WATKINSVILLE, Ga. — All it took was a chance meeting in a Barnes & Noble two years ago on Mother’s Day.
Malcolm Mitchell, the Patriots’ fourth-round pick in last month’s NFL Draft, was then a Georgia wide receiver well known in these football-crazed parts. But not to Kathy Rackley.
“I was there picking up ‘Me Before You,’ the next book for the club,’’ Rackley said. “Malcolm walked up to me and said: ‘Can I ask you something? Can you recommend a book?’ ’’
Rackley, happy to oblige the stranger, asked what he liked to read.
“Anything,’’ he replied.
Rackley explained that she was picking the latest assignment for her new book club.
“You’re in a book club?’’ she recalled Mitchell saying. “I want to be in a book club. Can I be in your book club?’’
Rackley didn’t think the Silverleaf Book Club would mind a new member but wasn’t so sure Mitchell would want to join a group of women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.
But Mitchell was all in. He grabbed a copy of Jojo Moyes’s “Me Before You,’’ they exchanged contacts, he headed off. Meanwhile, Rackley set her sights on finding out just who Malcolm Mitchell was.
She knew he was a football player (only because his shopping buddy confirmed that), but she wasn’t a diehard Bulldog fan — rare for these parts.
She didn’t have to go far to get the scoop on her new friend. Rackley’s neighbor, Todd Stichenoth, confirmed Mitchell’s star status in town, adding that he was bound for the NFL.
After Rackley floated the idea of Mitchell’s joining the club to some members, it was decided that the final call would be Pattie Bronson’s. After all, it was her turn to host.
“I didn’t mind at all,’’ Bronson recalled. “Because I didn’t think there was any way he’d show up!’’
But he did. And despite not having enough time to finish the book (the meeting was just two days later), Mitchell impressed the group with his thoughts and opinions — and his own life experiences.
“He told us his story, and we all just fell in love,’’ Bronson said. “He really opened his heart and soul to us.’’
Hayes remembers jumping in her car after that initial meeting and calling her husband.
“Well, book club just changed!’’ she said.
Word spread. “Somebody asked me recently, ‘Aren’t you in Malcolm Mitchell’s book club?’ ’’ Danna Whaley said. “I said, ‘No, Malcolm Mitchell is in our book club!’ ’’
You’ll get no argument from Mitchell.
“The book club helped me grow into a better individual, a person who learns and grows throughout life in general,” he said.
Mitchell couldn’t make it to Linda Borron’s house on Colorado Bend on this particular Tuesday night. But the most recognizable face of the club was still front and center. A picture of Mitchell, taken from a local newspaper, had been placed on a table.
Before the women of Greater Athens’s most famous reading klatch brought the meeting to order to discuss their latest assignment, “The Lake House” by Kate Morton, much of their discussion centered on another book — the New England Patriots playbook, and how their youngest member was enjoying his latest assignment.
“I haven’t heard from him,’’ Rackley said, sounding a bit like a worried mom. “I know he’s really busy.’’
“I can’t even imagine,’’ Jill Langford added, in much the same tone.
A text from Mitchell to Wanda Hayes midway through the meeting, though not discovered until later, confirmed that Mitchell had his hands full, but that he would definitely get around to reading “The Lake House.’’
In two short years, Mitchell went from college football star to avid reader to passionate advocate for children’s reading to NFL rookie. Along the way, he even penned a children’s book.
Mitchell arrived in Athens as an All-American receiver from Valdosta, a perennial high school powerhouse in Georgia, and acknowledges that hitting the books was not a top priority.
He started to get his academic act together after a meeting with his high school principal, Gary Boling. They worked to strengthen his course load and talked through his options to be better prepared for college life.
A professor suggested he read “48 Laws of Power,’’ a bestselling self-help book by Robert Greene. It wasn’t an easy read.
“But Malcolm’s read it three times now,’’ a proud Rackley said. “Impressive.’’
The group believes one of the keys to Mitchell’s success is that the club is off campus. There were no wrong answers at book club. No tests.
“This was a group of ladies that welcomed him, and I think he felt comfortable right away,’’ member Jean Guard said. “He felt safe. That’s a big deal. He felt safe with Kathy and then with us. He was ready to expand his horizons.’’
Although the women in the club are significantly older than the 22-year-old Mitchell, member Shami Jones pointed out: “Malcolm is an old soul. He has the wisdom of an older person.’’
Asked if he could draw any parallels between the book club and the locker room, Mitchell said, “It’s all team . . . I feel that in both places.’’
Mitchell even picked an assignment for the group: Marcus Luttrell’s “Lone Survivor.’’ It was not a book any of the other members would have brought to the table.
“One of the great things about a book club is that it makes you read books you’d never read,’’ Pat Atwill said.
Some of the Silverleaf club members, like Rackley, were football neophytes before meeting Mitchell. Others are Bulldog season ticket-holders and knew all about him. Though his performance on the field was rarely discussed at meetings, Rackley said she would text Mitchell during games (she never misses one now), knowing full well she wouldn’t get a response till much later.
Cindy Cole, who supplied the munchies for the latest meeting, felt comfortable enough to talk football in Mitchell’s absence last week.
“We’re looking forward to seeing what he can do with a quarterback that can really throw,’’ she said excitedly, before adding, “He hasn’t really had that.”
It’s not just the book club members who have evolved.
“To listen to Malcolm speak now compared to when he first got here, it’s like, ‘Is this the same guy?’ ’’ said Leland Barrow, Georgia’s associate sports communication director, who said a common sight in the Bulldog locker room was Mitchell sitting in his stall “devouring’’ a book. “It’s not just his expanded vocabulary, it’s his expanded presence.’’
Just as he made a seamless transition into the book club, Mitchell dived right into an internship last summer at Boston-based Markley Group, a data center and cloud computing company.
“He’s a real sharp kid,’’ said Jeff Markley, the company’s chief executive and a fellow Georgia alumnus. “Everybody here loved him.’’
Mitchell’s love for reading led to his writing his own book, “The Magician’s Hat,’’ a children’s story he takes great pride in reading at local schools during what Rackley refers to as “book rallies — they’re like pep rallies.’’
Displays featuring “The Magician’s Hat’’ (published by Read With Malcolm Inc.) and Mitchell’s No. 26 game jersey are prominent at the Georgia campus bookstore.
Last December, during another trip to Barnes & Noble for some holiday shopping, Mitchell and Rackley ran into Boling, his old principal.
“That man saved my life,’’ Mitchell told Rackley as they left the store.
Now Mitchell, in his roles as a football player and author (he’s working on a second book), hopes to have a similar impact on students.
“He wants those kids to think that, ‘Hey, if an NFL player thinks it’s cool to read, it must be,’ ’’ Rackley said.
Mitchell’s popularity has led to a lot of opportunities, including an invitation to join Reese Witherspoon’s book club. When it was suggested during the latest Silverleaf meeting that maybe he would take the actress up on the invite, Rackley had a rather strong reaction.