Former Gator center Jeff Mitchell is on the verge of coming full circle


Carolina's 7-9 campaign in 2002 was hard on former Gator center Jeff Mitchell, pictured here with his then-defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio after snapping a seven-game losing streak. "It's been fun winning again," Mitchell says. Success in the Super Bowl with Baltimore allowed Mitchell to seek a big payday with Carolina - which immediately went 1-15.

JEFF SINER/The Charlotte Observer
Published: Friday, January 16, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 16, 2004 at 12:33 a.m.

Jeff Mitchell is tired.

He is preparing to play in the Carolina Panthers' 23rd game of the season, their 17th in a row. All of the practices, all of the weightlifting, all of the games have taken their toll on the former University of Florida center.

"When I go home, I'm too tired to even talk on the phone," he said. "It wears on you. It's hard on your body. You're basically selling your health and your youth playing in this league."

Jeff Mitchell is energized.

The Panthers play at Philadelphia on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game with the winner going to the Super Bowl.

"It has been awesome," he said by phone from Charlotte. "It's been fun winning again."

Mitchell knows about winning. At Florida, he collected five rings - four SEC titles and a national championship. He has a Super Bowl ring as the starting center for the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.

Which is why, when Mitchell left the Ravens following the Super Bowl to sign with the Panthers, I was surprised. Why would he leave a Super Bowl team for a struggling Carolina? Did he know something we didn't?

"Nah, it was the money," he said. "It's a business. I was still young enough to take advantage of it. And I had lived in Baltimore for four years. I was tired of the Northeast."

Jeff Mitchell is happy. He has two children, more money than he ever dreamed of making and a chance to return to the Super Bowl.

It's a long way from his Gainesville apartment where I visited him after he suffered a broken bone near his ankle against Georgia in 1996. Mitchell was devastated, not only because his senior season was over but because the injury would hurt him in the NFL Draft.

The rehabilitation was almost enough to make him quit the game. He dropped to the fifth round of the draft, where the Ravens selected him.

As a rookie, something wonderful happened to Mitchell. He blew out his knee in practice.

"I was ready to call it quits before that happened," he said. "I had hurt my foot that summer and I had had enough. I didn't know if I belonged. But when I blew out my knee, it was a blessing. I needed a break. It really made me hungry to play again."

The following year, Baltimore's starting center Wally Williams held out in a contract dispute. When he finally reported, he was moved to guard. The Ravens had their center.

And so began what has been an excellent career for Mitchell. He helped the Ravens win it all, cashed in on his success and moved to Charlotte.

What followed wasn't fun.

The Panthers won their opening game in 2001. They lost the next 15.

"It was bad," he said. "It was awful. But last year was tougher, when we went 7-9. The year before, a lot of people gave up halfway through the season. But last year (head coach) John Fox came in and wrote on the board he thought we could go 12-4. When we were in the middle of losing seven straight games, it got a little dicey around here."

This season, the Panthers have been a major surprise, first winning their division and then beating Dallas and St. Louis in the playoffs.

And for Mitchell, the reward has been even greater than in his Super Bowl season.

"In Baltimore, it was all about the defense," he said. "There wasn't a real sense of accomplishment after the games even though we won it all. This has been more satisfying. The offense has been so productive."

Especially when it matters the most. The Panthers tied NFL records with seven victories by three points or less and three overtime wins.

They jump-started the season with a miraculous overtime win in Tampa when a blocked extra point after time had run out led to an overtime win. Last week, they needed two overtimes to beat St. Louis.

"The first couple of close games were nerve-racking," Mitchell said. "Then, we just got confident that we would find a way to win.

"What has really surprised me is how relaxed everyone has been. I thought when the playoffs came, everyone would get uptight. But that hasn't been the case at all. It's just like it was in 2000 at Baltimore."

Carolina has shocked the football world by getting this far. Philadelphia offers a new challenge.

"They probably don't see us coming," Mitchell said. "Heck, if we get to the Super Bowl, they still won't see us coming."

You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at dooleyp@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5053. You can hear Pat weekdays from 4-5 p.m. on WGGG 1230-AM in Gainesville and WMOP 900-AM in Ocala.

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