The last pass Malcolm Mitchell caught in a meaningful football game came on a magical night in February 2017, with 2:34 left in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI, the Patriots trailing by 8 points. Mitchell stumbled off the line but recovered, caught a pass from Tom Brady and took it up the left sideline for 11 yards when the Patriots needed 10 to move the chains.
On that night, no one would have guessed that the rookie wide receiver had anything less than a bright future after he caught five passes for 63 yards in the fourth quarter to help spark the Patriots’ come-from-behind overtime victory over the Falcons.
Looking back on that night, Mitchell still can’t quite put it into words.
“That was just a surreal moment, something I’m not sure, I hope I can, but I’m not sure it can ever be replicated,” Mitchell said Wednesday evening.
But the 20 months following weren’t as magical or full of comebacks. Mitchell, who had knee injuries in college, spent the 2017 season on injured reserve and wasn’t able to participate in offseason activities this year. He underwent a procedure on his knee three days before training camp began this July, never recovered enough to join team drills, and was cut Aug. 6 without an injury designation. A few days later, Mitchell had more surgery on a knee and he’s now back in Georgia, still recovering.
“Everything has been going OK,” Mitchell said. “It’s unfortunate that I’m not there working in the area anymore. I thoroughly enjoyed being in New England.”
Mitchell still wants to play football. He’s rehabbing at the University of Georgia with his former trainer.
“Nothing the same as me playing in a football game, or I would be,” Mitchell said.
He spends about half his days training, and the other half on passions of reading, writing children’s books, and photography. Mitchell, who released his first book in 2016, just had his second book accepted by his publisher. “I’ve had time,” he said jokingly.
Mitchell is used to recovery time. He missed the 2013 season because of a torn ACL. He said he has lost count of the number of procedures on his knees.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said he doesn’t know if or when he’ll be able to play football again. That uncertainty is what’s most frustrating for the fourth-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Up until August, there was still hope that he could find a way to ease the pain and be able to play this season.
“I don’t know how he could have put any more into it than he did,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in August after the team waived Mitchell.
Mitchell passed through waivers unclaimed. Because he wasn’t released with an injury designation, he didn’t recoup any wages. In September, Mitchell filed an injury grievance against the Patriots seeking his entire 2018 salary of $630,000, fairly standard procedure in a case like this.
Mitchell said he still loves the Patriots, and would come back if his body would let him.
“There are no hard feelings,” Mitchell said. “I was put in a position where I couldn’t control the situation, and neither could they. So every Sunday, I put on my Patriots stuff and I sit down and I watch the game just like anyone else would.
He talked to Devin McCourty just the other day, and still keeps in touch with former teammates Jonathan Jones and Jacoby Brissett, now with the Colts. He misses the locker room and the camaraderie and New England in general, where he said he loved living and felt like people believed in him.
“It’s not like I wanted to leave there. I didn’t want to not be there, but there’s different things that go into it all. One is health, right? But the second is what’s best for the team.”
Mitchell remains involved with promoting youth literacy through his “Share the Magic Foundation” and “Read With Malcolm” programs, which will bring him to New England later this year. He will host “A Magical Evening of Literacy” at the Fairmont Copley Plaza on March 29 and is also promoting READBowl ’19, a nationwide reading contest for K-8 students.
Mitchell sounded a little nervous about how he would be received in New England, worried people might have forgotten about him. While his time with the Patriots was short, he did leave an indelible impression in his rookie season.
That early promise met the harsh reality of a career in football. But Mitchell, ever upbeat, said he’s making the best of a bad situation.
“The No. 1 thing during the process now is make sure that I’m physically able to not just handle football but life in general,” Mitchell said. “And really just try to continue to grow as an individual. Just keep trying to be the best that I can.
“But regardless of where life takes me, a piece of me will always be in New England.”