When it comes to the most iconic sports cities in North America, the most successful of all is undoubtedly Boston.
With all of the unimaginable success attained by the big four sports teams hailing from Massachusetts, several legendary players remain heroes to the fans to this day. The likes of Larry Bird, Tom Brady, Bobby Orr, David Ortiz, and Bill Russell have become icons in the city due to their history of winning and the longevity that came with it, cementing their legacies in New England forever.
Along with all they accomplished in their respective sports was how they impacted the communities they represented. The success their teams brought to the fans was memorable, without a doubt. From comebacks to championships, it's what most fans will remember because how could you not?
The years of domination led to Boston's reputation as the country's leading sports city, but the work they did in their communities and the lives they touched inevitably left a longer-lasting impression.
And that couldn't be better stated when talking about former Patriots wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell.
Before even stepping foot into the NFL, Mitchell had already begun giving back to the communities around him. He created the Share the Magic Foundation to stabilize literacy programs in elementary schools nationwide, a passion project that hit near and dear to his heart and story.
It has grown since its inception in 2016 to reach all 50 states and 10 countries around the world, serving more than 600,000 students with various programs and opportunities they may not have received otherwise.
But let's go back to where it all started.
The 2016 season was a big one in a lot of ways for rookies like Mitchell
The Patriots were in the midst of what would be the second half of their dynastic run when Mitchell was drafted in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. He was coming off an impressive college career at Georgia, where he also earned several awards for his community service, and was set to become the latest addition to a stacked roster ready to taste another championship.
He joined the likes of Patriots legends Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, and James White, an accomplished team coming off the heels of a Super Bowl win over the Seahawks just two years prior. And then, of course, there was Tom Brady, the 39-year-old quarterback and four-time Super Bowl Champion.
Because of the unconscionable amount of feelings that must overwhelm any young player just joining the league, I had to ask Mitchell what it was like to first meet the greatest of all time upon his first days at Gillette Stadium.
Much like countless others have said before him, he recalled Brady introducing himself and knowing exactly who he was, a humanizing experience of an out-of-this-world person like Tom Brady himself.
"I think Tom understands the aura around him, especially being drafted to that team as a rookie. So, I did not walk up to him. He walked up to me and introduced himself, which definitely creates a bit of ease, right? Obviously, I knew who he was. I had no idea that he would know who I was before introducing myself. But that kind of made everything chill. It took away any anxiety or stress you may have in meeting someone who had accomplished as much as he had at the time.
I was in the weight room, and he walked up to me and said, "Hi, I'm Tom. Nice to meet you." And, you know, from there, you just begin to have cordial conversations. Honestly, the pressure was not in meeting him. The pressure was in catching the first pass he threw to you. That was the defining moment because you never want your first memory to be. I dropped the first pass you threw to me."
Considering the path the Patriots were on then, it's unsurprising to hear Mitchell felt a lot of pressure. Brady had been teammates with some great players over the years and, at the time, had some of his most trusted offensive weapons around him.
On top of that, several free agents who would go on to become integral parts of dynasty 2.0 had just signed with the team as well, meaning Mitchell would have more competition to earn his quarterback's trust on and off the field.
I asked Mitchell about that process since Brady had a history of not incorporating rookie wide receivers into the game plan much during his career. Interestingly, he detailed the difficulty in earning his trust, but getting that same reaction from Bill Belichick is much more complicated.
"Earning his trust is difficult, but earning Bill Belichick's trust is even more difficult. There's this process you go through long before you step on the field with Tom in the first place. So you have to prove yourself: rookie minicamp, OTAs, training camp. There's a process to getting on the field besides playing beside Tom in New England. So before you even got in the game with him, you have had to proven yourself on numerous occasions, but that doesn't mean he trusts you. Just that the coaches believe you're equipped not to mess up."
Even with that process underway, his rookie campaign began as soon as Week 1, catching two receptions for 33 yards against the Cardinals. The next few weeks would be a bit of a roller coaster of involvement for Mitchell, but he saw his real callup ten weeks later when the Patriots visited the San Francisco 49ers in Brady's first game there.
Chris Hogan had suffered an injury that kept him sidelined for the Week 11 matchup, leaving the offense with just four receivers to rotate through during the game.
