Khalif Mitchell wages personal battles behind the mask
His behavioural problems in the CFL are well documented; away from the field has been much more complex
B.C. Lions' defensive end Khalif Mitchell says he prays for himself and admits to being very emotional about the things going on around him and in the world. Getting ready for football games is the easy part of a complex life.
Photograph by: John Ulan, The Canadian Press
On his way to the locker-room after practice on Friday, Khalif Mitchell couldn’t help himself and leaped playfully above the shoulders of Wally Buono, startling his boss on the turf at BC Place.
“You trying to kill me?” the 62-year-old general manager asked.
“You got insurance,” Mitchell smiled.
Mitchell is happy.
He does not look like a player with two strikes against him — a defensive tackle needing to redeem himself after a tumultuous season that included a Twitter scandal, a reprehensible act of violence on the field and suspensions from both the B.C. Lions and the Canadian Football League.
In a way, Mitchell has been behind in the count his whole life.
He revealed for the first time Friday that he suffers from dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This probably forgives Mitchell nothing, but it may explain a lot about his season.
“I’m one of the guys who asks a lot of questions,” the 27-year-old from Virginia Beach said after the Lions practised for Sunday’s West Division Final against the Calgary Stampeders. “So many professional athletes commit suicide – more than we see on television. I think so much of it comes because they are not themselves; they are living in a fantasy-like world . . . and when they come to reality, it’s so heavy and puts them down.
“My mom had depression. But she was one of those people who smiled at everyone. I’m the kid who always saw my mom crying. Everyone outside the house did not realize that all the weight put on her was carried inside. Me, I said I would never do that. I live in a whole different world.”
So, what you see is what you get with Mitchell.
He always knew he didn’t learn like most kids did, but it wasn’t until he went to East Carolina
University to play football that he was diagnosed with ADHD, symptoms for which can include restlessness, impatience and verbal and physical outbursts. The dyslexia, Mitchell kept to himself. He said he didn’t really learn to read properly until a classmate at college taught him to use an index card to isolate each line of text.
He self-medicated his attention deficit problems with marijuana, leading him to seek counselling and a specialist during his time on the San Francisco 49ers’ practice squad in 2009. Mitchell has been on medication since then. He doesn’t discuss his prescriptions, but the Lions are aware of his issues and work with him on treatment.
“I was smoking marijuana heavily in college,” Mitchell said. “I thought it was an addiction. But when I went to a psychiatrist in the NFL and then this doctor in Massachusetts . . . he had a wall that explained that people with ADHD always seemed to self-medicate. I took the first step and said: ‘I’m going to go talk to that psychiatrist, I’m going to go talk to that doctor.’ I was prescribed medicine. But . . . the biggest help has been education and learning how to grow and how to better myself.
“I’ve understood how I learn. All the kids in the classroom, all of them aren’t learning the same way. All of them don’t like sitting in a hard, wooden desk for five or six hours. People say: ‘These aren’t like regular kids who can just sit down and be quiet.’ So they put them in special-ed or put them in a classroom where they can be themselves but is looked at as the dumb class. It takes a better teacher to help them understand how they learn. I didn’t understand learning until I became a professional athlete.”
Mitchell said there are times in the day, usually in the evening, when he is better able to absorb information and that eating before learning is vital because hunger distracts.
Most teammates only learned of Mitchell’s disorder when the team suspended him a game in October for using a derogatory term on Twitter while referring to Chinese. This was after Mitchell had missed three games with a thigh injury.
In July, CFL commissioner Mark Cohon suspended Mitchell for two games for hyper-extending the elbow of Edmonton Eskimo lineman Simeon Rottier after a whistle. In September, Mitchell was penalized and fined for making throat-slashing gestures toward the Eskimos in the rematch in Edmonton.
Mitchell has never outright apologized for his actions, although it’s obvious in conversation that he feels worst about his mistake on Twitter, which he maintains was ignorance, not racism.
The cumulative effect of the incidents, besides embarrassment to the Lions, is that the supremely talented player is almost out of chances in Vancouver.
Mitchell has even more riding on these playoffs than teammates who won a Grey Cup last season when he was a dominating presence in the middle in the defensive line.
Mitchell’s need for movement over stillness may explain why he dances behind the ball while waiting for offences to break the huddle. But he’ll have to do more than dance to stay with the Lions.
“Someone shows their life as brilliant and exuberant to everyone on the outside, and when he goes home he cries,” Mitchell said. “He sits in his car and asks himself: ‘What are you doing?’ I ask myself that. We come from a world where we judge people and bash them.
“Am I still going to be Khalif Mitchell and talk about things? You’re damn right. Am I going to be emotional about things and what goes on in the world? That’s who I am. I pray for myself and I ask people to pray for me.
“I just need to come out here and play football and live my life every day by the truth that I know, that I go to bed with, that I live within my heart. I stay truthful to everyone I come into contact with and I stay true to myself. Because at the end of the day, when you do look in that mirror, there are no fans around, no coaches around, no crowd, no whistles. There is yourself.”
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