John Mitchell always had a goal, a dream he wanted to achieve.
As a young kid growing up in Mobile, Alabama, he wanted to play at the University of Alabama. But during a time when segregation was commonplace in the South, the university wasn't recruiting Black athletes. Yes, he could have gone to the school for academics only, but he had that dream of playing football, a dream he wasn't going to let go of.
So instead of taking advantage of an academic scholarship and staying home and going to Alabama, Mitchell enrolled at Eastern Arizona Junior College to play football, where he eventually received a scholarship.
It was one of the best decisions he ever made, and it's a decision that is still paying dividends today.
Mitchell, the Steelers assistant head coach, found success at Eastern Arizona, both on and off the field, and now he will be enshrined into the National Junior College Athletic Association Foundation Hall of Fame as a member of the organization's inaugural class. He will be joined by Bob McAdoo, Larry Brown, George Killian, Lea Plarski, Sheryl Swoops and Dick 'Night Train' Lane, who will be enshrined virtually on June 24.
"Honors are good, but sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time," said Mitchell. "Thinking back, I was in the right place at the right time. When I went out to Arizona, I didn't even have a scholarship. I thought I was just going out there for a tryout, maybe be out there a few weeks. If the coach deemed you were good enough, they gave you books, maybe tuition, fees. Maybe even a partial scholarship. I was taken aback by that. It was a Mormon school. I didn't even know what Mormons were back then.
"It was time for a 17-year-old to grow up. What helped me there was with how stringent they were, it helped me grow up. It made me see things differently. I was there, I didn't have any money. I couldn't go anywhere. We were out in the middle of nowhere. You had to concentrate on your studies and work on being the best football player you could be and the best person you could be. It taught me about other people. Their religion. The things they believe in. Where they come from. How they were raised. It opened my eyes to a lot of things."
Mitchell earned Junior College All-American honors in 1969 and 1970 while at Eastern Arizona and caught the attention of University of Southern California coach John McKay, committing to play for the Trojans. But it never happened. Instead, his childhood dream came true. Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, the legendary Alabama coach, learned about the prospect McKay was bringing in and Mitchell broke the racial barriers when he was offered him a scholarship to Alabama. The rest is history.
"For me to play for Lad Mullexaux, who was the head coach then, he was a fair guy, he was an honest guy. He did everything to help all of the players. He got me started on my football journey. If not for him, I don't think I would have had the opportunity to be noticed by John McKay. We had players from all over the United States.
"When I went out there, I was a little scrawny, 195-pound guy. I got up to 230 and I think physically my maturity started catching up with my age. I was able to put on weight and started playing better. We only had three coaches when I was there for all of the guys. They coached offense and defense. We didn't have a great weight room. At that time people didn't know much about weights. You did a lot on your own and tried to be the best football player you could be. At that time, I didn't think I was a very good football player. If I was, I could have gone to Alabama right from high school instead of having to go to Junior College. I was smart enough to know I wasn't as a good as I thought I was.
"I think it's a great place for a lot of guys. A lot of guys are not mature enough, their bodies aren't physically able to go to a four-year school. Also, from an academic standpoint, while I didn't have a problem there, I think it can help guys in a lot of ways. Junior college is good for a lot of guys. It gives them a chance to grow up, mature, get stronger and work on their academics. They can see how important it is if they want to continue to follow the dream and go to a four-year institution and see where football can take them."