"So this was a game where I played every play. Every offensive play, I was probably on the field to some degree. And I would say that is the game that truly cemented trust between Tom and I because if you go back and you watch from the time he came back, and he played against Browns, until that game, I didn't receive a lot of passes, not that I care about that.
But against San Francisco, where I was really one of the few options that you had. So he kept throwing me the ball, and I kept catching it. Then it started to rain and he kept throwing the ball and I would catch it. And then one time on a scrambled play, and my first touchdown in the NFL, he throws it to me, I catch it and go downfield. That was the game that in my head allowed me to earn his trust.
Now, unfortunately, it was due to Chris Hogan being injured, but I think that was the beginning of our relationship for the rest of the year that led up to Super Bowl 51."
It would be Mitchell's breakout game as a Patriot, recording four receptions for 98 yards and a touchdown to help the team add their eighth win of the season. He would continue to be involved in the game plan the rest of the way and earn his title of a Super Bowl legend for his performance in Super Bowl 51 two months later.
Mitchell's involvement proved invaluable in what is now considered one of the most infamous Super Bowls and unforeseen comebacks in NFL history.
Although he never reached the end zone, his incredibly timed catches and speed were significant to the Patriots' comeback story, essentially having just over a quarter of the game to dig themselves out of the 28-3 hole.
It was and continues to be a feat that no other team has managed to accomplish, adding an even more impressive chapter to the novel of the dynastic Patriots of the 2000s and beyond.
The fondest memory of Malcolm Mitchell amongst Patriots fans is unequivocally Super Bowl LI
Other than the obvious physicality aspect that played a massive part in the Patriots overcoming their score deficit, the mental fortitude of the entire roster continues to be one of the more under-discussed aspects when this game is discussed.
The "Do your job" mantra that Belichick has used for several years has been well documented, especially at the time of this game. But considering the Patriots needed what felt like a miracle from the football Gods to win the game, the collective mindset of all the men on the sideline remains one of the more fascinating aspects of their comeback.
Was it just the simple mindset of winning? Mitchell says it went far beyond that.
"Let's talk about the mindset because most people think the mindset is about winning, and that's not true.
So it is not whether you win or lose; the mindset has to be, "regardless of what's transpiring, I am going to give 110%." That's the mindset, and that's what Bill taught us. It wasn't about, you know, "Are we gonna come back and win the game?" Of course, that's our desire, but the mindset was you're not just going to beat us. And to our favor, they made enough errors. That gave us an opportunity.
But that's what I talk about a lot when I'm talking about the game. Everyone says it's the winning mindset. It's not about the winning mindset. It's about the never giving up mindset. That's more valuable than the winning mindset, in my opinion."
Mitchell's insight into what was going on behind the scenes at NRG Stadium provides a glimpse into what most refer to as "The Patriot Way." The assumption had always been winning was the priority no matter what, mainly because New England had done so much of it over the years. And although it likely was in the eyes of most, never giving up rings more true to how the team conducted themselves, especially in a game that felt destined for them to lose.
That culture has been questioned throughout the years, even more so now that the team has performed uncharacteristically poorly in recent seasons. Some have concluded that the mantra was mainly that of Tom Brady and not Belichick, which was demonstrated by their fates since the duo split in 2020.
Since then, former players have aired their grievances with how New England handles things as an organization, and even outsiders like Lane Johnson of the Eagles famously labeled it as a no-fun place to play.
But not all have had that same experience playing for the longtime Belichick-coached team, including Mitchell, who accomplished a lot in just his rookie season at the height of the second half of the dynasty.
So, was it a terrible place to play?
"I think if you enter the NFL and your deepest desire is to win a Super Bowl, at the time, the Patriots were a place to be. If your deepest desire going into the NFL was to make a lot of money and kind of exploit the opportunities, that probably wasn't the best place for you to be.
What personality matches the culture? And I think the personality or the desires of a person's character traits, if it doesn't match with trying to win Super Bowls, by any means necessary, that's going to be a terrible place to be because I always say the Patriots organization is very much so ran like the culture of New England. Blue Collar. You're not super flashy. And you worked extremely hard. And you mind your business. If you weren't gonna really do those four things, being successful there was going to be very difficult. That mimicked the culture of New England, not just the Patriots.
It just depends. I think for me, it was fine. Because yeah, everyone desires nice things at some point in time. But for me, winning was more important than the vehicle that I drove to work."
