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Mike Mitchell lines up for a play against the Cleveland Browns.

Former Bobcat Mike Mitchell overcomes adversity

Mike Mitchell, a safety for the Bobcats from 2005-08 and current Pittsburgh Steeler, has an inspiring success story.


That’s when Mike Mitchell, an Ohio Bobcats safety from 2005-08 and current Pittsburgh Steeler, said he first thought he had a realistic shot at cracking an NFL roster.

However, his journey was nowhere near as easy as the answer to that question. 

It was during high school that Mitchell experienced major adversity. After playing at and attending Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky for his first three years, he transferred to Highlands High School in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. 

Transferring during senior year of high school is a move few could imagine making themselves, yet Mitchell didn’t just transfer to any school. He transferred to Covington Catholic’s archrival. 

“We’ve beaten them 27 of the last 31 times, but who’s counting?” said Dave Mueller, the former head coach of the Highlands High School football team. “Whoever wins between us typically wins the state championship in Kentucky in our class. So it’s a really good rivalry.” 

Mueller said Mitchell transferred because “it just wasn’t working for him.” Coaches from Covington Catholic declined comment.

Once he enrolled at Highlands, a battle over his eligibility ensued. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association deemed he was ineligible to play because he did not have a verified change of address. After a lengthy court battle that included a stop before a federal judge, Mitchell was ruled eligible to play.

Going against the wishes of the KHSAA, Mueller played Mitchell.

“They said we voluntarily joined the KHSAA and we should follow what they said over a federal judge,” Mueller said. “We went with the federal government and we played Mike. And Mike had just a great year, he blossomed at Highlands.”

Mitchell played both ways, but was a standout as a defensive back. Mueller recalled one particularly hard-hitting play that stood out in his memory.

“Mike hit (a receiver) so hard that my knees buckled,” Mueller said. “I thought, ‘oh my gosh, is the guy going to live through it?’”

Right before the 2004 state championship game, an appellate court ruled Mitchell should be ineligible, and he was not able to participate in the most important game of his high school career.

Mitchell took the ruling in stride, and told his teammates he was counting on them to bring home the title, Mueller said.

 “You would think a high school guy taken through the ringer would be an angry person, but he was so positive,” Mueller said. “The guys were so inspired by him, and they won the state title.”

 Because Mitchell transferred, he didn’t end up being a heavily recruited player. In fact, Ohio was the only school to take a serious look, Mueller said.

The man who recruited Mitchell to Ohio, defensive coordinator Jimmy Burrow, said Mitchell was one of the most aggressive, physical players he’s ever coached.

“Mike had that kind of a work ethic, that kind of intensity when he played the game,” Burrow said. “He always tried to be an aggressive, physical football player every time he stepped on the field and that’s what pro ball is all about, as well as being athletic of course.”

Tackling was Mitchell’s skill that stood out most to Burrow, and a bone-jarring hit by the safety was the play that came to the forefront of Burrow’s mind when thinking of his former player.

“I think we were probably at Toledo, and, of course, we sent him on a wide open safety blitz,” Burrow said. “He really blasted the quarterback back before the rules were as they are now but he was flagged even then. It’s always better to say whoa to a player than giddy up, so to speak.”

Mitchell considers Burrow to be the person at Ohio that made the biggest impact on his career and life.

“He was like a second father to me when I was in college,” Mitchell said. “My parents really trusted him the most to look over me. He made me a heck of a football player and I learned a lot from him.”

His fondest memory of Athens and Ohio University was winning the 2006 MAC East Championship and going to the GMAC Bowl.

“It’s known as a party school, but I was there to play football,” he said. 

It was this focus that led to his aspirations of becoming an NFL player a reality. Mitchell thought he would be a second or third round pick, Mueller said, but no one outside of his family thought that was a remote possibility.

Alas, Mitchell proved the doubters wrong after he was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Raiders.

“Nobody really saw that in him,” Mueller said. “It was the shock of the decade. They didn’t even have highlight tape of him when he was drafted.”

After spending four years battling for playing time on the Raiders, Mitchell signed with the Carolina Panthers in 2013 and had the best year of his career. He turned the quality season into a five-year, $25 million contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Just a three-hour trip from Athens, Mitchell said he would love to come visit Ohio, possibly during the Steelers’ bye week.

Ironically, the defensive coordinator of the Steelers, Dick LeBeau, coached Burrow when he played for the Green Bay Packers.

Mitchell’s formula for cracking that NFL roster was a combination of focus, passion and a few hard hits. He said no matter where you play, if you’ve got the drive and the skill, the pros will find you.

“It’s all about what type of dog you have inside of you,” he said.


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