ATHENS – In the midst of still trying to process it all, and posing for a picture with the Super Bowl trophy, Malcolm Mitchell was texting with Jay Rome. The two had played together at Valdosta High School, then Georgia, and Rome had just watched his friend play on the biggest stage in American sports.
“How does it feel?” Rome texted.
“It feels like a championship, bro,” Mitchell answered. “Words can’t even describe it.’”
That’s an emotion very common around these parts after Super Bowl 51, which left the Atlanta Falcons and their fans stunned and devastated. But it also left two very familiar names – Georgia graduates Mitchell and David Andrews – as Super Bowl champions.
And neither was along for the ride. Far from it.
Mitchell, the rookie receiver, had six catches for 70 yards, all but one of the catches in the second half as the Patriots rallied from 25 points down. On the game’s final play – James White’s 2-yard touchdown run to the right – Mitchell threw a critical block on the outside, right at the spot that White ended up going into the end zone.
So when the game ended, one of the first sights you see is Mitchell throwing his arms up, running to the center of the field and celebrating victory.
“Every time Malcolm got the ball I ended up getting the rest of the house mad at me,” said Rome, who was watching in Atlanta with family and friends, almost all Falcons’ fans. “I kept trying to call a Malcolm Mitchell touchdown. Like, ‘it’s coming here.’ Everyone in the house was telling me to shut up.”
The moments were not as obvious for Andrews, given his job. But on every New England offensive play he touched the ball. As the center he’s the captain of the front five, the man who snapped the ball to Tom Brady. It was quite a moment for a guy who was undrafted two years ago.
“We had that kind of awe moment, like Holy cow, not only two guys that played at Georgia but two guys I played with are playing in the Super Bowl,” former Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason said. “So, a little jealous.”
Mitchell and Andrews came together to Georgia in 2011, both members of the Dream Team class. But they had different paths: Mitchell was the five-star recruit from powerhouse Valdosta High School, while Andrews was the lightly-regarded lineman from the Wesleyan School, a small private school.
Their careers at Georgia were also a bit different. Mitchell played right away but injuries derailed him, and he ended up staying five years, by which time he became just as famous for writing a children’s book (“The Magician’s Hat”) and joining a women’s book club. The morning of the Super Bowl, a feature on his writing and reading proclivities ran on CBS.
But football was always the main thing for Mitchell.
“It’s always been that way,” Mitchell said in December 2015, as his career was winding down. “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.”
Andrews became Georgia’s center as a sophomore, when he was the starter on Georgia’s 2012 team that was five yards away in the SEC championship. (On that fateful final play, the intended receiver was Mitchell.)
Over the next two years, Andrews became the emotional leader of Georgia’s offense, as it set records and carried the team. Andrews was undersized, which kept him from being drafted, but Bill Belichick knew about him, having worked him out when he personally visited on Georgia’s pro day. The Patriots signed Andrews, and he quickly earned the trust of the NFL’s best quarterback.
“I joke with him about him going from me to Tom Brady. I set the way, the standard for him,” Mason said, laughing. “Don’t forget about us small quarterbacks here in the world.”
When Andrews was at Georgia and the pros were mentioned, he always pointed to Jeff Saturday, another undersized center who went on to a long NFL career. It seemed at the time something that a longshot could cling to. Now Andrews looks prescient.
“If you’re a smart guy, if you work hard, if you’re gritty and your feisty, which David is, it makes up for lack of physical and natural God-given ability,” Mason said.
Mason watched the game with a few friends he went to school with at Georgia, who weren’t on the team. He was rooting for the Falcons, hoping his ex-teammates played very well, but the Falcons still pulled it out.
When Mitchell kept catching passes on the left side – 10-to-12 yard stop routes where Brady hit him on a dime – Mason was reminded of Mitchell doing that in the 2011 Florida game, when Aaron Murray hit Mitchell on an out route, then took it for a critical touchdown.
“Malcolm was always really good at those routes,” Mason said. “It kind of made me flash back, seeing him do that (Sunday.)”
Mitchell finished the regular season with 32 catches for 401 yards and four touchdowns. He didn’t have any catches in New England’s first playoff game, then had a 5-yard catch in the AFC championship. But his role was biggest in the biggest game.
— Malcolm Mitchell (@Money_Mitch26) February 6, 2017
Down in Valdosta, there were no divided loyalties while watching, Rome thinks. He also pointed out that Valdosta High got its first state championship since the late 1990s last season.
“It’s kind of cool that Malcolm got a Super Bowl and the Cats got a state title in the same year,” Rome said.
The way it ended will doubtless be difficult for Falcons fans to ever forget. And given the Patriots’ reputation – Spygate, Deflategate, Belichick’s demeanor – they don’t make for a sympathetic figure nationally.
But their ability to find just the right players has to be appreciated. And these two recent Georgia Bulldogs are just two more examples.
“I remember when Bill Belichick came down, he worked out David and a couple other guys,” Mason said. “There’s something that the Patriots have in their scouting department, or a process that they go through where they can find these guys, these needle in a haystack guys, these diamond in the rough-type guys, where no one else can see their potential down the road.”