Given the incredible run the Patriots were on for over two decades, some may say that any Patriots player during the Tom Brady era would claim their time spent in New England was fun because they were winning a Super Bowl nearly every other season. That could even be applied to Mitchell, whose career ended abruptly after his first year.
What professional athlete wouldn't love being on a team that almost guarantees you a championship?
But Mitchell's description of what it meant to be a Patriot and all the hard work and dedication required to remain there speaks volumes about the characters and work ethic of those who did stick around. As he said, it wouldn't be the right place for everyone, but working hard, being held accountable no matter who you are or what you've accomplished in your career, and playing to a high standard isn't always considered the most fun.
Moving on from all you know is never an easy decision
The 2016 season was memorable for many reasons, most notably taking home the fifth Lombardi trophy in franchise history, and it was also the only year Mitchell got to experience living out his dream to play in the NFL.
Unfortunately, he was no stranger to injuries, as he dealt with many during his time at Georgia. That continued during his short stint with the Patriots, with a nagging knee injury landing him on injured reserve in 2017. It continued to be an issue for the wide receiver the following year, which led to a medical procedure during the offseason and, ultimately, became the reason for his release from the team in August 2018.
Because the injury remained problematic for Mitchell through another NFL season, he made the tough decision to retire from the sport seven months later, ending a promising career at just 24 years old and only 16 total games played.
It was heartbreaking news for all fans in New England and an even scarier life change for Mitchell after all the hard work he put into making it into the NFL.
"It's one of the hardest decisions I've ever made in my life. I'll compare it to... I could use biblical references, but I'll use something simpler. IIt's like jumping off a cliff, with a parachute on, but not actually knowing that the parachute is gonna open. You just no one's there. But you have no idea if it's going to actually open and save you from, you know, thumping against the ground. That was what it felt like to retire from football. It felt like I'm jumping, and I don't know if I'm gonna survive. But I know I need to jump."
Although most can't relate to the feeling of having to give up a career as a professional athlete, having to completely alter your path in life so abruptly without a road map to navigate you toward what's next is certainly relatable.
That's how Mitchell described the aftermath of needing to retire so early in his career. It was like being thrust into a new world you weren't prepared for because all you had done leading up to that point was to accomplish one goal, which you did.
What do you do once that's taken away, and where do you go?
"Well, the most difficult part about it is, you know, I've gone my whole life seeing the world through the lens of an athlete. Some people call that identity; I just call it perspective. I only know this one way of life, and then in one day, I have to change the entire way I perceive myself and the world around me and then myself in the world to try to continue to move forward. Oh, it's one of the most difficult things I've ever been through. Because you talk about floating in the abyss. I don't care who you are.
Tom had the most successful career of any athlete that has ever played football. I guarantee you he's going to be In the abyss. It's not because you're trying to look for other things to accomplish. It's just that everything you've ever known no longer exists the same way it has. I don't care if you go, coach, I don't care if you stay around the sport. I don't care if you're a commentator. No, it's not the same."
Despite his career ending far too early, Patriots fans gravitated toward Mitchell during his time in New England and hold him in high regard to this day.
He remains atop the list of "what if?" careers that could have been significant during a very successful time in the team's history and likely would have been a solid contributor for years to come.
But there is a bit of a silver lining here, as Mitchell is just as grateful for the New England fans as they are for him, and he continues to be a part of the area through his foundation and work, allowing him to remain immersed in the community that taught him so much.
"Honestly, they really helped me grow and mature as a man. I grew up in a single-parent household and the Patriot Way in the community of New England - everyone helped me become the man I am today. So, I have deep gratitude for the community there. That's why I keep going back. I don't go back and stand on the field, but I'm always in the community in some capacity, whether it be through the reading initiatives that my foundation produces or, you know, I was just in Newport, Rhode Island, a few weeks ago, maybe a month ago, just spending time with my wife and my son, because I want them to feel the same thing I felt from being in that community.
But yeah, if I had a chance to address the New England community, I'd just say thank you because you've helped me grow. You've helped me learn. And you've helped me become a man that looks in the mirror and shakes his head like, you know what? You're okay."
After football, the primary focus was furthering his other biggest passion: Share the Magic Foundation
On top of making things happen on the football field, Mitchell had started the Share the Magic Foundation before even catching a pass from Tom Brady.
