Things were looking good for Southern Methodist University. Nearing the end of the second quarter, the Dallas school was ahead of its rival, the University of Houston, in a Conference USA football game.
Yes, it was good to be a Mustang. That is, until SMU quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, then a sophomore, dove for a fumbled ball and was tackled. After the pile of players dispersed, it was clear that something was wrong with Mitchell’s arm.
Once on the field, the SMU medical staff quickly realized Mitchell’s shoulder was dislocated. After they popped it back into place, Mitchell recalls, his entire arm felt numb.
He tried to convince his coach that he could still play. The doctor — and a diagnosis of a slightly torn labrum — had the final say: Mitchell was out of the game. In fact, he would miss six games.
But he made a fateful choice — rather than rush back to football via surgery, he chose the harder path.
“People told me, ‘You should get surgery so you can come back faster,’ but also, when you get surgery, you kind of never come back the same,” Mitchell says. “So I wanted to just rehab it, get it back to strength and get into playing ability.”
Mitchell took the time necessary doing rehab — lots of strengthening exercises to compensate for the torn labrum, that rim of fibrous tissue that helps stabilize the shoulder joint.
Once he was healthy enough to come back, things had changed. Teammate Kyle Padron had stepped in to the quarterback position and was set to finish out the last two games of the season. Mitchell began to think about his next move.
“Do I stay and be backup? Do I pursue my business degree and make money the rest of my life and wear a suit? Or do I go somewhere and play something that I’m passionate about?” he recalls thinking.
On the advice of his brothers, Mitchell decided to open himself up to recruitment and see what happened. Eastern Washington University head football coach Beau Baldwin was the fi rst to call.
“We liked him out of high school, but we loved the fact that he had 19 collegiate starts,” Baldwin says. “He already knew the ins and outs of the game.”
Mitchell’s football career began innocently enough. Growing up in Katy, Texas, as the third of four boys, he was in sixth grade when he spotted a Katy Youth Football fl yer calling for more players and decided to show up. At the fi rst practice, the coach told the group of boys he knew that everyone would want to play quarterback. When none of them said anything, Mitchell’s older brother Patrick nudged him.
“My brother looks at me and was like, ‘Raise your hand. You’re playing quarterback!’” the 21- year-old Mitchell says, laughing. “So I raised my hand. So that’s kind of how it all started.”
The position proved to be a good fit for Mitchell. In his first season at Eastern, he led the team to an NCAA Division I championship in a gutsy, last-second, come-from-behind 20-19 victory over Delaware.
Mitchell shares the credit for the victory: “It was kind of just the underlying efforts of every player, every snap that made it all come to fruition,” the communications major says.
This year, Mitchell won the Walter Payton Award, presented to the top player in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
“When I won the award, it meant exactly what it said, that I was the best player in the country. That’s really all it meant to me,” Mitchell says. “But after learning who Walter Payton was, the player he was, the drive he had, it means that much more. To be mentioned in the same breath as Walter Payton, it’s just the biggest honor that I can honestly imagine to have.”
Following a few months in Dallas training for a chance at the NFL, Mitchell plans to return to Cheney this spring for his pro day, when scouts will watch him throw. After that, he says, he’ll be working out for teams and trying to make it to a preseason camp.
Coach Baldwin concedes that making a professional team is far from a sure thing.
“It’s difficult because you never know what the executives are thinking. But in my heart of hearts, I think we haven’t seen Bo play his last football game.”
Mitchell’s ready for the challenge.
“I’m kind of the standing testimony that if you fight for something that you really want, you truly want, that you can get it. It’s not easy to do. It doesn’t just come to you. It’s something you truly have to work for.”