There comes a time when you watch someone play a sport and the thing that comes to mind is not, “That’s a pretty good player,” but instead find yourself thinking, “They are an athlete.”
Now if you do not quite get what I mean then maybe you just do not watch sports, or maybe what I described is not exactly how you think. What I mean by saying this is that sometimes there are people that are just naturally gifted to play sports.
It will not matter where on the field or court you place this player, they will thrive regardless and look absolutely dominant. There have been a few guys like that to have suited up in the vermilion and white. This one in particular went on from Louisiana to have a long and successful NFL career, a guy who not only broke records but has held them to this day.
This born and raised Louisiana player went on to pave the way for the likes of Devin Hester and other return specialists like him, yet his time at UL Lafayette was spent at quarterback, where he also set records. I am referring to Brian Mitchell.
Brian Mitchell was born in Fort Polk, Louisiana on August 18, 1968 during the height of the Vietnam War. He would go on to play for Plaquemine High School before deciding to go to the University of Southwestern Louisiana for college.
Mitchell’s college career was not filled with any great upsets or even bowl wins, but in his four years playing for Louisiana he never had a losing record.
His play at quarterback was dynamic as well, showing at times to be a better runner than a quarterback. In his senior year at Louisiana he would throw for 1,966 yards and rush for 1,311 yards scoring 25 total touchdowns, six being through the air and the other 19 being rushing touchdowns.
Following his final year he would enter the NFL draft, setting a record in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in their college career with 47. Mitchell would also be the first quarterback in NCAA history to throw for over 5,000 yards and run for over 3,000 yards.
Mitchell would begin his journey in the NFL with the Washington Redskins, now the Washington Commanders, who drafted him in the 1990 draft with their fifth round pick at pick 130. The Redskins would draft him, not for his ability to play quarterback, but instead for his athleticism. They would put him to work as a running back and a return specialist.
Making him a returner would seem to be the right decision as in the first preseason game of the 1990 season he would return the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
His rookie season would be fairly unremarkable outside of a quick stint back at quarterback during a Monday Night Football game against the Philadelphia Eagles that would become known as “The Body Bag Game.” Mitchell would come in following injuries to the Redskins starter and backups where he’d throw for 40 yards and run in a touchdown.
It was in his sophomore season that Mitchell would begin making true noise as a return specialist. He would end the year leading the NFL in punt return yards and touchdowns, running for 600 return yards and housing two punts for touchdowns. He would also gain another 583 yards on kick returns.
The Redskins would manage to make an appearance in Super Bowl XXVI against the Buffalo Bills who were making their second of what would be four straight appearances. The Bills would fall to the Redskins 37–24 for their second straight loss.
In the period between 1994 and 1996 Mitchell was the best return man to grace the gridiron. He would make a pro bowl selection in 1995 along with being named First-team All-Pro on the back of 1,408 kick return yards and a punt return touchdown.
During that period between 1994 and 1996 he would also lead the NFL in combined yards every season. He is one of two NFL players to ever accomplish that feat, the only other being Hall of Famer Jim Brown who did it for five seasons.
Following the 1999 season the Redskins under new owner Dan Snyder would release Mitchell.
He would then sign with division rival Philadelphia Eagles before the 2000 season.
Mitchell would play for the Eagles for the next three seasons including his 2002 season where he broke the record for kick return touchdowns at 13. His record breaking return would come against the San Francisco 49ers. He would also set a record for most kick return yards in a game at 206 in a game from six kicks.
He would be released by the Eagles after the 2002 season, leaving as the team’s all-time leader in punt return yards. This is a record he still holds as of the 2023 season 20 years later.
Mitchell would play his last full NFL season in 2003 for the New York Giants where he would return 55 kicks for a total of 1,117 yards and no touchdowns. He would be released before the start of the 2004 season.
Brian Mitchell would officially retire from the NFL that same year after signing a one-day contract with the Redskins so that he could retire as one.
Mitchell’s career in the NFL was not as flashy as a star quarterback or legendary defensive back, but he would set record after record in his 13 years of playing.
When he retired he held the record for kick return touchdowns and finished second in all time punt return touchdowns. Though he would be knocked from both positions by Devin Hester who would enter the league two years after Mitchell retired.
Mitchell would also finish second as the all time yardage leader in the NFL with 23,330 yards, second only to Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice.
He also holds the records for both kick and punt return yards with 14,014 kick return yards and 4,999 punt return yards.
My personal favorite of Brian Mitchell’s records is his record for most combined yards by one player against a single opponent.
He has recorded 3,076 against the Dallas Cowboys, which makes sense as he played them twice every season for his entire career.
Despite his illustrious career Mitchell has yet to be named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The closest he has come is being named a finalist for the 2022 Class. He has been named to the Washington Commanders Ring of Fame and the Louisiana Athletics Hall of Famer.
Hopefully Mitchell will one day be given the golden jacket of a Hall of Famer and get the recognition he deserves as the greatest return man in NFL history.