Because of his connection to learning how to read and the struggle that can come with that as you age, he dedicated his life experience to helping other children in need around the country, starting in the New England area.
Share the Magic Foundation is a non-profit centered around "transforming the lives of children through literacy" with in-school programs, community programs, and much more. All the outstanding reading opportunities they offer are open to any student, anywhere. Whether in school, at home, through libraries, youth groups, YMCA, etc.
The priority has been and always will be to reach as many children as possible, which all began for Mitchell over seven years ago.
"So I started reading in college because I make the conclusion that reading is the most empowering tool a person can possess, more than any other activity, because it can help you sustain success over a long period of time.
So I started reading; the only problem is, you know, I grew up a striving reader, which meant I struggled to read for the majority of my life. I get to college, I practice reading as much as I'm practicing football, I get better, I get better, I get better, and get better. This story of me joining a book club explodes. And then I decided I'm gonna write a picture book to inspire kids to read."
With such a meaningful vision and so much needing to be done to reach the masses, Mitchell has widened his overall focus with hopes of changing the narratives surrounding literacy and bringing more attention to educational systems to those in positions of power.
Other than all that he hopes to accomplish with the admirable work he and his team are doing, his biggest desire is to create universal dialogue from the long-lasting impact of their work that inevitably forces changes to happen, benefitting children the most.
"I hope to completely shift the cultural narrative surrounding literacy. I also hope to have such an influx of impact that we can persuade policymakers into thinking more deeply about the choices they make for educational systems. Those are the two objectives: to completely rewrite the cultural narrative surrounding literacy, especially in under-resourced communities, and have such a humongous amount of impact that we begin to have influence over policy."
But what about the long-term goals? What is the ultimate goal of the Share the Magic Foundation?
"We have to find a way to scale some of our virtual challenges and create resources that teachers can use year-round. We have to be at the forefront of literacy in every way.
You think about some of the most notable literacy organizations, Dolly Parton being one of them. Dolly Parton has given away a million books a year; that's not really our model.
But in doing so, she is one, Dolly Parton, but two, she has cemented her credibility in the realm of literacy. I think that that is our objective, to be a movable force that's making change in communities. I think in order for us to do that, we have to scale our programs, and not only scale our programs, communities have to find them to be beneficial. So creating resources that educators are confident to use in a classroom."
With the foundation continuing to grow and more students being reached, Mitchell's impact is becoming more significant in the communities he continues to serve. His natural ability to relate with whom he's speaking while also enticing children to read, despite all the distractions they have to deal with in today's world, leaves a lasting impression on more than just the kids.
Teachers and staff at elementary schools around the country are thankful to have Mitchell speak with their students, citing him as a role model whose impact will never be taken for granted.
"New England will always hold a special place in Malcolm's heart. His travels here may no longer be for football, but his impact is far greater when he shares his message of the importance of reading at school reading rallies. It's a sight to see when children in New England stomp their feet and chant, "Read to succeed!" It gives you goosebumps. Malcolm is a role model for literacy all across this nation, and as New Englanders, we should never take for granted the impact he's made here."
-Barbara Murphy of Blackstone Elementary
How to get involved:
Besides understanding the history of the Share the Magic Foundation and all the essential reasons for its purpose, it's vital that all of us get more involved in the cause.
Malcolm shared the easiest ways to do that.
"Go to readwithmalcolm.com and explore some of the resources that we have. Follow us on social media, Read with Malcolm.
I say to any Patriots fans who want to keep up with me, Read with Malcolm on social platforms is the best way to do it. I would love your support. I remember I had 200,000+ followers as an athlete. I would love to have that same love and respect as a champion for literacy.
So if you're interested in keeping up or you want to show some love and support follow us, and that'll make a huge difference."
Share the Magic Foundation website
Make a donation!
Follow Read With Malcolm on Twitter/X
READBowl starts on January 8, 2024 and runs through the Super Bowl on February 11, 2024
A special message from all those working for Share The Magic Foundation
"New England is still considered a second home, and we continue to come back to visit with reading rallies. Two of our biggest supporters are Patriot Subaru, who we have teamed up with usgoing on seven years now to bring reading rallies to schools in the North Attleboro section of Massachusetts. Huge thank you to Mark, Tom, and the team for their continued support and partnership. Additionally, the Rotary Club of Providence has been a wonderful friend, supporter, and partner over the years."
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