Oct. 17, 2011
They became fast friends when a talent for football and an interest in the Naval Academy landed them in the same prep school class in Newport, R.I.
Kwesi Mitchell wound up there from Hoover, Ala., just south of Birmingham. His initial interest in a military education was somewhat surprising, even to his parents, since none of Mitchell's immediate family members had ties to the armed forces.
Gary Myers, on the other hand, hailed from a household in San Antonio where the flags of all three Division I service academies could be flown proudly. Oldest sister Alexys attended West Point, while Ashley went to Colorado Springs, and Angela was already a budding basketball star in Annapolis.
In the four years since first being introduced by circumstance, Mitchell and Myers grew tighter, often passing time and plotting their futures by confiding in one another.
This past summer, for example, they reunited on The Yard for a block of classes, before beginning their last season and final two semesters as Midshipmen. Frequently, as Myers describes, they cracked the window of their Bancroft Hall room and aired out a list of life's wishes.
Sometimes, they broke for mild amusement. Like when the Navy sports information staff handed out questionnaires to profile their personalities. Asked to list his favorite food, Mitchell wrote of fried catfish and grits. It was his inside joke; Myers had his own, as did a third buddy, Torri Preston. Truth be told, Mitchell hardly has a stomach for seafood. What he really longs for is the taste of sweet home Alabama to be savored at Dreamland Bar-B-Que.
But mostly, what Mitchell and Myers shared during their long talks was a serious appetite for the same future: flight school in Pensacola, a career in aviation and a rich post-military life in the private business world. It would be ideal, they agreed, to someday develop luxury hotels and resorts along tourist strips; then turn around and build youth centers on inner-city streets.
"We're always talking about things," Myers said after a recent practice. "In summer school, we'd listen to some classical music, sit (looking) out the window and dream."
Today they're struck by the realization that it's almost time for doing, rather than dreaming.
"We met at NAPS (the Naval Academy Prep School)," says Myers, remarking how they've made it so far, so fast, long after many of their classmates didn't. "We saw our friends leaving left and right, so we had to keep each other up. Looking back on the years, now it's like, `Wow, we're really seniors.'"
Myers had a sister to look up to as a Midshipman role model, yet he leaned mostly on his Academy brother.
"Kwesi's genuinely a nice guy," Myers says. "He always has a smile on his face."
That smile, and the attitude projecting it, remained through hard times inherent in both Newport and Annapolis. Often, long days and nights of Academy life leads to long faces. Not Mitchell's.
"I've learned there's no use to complaining about anything," Mitchell says. "I used to complain a lot at NAPS -- being in Rhode Island, being cold, being away from home -- it only made the situation worse. Once I got a positive attitude, everyday has been so much easier. It's easier to wake up in the morning with a positive attitude. No matter how bad you think you have things, it's never really that bad."
It's reached a point where if Mitchell ever reverts to his former self, Myers will set his mind straight.
"If I complain to one person, it's Gary," Mitchell laughs. "But he doesn't like to hear complaining that much..."
Thus, Mitchell keeps waxing philosophical on the power of positive thinking. All it takes, he politely insists, is practice.
"You have to make your situation positive in life," says Mitchell. "You can't let negative things bring you down. It's only going to make your situation worse.
"That's probably the biggest thing I've gotten from this place. Yes, sir. It is hard to do, but once you practice it, like anything, it gets easier."
As much as Mitchell sounds like a life coach, his football coach would love to clone that consistent attitude.
"You know what you're going to get all the time," says head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who coins a phrase often repeated by a one-time Navy colleague. "Todd Spencer (now an assistant at Georgia Tech) used the line, `He comes through the door the same way every day' to describe someone. That's Kwesi."
What makes Mitchell most remarkable is how he remains upbeat despite playing the two positions in football that most quickly -- and most regularly -- flip smiles upside down.
Both a safety and cornerback in high school, Mitchell has continued to trade those places in college. Last year, he was a full-time starter on the corner. This season, he opened at Rover, which is the Navy equivalent to strong safety.
Each spot is part of the last dotted line of defense.
"If you make a mistake," warns veteran assistant coach Keith Jones, "it's a touchdown."
That's why cornerback is thought of as occupying an island. When -- not if -- a receiver beats you, you're stranded for all a stadium to see. At safety, if a pass isn't sailing over your head, a back might be running by, deserting you in the open field.
