" with the Aggies and didn't really get a good look as a linebacker until a good performance in the East-West Shrine Game.
Overall, Shonka said that Mitchell had "solid physical skills but was rough around the edges" and gave him a grade toward the bottom of the third round. Mitchell well-remembers being projected as an even higher pick.
But, the third round came and went without Mitchell's name being called.
In fact, Mitchell watched as the seventh round came and went as well, and 38 linebackers were selected in the draft, along with four of his teammates.
"At the time I was going through it," Mitchell said, "it was in the seventh round that [then-Pittsburgh Steelers head coach] Bill Cowher calls me. If he wouldn't have said 'between you and another guy,' they would've selected me and I would've been a Steeler, but I said, 'You should take the other guy,' who was [wide receiver] Mike Adams."
Adams played in all of six games for the Steelers and bounced around the Canadian Football League and the XFL before retiring, like Mitchell, due to injuries.
Thinking back on it, Mitchell sees the process as generally positive, and he certainly made the best of the situation. "I got my opportunity to start as a rookie and was in the Pro Bowl by the third year. We started that winning tradition in New Orleans."
It's true that Mitchell helped leave the Saints a better team than when he arrived. By 2001, the "Aints" era was long over, and the team had even gotten a playoff appearance out of him by the time he left for the Houston Texans for what was one of the worst years of his life.
Mitchell wasn't exactly thrilled when the expansion Texans and head coach Dom Capers asked him to bulk up and switch to defensive end.
"I didn't like it, but I did it," Mitchell said. Going up against the big hog mollies also gave Mitchell his first big injury in the NFL in the form of a broken clavicle.
The Texans also had a different method of dealing with those injuries than Mitchell was used to: "I didn't partake in injections/pills," he said. "First thing when I went to the Texans, I saw this long line and asked what they were doing ... 'gotta get that shot, we do it every game day.'"
Mitchell jumped at the chance to reunite with Del Rio, who had been his position coach in New Orleans and was taking over for Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville. This was a second chance. This was the prime of his career on a team where he could be not only a leader but an impact player.
With one hit—a hit he was supposed to deliver, not take—it all came crashing down.
"I had to quit the game cold turkey," Mitchell remembers.
"It was life-changing, life-altering. I was suffering psychologically and mentally. I was paralyzed from the neck down. It wasn't like I was a paraplegic, but I went through a process of about six months where I had lost movement and coordination. I was going through depression...suicidal thoughts."
Quantifying these feelings is difficult unless one has been where Mitchell has been.
It's not just a game.
It's not just a job.
Football becomes more than just a part of an NFL athlete. It becomes the who. It is the identity. Football becomes the id, ego and super-ego of a player's entire being. It is the driving force behind his every action, the relevance he finds in himself and the culture he not only grew up in but the only culture he finds comfort in.
Mitchell, like so many players before and after him, was ripped out of that culture.
Rather, football was ripped out of him.
It is not a scalpel incision that removes football from a player's very being. No, it is a sledgehammer to the gut, over and over, ravaging a player until he can hardly find the bits and pieces of himself that are indistinguishable from the game he used to love...and that once loved him back.
Jim Trotter of ESPN.com spoke to former NFL players about this very subject, including former Saints tight end Eddie Williams, who crossed paths with Mitchell in New Orleans. The entire piece is a must-read, but Williams details near-suicides by both himself and an anonymous friend in a startling peek inside the world of a former player.
The depression Williams experienced after leaving the game is painfully common. Some of it stems from struggles with a loss of income, or diminished adulation, or the sudden isolation of no longer being part of a team and the camaraderie it brings. Even players who make a successful transition to the "real world" experience withdrawal pangs.
Asked how many retirees suffer from depression, former Packers offensive lineman Aaron Taylor said: "It'd be easier to start with which ones do NOT have depression. Observationally, it's a significant percentage. It varies by degree, obviously, but everyone struggles."
So few help.
Even fewer ask for help.
"You're the gladiator," Mitchell said. "You're not supposed to show vulnerability."
Understand that these aren't notions that are happened upon lightly or by chance. This is not a fool's chickens coming home to roost; nor are they attitudes that exist in a vacuum. A player who is injured by this violent game is considered soft. Get injured enough and a replacement will be found.
There is no room for weakness.
"I played for old-school coaches," Mitchell said. "What's the saying: You can't make the club in the tub. I didn't miss any games until I had a broken clavicle in Houston. I didn't ever want to be in the treatment room. I internalized everything. I was adamant about playing."
This is reinforced by an NFL that will do whatever it takes to keep its players on the field.
In Mitchell's day, it was usually painkillers and cortisone shots. Now, it's Toradol, the use of which I chronicled here. As part of that column, I referenced former Denver Broncos tight end Nate Jackson, who, like Mitchell, was forced to gain weight as a player and played through plenty of injuries simply because that's what an NFL player does:
In reality, Jackson had an injury that another doctor would later tell him would only get better by resting. The Broncos went another route, however, injecting him with Lidocaine, dexamethasone and Kenalog.
For those keeping score at home, that's an anesthetic, an anti-inflammatory and immuno-suppressant steroid and an anti-inflammatory corticosteroid.
That's three major drugs...instead of rest.
Once out of the game, the pain remains and intensifies, but the impetus to get better is no more.
"Athletes have desensitized themselves from feeling," Mitchell said. "We have to show up through pain. We are built up to be this big, numb mechanism."
That's the thing with machinery. When it's found useful, people will find any way to repair it and make it whole again. When it's run its course, or when something has replaced it, it is simply discarded.
This is NFL life in a nutshell.
