Some Husker summer debates are better than others.
Please don’t ever get involved in the “Best Husker to wear number ?,” moronic marathon countdown, which seems to be prevalent annually on the information super highway just as the fireworks are going off on July 4th.
That one specifically is just dumb and a waste of time…but Mike Brown gets #21 over Roger Craig as it’s not about what they did in the pros, only as a Cornhusker.
And that leads us to “The best athlete ever to play football at Nebraska?”
We will go with modern era in 1964 with 2-platoon football with apologies to Tom “Trainwreck” Novack and Bobby Reynolds. Maybe Bob Brown, Johnny Rodgers, Dave Rimington, Broderick Thomas, Johnny Mitchell, Eric Crouch, Ndamukong Suh, and could throw a few more in there.
But I will end the debate and I’m going to say Mitchell by a nose, even though Rodgers could have probably been a star in more sports. (BTW, Rodgers is currently playing senior softball in Omaha and making circus catches at last report).
I think Mitchell could have been all-conference at more positions in football than Rodgers. Outside of DB and WR, he could a been all-conference at any of them if he changed his body when he got on campus. And C and DT aren’t out of the question either for Mitchell.
Yes, a bit “What If”, but it’s my column…and if Iowa fans can actually think they can play in a National Championship in a major sport like football or basketball, then you can think up just about anything.
I think former Husker and NFL vet John Reece would agree with me and then some about the two-time All-Big 8 selection who only played two years at Nebraska.
“Johnny was a total freak of nature,” Reece said. “He could throw the football 80 yards with both hands, perfect spirals! Really fast for his size with incredible hands. He was a good-looking guy to boot.”
As it was in 1990, Mitchell was a 6-3, 6-4, 240-pound tight end out of Chicago. To cut to the chase, he was Gronk before Gronk, but better hands and faster. Unfortunately for him, NU was a run-first offense, but not a wishbone, so the ball flew a few times a game at least.
Cornhusker fans still lament what if Mitchell would have stayed in 1992 instead of going pro early with freshman sensation Tommie Frazier at QB, OG Will Shields and the We-Backs?
Good chance NU still plays in the Orange Bowl after that season, but might have been for a National Championships as they pummeled two Top 10 teams earlier in the year, 52-7 and 49-7, without Mitchell.
Also, Mitchell had a big personality as well, prone to talking stuff on and off the field, Reece remembered.
“One time Johnny told a told a reporter that he was ‘very camera-genic’’’ Reece said laughing.
Current Husker coach Kenny Wilhite was a quarterback recruit in the summer of 1990 when he had met Mitchell.
“My first summer we had seven on sevens at the stadium, “Wilhite said. “This big dude walks in and takes off his shirt and he is just cut-up and starts strutting around. I thought he was a defensive lineman.”
He proceeded to do two things during the players-only scrimmage; constantly call for the ball and make every catch, whether bad balls or not thrown from QBs.
Wilhite was rehabbing and just standing on the sideline. Mitchell went up and asked him a question, even though he probably knew the answer.
“You a quarterback? I bet my arm is stronger?” Mitchell boasted between drinks of water. He then proceeded to throw the ball 70+ yards. Yep, both hands.
But catching the ball is what Mitchell is remembered for, especially in the 1991 comeback win in bad weather versus Oklahoma. Teammate Tyrone Hughes had a front-row seat for maybe the last great Husker-Sooner clash in the Big 8.
“As far as a great reception during the game,” Hughes said, “I would say the Oklahoma game when he went up over two guys, made a circus catch and held onto it with guys hanging on him.”
(About 1:23 into this clip.... )
While Mitchell was on the receiving end in his career, not crazy to wonder what he could have done at 6-4 with pocket quickness and that arm at quarterback? Another teammate remembers the heat on his long passes and a lofty comparison.
“I thought I was playing catch with John Elway,” said Tyrone Byrd, “50-yard darts with ease nearly breaking my fingers and the pain lasted about a minute. He was a beast, amazing athlete!
All in all, Mitchell was likely in his best spot in college and the NFL at tight end, but admitted in later years he never reached his potential with never having the total focus needed. The 1992 first-round draft choice might not have always been focused, but still had a few borderline All-Pro seasons in 1993 and 1994 before retiring early in 1996. He did some have comeback attempts that never took root until 2001.
See this clip when Mitchell ran a good route and reception from Jet QB Boomer Esiason, but then from almost a stop, out-runs the defense to the end zone.
Mitchell’s talent was immense but also could test the patience of his coaches with his sometimes lackadaisical effort if not a passing play.
This meeting would be gold if on video knowing how intense Coach Ron Brown is/was as a coach. Brown likely gets hyped up putting his socks on, let alone talking and teaching blocking, his unit’s main and many times, glamour-less task.
“We were sitting in meetings and Coach Brown pointed out the fact that Johnny was not blocking,” Hughes said. “And Johnny told Coach Brown, ‘Well…the ball wasn’t coming my way.’”