"Kwesi's had his ups and downs on the field," says Niumatalolo, who's well aware that the same is true of just about every defensive back, save for Derrelle Revis or Ed Reed. "He keeps his head down and keeps battling."
No better example exists than the beginning to Mitchell's second career start.
Early in his sophomore year, he was at Rover for Western Kentucky's first snap. The Hilltoppers were newcomers to Division I-A and winless in their first three games of 2009.
In other words, they bore little resemblance to Missouri, the opponent Mitchell started against in the season finale. The Tigers were an eight-win team out of the Big XII, averaging more than 400 yards and 30 points per game. Their quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, was a future first-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars; his favorite receiver, Danario Alexander, presented a 6-foot-5 target as a soon-to-be St. Louis Ram.
His opportunity occurred at the Texas Bowl, inside Reliant Stadium in Houston. Only, Mitchell was neither a cornerback nor safety.
"That was the first time I ever played nickel, or outside linebacker," he recalls. "I was pretty nervous. I was only like 190 (pounds), I wasn't as big as any of the other linebackers, so it was quite an experience."
It started with a blur, though Mitchell still slows down the details.
"The (second) play from scrimmage, I think they ran a bubble screen for a touchdown," he says. "I was supposed to have outside contain on that. I got blocked and pinned inside. The receiver caught the screen pass and ran 60 yards like it was nothing. I began to think it's going to be a long day."
The recipient was Alexander; his exact yardage was 58. A half-minute off the clock, Mizzou led, 7-0. And, yes, it turned out to be a long day. Just not as Mitchell feared it might.
Five more touchdowns were scored, all by Navy. Gabbert threw two interceptions and was sacked four times -- Mitchell even got in on one.
"I got chewed out, but after that first play I played pretty well," Mitchell says in such an upbeat way that getting `chewed out' sounds pleasant. "The experience was great. I had a lot of fun playing. Playing at that nickel spot really helped me, it gave me confidence."
The following fall, Mitchell was a regular in a talented and experienced secondary. By then, he was back on the edge, opposite Kevin Edwards at corner. Between them at season's outset were Wyatt Middleton and Emmett Merchant.
Familiarity and regularity -- starting alongside three veterans, before Merchant suffered a season-ending injury -- bred more confidence. By late October, Mitchell was poised for a career first.
The Midshipmen led Notre Dame, 28-10, in the Meadowlands. But the Fighting Irish drove into Navy territory early in the 3rd quarter. Quarterback Dane Crist threw 20 yards downfield, toward the right sideline. Mitchell was waiting on his pass and picked it off.
Ten plays and five minutes after his first collegiate interception, the Mids scored again. The contest, essentially, was over. The final was 35-17.
In either case, against Missouri or Notre Dame; in big-league venues on national television and matched up, in some instances, with pro talent, Mitchell was ultimately unfazed. A big reason was his high school pedigree.
The Hoover Buccaneers are nationally-renown as an Alabama dynasty. They've been state champions six times since 2000, featured on all-sports networks and subjects of a reality series on MTV, of all channels.
The latter, Two-A-Days, was filmed during Mitchell's final two seasons, including the Bucs' second state title of his career. But long before teenagers from New England to New Mexico were introduced to Hoover High, it was well known to a college assistant who'd been at Navy since 2002.
When not working with the Mids secondary, Jones is often deployed to recruit in the South. Among his discoveries is Shun White, a Memphis product and Navy's seventh-leading rusher of all-time.
Another is Jarod Bryant, who captained the eight-win Mids of '08 and quarterbacked them to an upset of nationally-ranked Wake Forest. He came to Annapolis from Hoover, where his late father, Dr. Bill Bryant, was the Bucs longtime team physician.
"Hoover kids are always well coached," Jones says. "They have a great work ethic and know what it means to play hard. They enjoy winning and know what it takes to be winners."
With that in mind, it was a no-brainer for Jones when then Hoover coach Rush Propst suggested he consider Mitchell an Academy prospect.
"He's one of the few kids I started recruiting in May of his junior year," said Jones, who first evaluated Mitchell in spring practice -- yes, there is high school spring ball in Hoover.