With droves of cheap talent coming out of college on a year-to-year basis, there's little reason for an NFL team to continue to invest in a "big, numb mechanism" that isn't performing up to snuff any longer. Once that player is out of NFL circles, the NFL has long lagged in admitting or acting upon any real responsibility to help the players who once contributed to the league's greatness.
No one to help...
No strength to ask...
In The Nature of Calmness, Healing Is Possible
When Mitchell was near his breaking point, he found the help he needed.
"I found meditation. One of the therapists told me about conscious breathing, and buying into that was my sanity. It wasn't even explained to me as meditation. In the nature of calmness, healing is possible. When we're stressed out or on edge, our body can't heal."
From there, Mitchell explained that he opened his mind to even more methods of healing that would be considered nontraditional. When he left the NFL, he weighed 260 pounds with only five percent body fat. He cleansed his body, and his body shrank down to 220.
With less weight comes less stress on joints and ligaments.
With less weight comes flexibility and mobility.
This wasn't just healing for Mitchell's broken body, it was a life-altering event.
"Luckily for me," Mitchell said, "I was able to go out and deal with the physical injuries and was able to search out all the different healing modalities. I didn't have a resource. There was nobody."
Lucky is the word that Mitchell used.
Brave would be another word to describe him.
Now, the best word is teacher.
"Some people may not be as strong," Mitchell said, "and I don't want my peers to have to deal with this on their own. I want to create a resource that will help the players.
"The game is a violent game. Trauma is going to happen. My point is: When the injuries happen, let's create a solution to solve it rather than just mask the situation.
"Let's invest into the vitality, long-being and longevity of the player."
Mitchell is now a certified master yoga instructor, and he has begun working through his "Light It Up" foundation on a care plan intended for current and former football players, as well as retired military veterans.
The plan's objectives, shared with Bleacher Report, include:
- Our primary goal is to enable military veterans and retired NFL players suffering from neurodegenerative diseases and other cognitive disorders to gain access to excellent, personalized health care.
- Through our telemedicine network we will connect patients with doctors and the best in holistic medicine, at no cost. Furthermore, we will work with the needs of these patient populations, emphasizing the ideals of patient centered care.
The process begins with a full medical and neurological work-up performed at the University of Rochester Medical Center followed by a two-day mindfulness retreat, catered to the specific needs of the former player and veteran communities.
When they leave Rochester, the patients are going to receive an iPad and even the resources to connect to the Internet if needed. This way, any follow-up and treatment can be done from the comfort of the patient's own home.
"They'll have a resource," Mitchell said. "If something's going on, they can have someone—not just over the phone, but they can have an entire session."
I can hear it already: Former NFL players and veterans doing yoga? Really?
I asked the same question.
"You'd be surprised," Mitchell said. "When a person thinks about yoga, there's a stigma. You'll say, 'I can't do that.' But, when [a former NFL player] sees a likeness to [himself]—I've done what you've done—there's a whole other approach to it.
"It also puts him at a point where—'Hey, these injuries hurt!' Try to be a businessperson or try to be a husband feeling that pain. It's gotta come out. I've had big, 300-pounders saying, 'I want that peace, how can I heal?'
"It's like the armor. We build this armor for our protection. It's a facade. Once you break down the physical inhibitors, when you start breaking down the layers of that, it creates openness. When you break those down, you can feel."
He's already begun working with clients both in and formerly of the NFL, including Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas, former Broncos running back Correll Buckhalter and former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jamie Sharper, among others.
He's also got a number of former NCAA players who never had the shot he had in the NFL.
"I've never had a masculine male figure in my life to give me compassion. I've only known the hardcore disciplinarian—the yelling, the screaming, but never from a state of calm. I believe we crave that.
"When you've had that moment, no one can take that away from you."
Mitchell has the plan.
He wholeheartedly believes this plan is a solution to the biggest problem facing the NFL today.
He's not doing it alone.
Along with the University of Rochester, Mitchell is partnering with a whole team of doctors and researchers—12 in all. The specialists run the gamut from Dr. Ray Dorsey, a neurological specialist who has spent years researching Parkinson's and Huntington's disease, to Dr. Jeffrey Bazarian, an emergency physician who has spent his career dealing with the causes and treatments of traumatic brain injury.
Working hand in hand with these amazing minds of traditional medicine, Mitchell has said it means a lot for them to tell him that the non-Western aspects of his plan are crucial to its success, even to the point of considering the holistic idea first.
He is also working with the NFL Retired Players Association and has enlisted the aid of his former head coach, Mike Ditka, to make this plan accessible to the players who need his help the most. He'll be giving a TED Talk to the retired players and hosting a yoga class. He's even been invited by President and First Lady Obama to teach a yoga class at the White House during the president's annual Easter egg hunt.
"We're creating a paradigm shift," Mitchell said. "The tendencies I see is that masculine role. My father complains about his back, and when you ask what he's doing, he says nothing. Let's unravel that. You don't sacrifice your masculinity by asking for help.
"We're creating that space where that player or that veteran can ask for help. Whatever is keeping that player, that veteran from being his utmost."
The NFL, inherently, is always going to be a dangerous place to ply one's trade. Football is a dangerous game, and nothing will ever change that. That said, there is nothing that is stopping anyone from working tirelessly to make the game less dangerous tomorrow than it is today. Nor should we sit idly by as the men who built this game into what it is suffer in silence from the effects of plays that once elicited our cheers.
In Mitchell's eyes, doing nothing is not an option.
Once hellbent on inflicting as much pain as possible on the football field, he is becoming a catalyst for healing off it. Once left helpless without any direction outside of the game, he's now focused on helping his peers to transition and find their own way.
Hopefully, Mitchell is correct when he says, "It's a game-changer."
Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report, a writer for Football Insiders and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained by the author.