JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Maybe the familiar setting will send Malcolm Mitchell flashing back to that catch, that touchdown, that play that still endures as the most memorable and most important of his college football career.
But not likely.
You could write the easy story here, and merely point out that Mitchell, Georgia’s star wide receiver, is finishing his college career in the same stadium in which he had perhaps his biggest moment: the 45-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the fourth quarter to help Georgia pull off the upset of Florida in 2012.
The real story, however, is much deeper and complex. That was a different guy. Too much has happened to him since then.
“Exactly,” Mitchell said. “It was a big moment, but it’s in the past now. I don’t reflect on it often.”
But during an interview before Wednesday’s practice, one of the last of Mitchell’s long career at Georgia, he did touch on some other things: His legacy. His future. How this season has affected both.
Mitchell has essentially had three careers at Georgia: His spectacular, if injury-married, freshman and sophomore seasons. Then the next two years, basically lost because of knee injuries. And finally this year, which put a proper bow on his career: He stayed healthy. He was back to being Georgia’s leading receiver. He was a star again.
“I think, unfortunately, sometimes people’s careers aren’t defined by what they think about it. It’s about what other people think,” Mitchell said. “So how people reflect on my career at UGA, I’m pretty sure they’ll let me know sooner or later.”
He smiled as he finished that sentence. The reporter then offered up his opinion: It seemed that the way Mitchell finished his career prevented it from being a “what-could-have-been” type of career. Yes, he missed the better part of two seasons, but he started and finished his career strong, and in the end no one could say Mitchell didn’t do everything he could on the way out.
“Right,” Mitchell said, nodding. “And that’s all I wanted to do, personally, is make sure that I didn’t look back on these times in my life and say I didn’t give all that I could. And I think by coming out this season and competing, doing the best I can, I can look back and say, even right now I can look back and say, Man, every week in practice I gave it everything I had.”
Mitchell graduated earlier this month. So once Saturday’s game is over, he will turn all attention to preparing for the NFL Draft. He hasn’t decided yet where he will do that.
“I better figure out soon,” he said, flashing that smile again.
NFL teams will have a lot to consider when it comes to Mitchell. The on-field production this season, and the ability to stay healthy, should ease at least some of the injury concerns. His hands are not an issue. Neither is his intelligence.
Some will still wonder how much speed he has after the knee surgeries. He’s not very tall either, checking in at around 6 feet.
That probably puts him in mid-rounds territory, but with a chance to move higher with good workouts.
“Where, I don’t know. But of course we all have hopes and dreams, right?” Mitchell said of his draft position. “I think from this game moving forward will play a big role in that.”
If the knee injury had never happened, when Mitchell was celebrating with Todd Gurley in that Clemson end zone, it’s likely that Mitchell would be finishing up his second year in the NFL right now. He’s said as much. He might have been a first-round pick. Now that’s less likely.
But he also wouldn’t have gone on the personal journey that led him to become an author, avid reader and deep thinker. Maybe he would have eventually, but sitting out football hastened the process.
The misconception, however, is that football has no longer been Mitchell’s top priority. Yes, he found time for other things, and his life is not defined by football, and he should have a bright future once playing it is done.
But football is still the main thing.
“It’s always been that way,” Mitchell said. “Even with the stuff I do off the field, football has always been the forefront. Because I’m very passionate about it. It’s what I’ve been doing since I’ve been little.”
And with that Mitchell excused himself. It was time for practice.