Because of Bryant, and while attracting only tepid interest from non-academies, Mitchell was receptive to everything Jones had to say.
"(Jarod) did have a lot of influence. I was on his scout team when I was in high school," Mitchell explained, laughingly noting that he intercepted Bryant a couple of times in the process. "I had never heard of Navy until he signed (with the Academy). When Coach Jones came back to school and started recruiting me, that's when I found out a lot more about it.
"The Bryant's are great people. They were just as excited when Coach Jones started recruiting me as my parents were. (Jarod) had a major impact."
Meanwhile, Daniel and Jacqueline Mitchell were careful not to interfere with their son's college choice.
"My parents were pretty hands-off during the whole recruiting process," Kwesi says. "It was all about what I wanted to do. They were surprised that I was actually looking at Navy, because I don't have any immediate family with a military background.
"My dad said when the letters started coming from Navy that he didn't think I'd actually wind up going there. Once I showed an interest and Coach Jones came by the house, they were all for it. Especially once they got up here to see Annapolis."
Now the Mitchells are regular visitors to A-town, and just as likely to meet the Mids on the road. Kwesi guesstimates they made it to eight games in 2010. Jones spent time with them in September, when the Mitchells were at Western Kentucky.
Kwesi jokingly surmises that his athletic genes are inherited from his mother, Jacqueline, a personal trainer who's run several marathons, including Boston and New York, and now keeps up with her two grandkids.
His intellectual side, he suggests, comes from his father, who recently retired after more than three decades with El Paso Corporation. For sure, it was Daniel who came up with Kwesi's name.
It means "born on Sunday." And though his son arrived on a Thursday, Daniel stuck with the name he liked since befriending a Kwesi in college at Northwestern.
"One of the first questions that comes out of my dad's mouth is, `How are your grades?'" says Kwesi, whose older sister, a financial analyst, attended Alabama on an academic scholarship and graduated in three years.
As a football player, his report card is incomplete, with half the final season remaining. Jones is trying to convince Mitchell to "trust (his) eyes" in reading and reacting from safety. But generally, he's pleased, especially as Mitchell's increased his leadership role in an inexperienced secondary.
"He's kept his nose clean and done what we've asked of him," Jones says. "When he needs to say something he does. He's always talking football (in the meeting and locker rooms). He's very conscientious."
"(Kwesi) keeps things in proper perspective," says Niumatalolo. "As bad as he wants to win, there's more to him than being a football player."
Overall, Mitchell considers himself "a sensible guy." You can understand why when he discusses his interest in flying. It was sparked by a former Academy teacher and helicopter pilot prone to regal his class with stories of his service.
"He just talked about how awesome it was, all the time," says Mitchell, an economics major. "He would just talk about being a pilot all the time, the places he went, the people he got to help. He loved his crew."
Something else Mitchell distinctly remembers shows that while born on a Thursday, he wasn't born yesterday.
"He got a lot of sleep, he got his eight hours every night," Mitchell laughs. "I don't know of many (Surface Warfare Officers) who are getting eight hours of sleep every night."
His sense of humor and sense of self endear Mitchell to teammates like Myers, as well as his coaches. He prods SWO's, but also pokes fun at himself. He doesn't allow his positive train of thought to get derailed by taking himself too seriously.
For instance, Mitchell sees the humor in the numerous messages teammates text him whenever they catch a frequently-shown clip from Two-A-Days. It's a highlight of Joe McKnight -- then of Louisiana's John Curtis Christian High, now of the New York Jets -- running past Mitchell for a score.
But what moves others more than anything, literally, is his spirit of generosity.
"He's always seeing what he can do to help you," says Jones.
Even if, as Myers has witnessed, it means going out of his way.
"He'd stop at the drop of a dime to help everybody," said Myers, remembering the day one of their summertime brainstorms was interrupted by a phone call. "Someone called the room in need of a ride to the Mall. Now, I might give someone a ride if I was going that way. But Kwesi wasn't even planning on going there, and he was still willing to do it."
Niumatalolo plans on staying put. Which is why he hopes to hitch a ride with a few more, at least, like Mitchell.
"He's one of those guys who (inspires us) as a staff (to) say `Let's go out and look for more Kwesi Mitchells,'" Niumatalolo says. "We'd like to have a million Kwesi Mitchells."