BJ Mitchell made it out of inner-city Detroit to star at Division III powerhouse Mount Union and earn his degree. Now he looks to join the shortlist of Mount Union players in the NFL ranks. He was invited to the Lions rookie minicamp as an undrafted free agent, but he left Allen Park without a contract. Will the Detroit native get a chance to play on Sundays?
Bradley “BJ” Mitchell, Jr. is Detroit, through and through. Listed at 5’6”, 175 lbs., people have been writing him off for a long time now. He doesn’t remember the first time he was told he’s too small, but he does remember how often.
“I’ve been hearing that since I first laced them up,” BJ says. “It wasn’t just the competition,” he adds, “I’ve had coaches tell me what I can’t do or try to limit me, so it’s always been on me to prove them wrong.”
He pauses. “The scenario I’m in now is no different. I feel teams may be afraid to pull the trigger on me because of my size.”
“I just need that one shot to prove that I can play at the highest level. Then they’ll believe.”
BJ has been playing football ever since he was seven years old. I recall a pre-draft article Dave Birkett wrote about Detroit little league teammates Desmond King, Malik McDowell, and Jourdan Lewis, so I ask BJ who some of the best players he’d ever played with or against were.
Turns out BJ played in the same league as those guys – the Detroit PAL (Police Athletic League). King’s name was the first he mentioned. “We used to call him Buddha,” he laughs.
BJ was also teammates with current Ohio State running back Mike Weber, and he’s still in touch with his former Eastside Colts teammate today. He speaks of King and Weber with respect and admiration, but his tone eventually turns serious.
“The best players I ever played with, you wouldn’t even know their names because they weren’t able to make it to college or through college.” I ask why not.
“They couldn’t handle things the right way,” he tells me.
BJ came to age during what was arguably the darkest chapter in Detroit’s history. He was just a teenager during the recession of 2008, and he witnessed firsthand the effects of the automotive industry crisis. “I had some family members who worked for Chrysler and GM,” he says, “A lot of them got laid off.”
“It was a really tough time for the city.”
BJ lived in Detroit until about 10th grade, at which point his family moved out of the city limits.
“Things got to be a little too bad in the city, a lot of violence in the neighborhood. Mom wanted a fresh start, so we moved out.” He pauses to reflect. “We probably stuck around too long.”
He wanted to play for a big public school in Detroit to help himself get recruited, but mom wasn’t having it. “I don’t wanna talk bad about anyplace, but my mom thought they were too violent.”
BJ had some friends at South Lake High School in nearby St. Clair Shores, so he transferred there. He made it out, but he laments that others haven’t been so fortunate.
“With all that goes on in the city, kids can’t see what’s out there,” he laments. “I don’t think enough guys come back to the city to show kids that there’s a different way. They don’t think that football or school can be part of their future. All they see is the fast money.”
“Then they get sucked into that lifestyle when they turn 17, 18.” I ask him to elaborate. “I don’t really want to get into specifics.” I decide not to press him.
But BJ always knew football could be a part of his future. At South Lake, he put up what he calls ‘D-I worthy numbers’ during the school’s two winningest seasons in his junior and senior years. He sent tapes all over, but didn’t find any takers. I ask him why he didn’t land at any big programs.
“I don’t feel like I ever got the right set of eyes on me,” he tells me. Then, he concedes, “My size probably didn’t help.”
So, he went to nearby D-II school Northwood, where he redshirted his first semester. But, he just didn’t feel at home there. “I didn’t enjoy my time at Northwood,” he says. “The school just wasn’t the right fit for me.”
“I feel like I settled.”
So, in the spring semester, BJ set out to do something about it. He and a friend went to try out for the Toledo Rockets, a D-I program in the MAC.
They both made it as walk-ons. This was in spite of the fact that Kareem Hunt, who was drafted in the third round by the Kansas City Chiefs in April, was coming to town. All BJ had to do was complete a background check and wait for the university to check his academic standing. “I knew I was in,” he says.
But, BJ’s plans hit a snag.
“They told me I was academically ineligible, which made no sense.”
He had made a 3.3 GPA in Northwood, so there was no way he could have been academically ineligible.
“They said it was because I didn’t have enough credits because I went to a private high school that did trimesters,” he tells me. But, BJ’s high school did semesters, not trimesters. Eventually, it all got ironed out, and he approached the coaching staff to tell them so that he could play spring ball, which was already underway.
“They told me to just wait for the fall.” BJ was devastated. “I made up my mind to make one last switch,” he says. “I wanted to go someplace where I was more than just a number, and where I could win.”
So, he began e-mailing schools. Eventually, he visited Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, near the state’s eastern border, some 221 miles away from Detroit. He fell in love and made his decision, and he never looked back.
Mount Union is a Division III powerhouse, responsible for producing Pierre Garcon and Cecil Shorts II. They’ve won 25 of the last 26 conference titles, and have appeared in 15 national championship games since 2000, of which they’ve won eight.
When he arrived at Mount Union, BJ was far down on the depth chart. “I was probably seventh or eighth string to start,” he laughs. But, by Week seven of his redshirt freshman season, he earned the starting role and never relinquished control of it.
But landing the starting gig wasn’t the biggest event that happened in his life during his freshman season. BJ welcomed his first son, Blake, into the world that year. He describes this as a life-changing moment for him. “It taught me how to deal with adversity,” he says.
He wrestled with the idea of quitting football. “I wondered, ‘Do I go home and start to work and focus on that, give up football?’” he tells me.
He began to wonder if staying the course would pay off. Being a student-athlete is a big enough obligation as it is, but adding a kid to the mix? “It’s a totally different level.”
Ultimately, BJ stuck with it. “It taught me a lot about perseverance.”
The biggest lesson fatherhood has taught him? “Oh man, it’s tough to choose.” He eventually decides on sacrifice as his final answer.
“When you have kids, you can’t just get up and do whatever you want. Everything you do, they’re watching. I didn’t have anything extreme going on, but sometimes you gotta give up certain parts of your life, because everything you do after that point is gonna have a result behind it.”
He’s quick to add that it’s not just about his own sacrifices, but the sacrifices of others. “It takes a village,” he says. His mom, his brothers (“Uncles turned into dads real quick”), Blake’s mom Tia, and Tia’s parents all stepped up to the plate.
“They weren’t obligated to do it, but they did it anyway.” The gratitude resonates in his words as he speaks.
Fast forward to his junior season, and the Purple Raiders won their first national championship since he stepped foot on campus. I ask him what it was like to be part of a culture like that.
“Incredible,” he says. “The way we do things, the way we prepare ourselves – that’s what separates us from other small schools.”
“We prepare like a Division I program, and not because we’re forced to, but because we want to,” he asserts. “When you get there, you see the way things are done, and you want to be part of it because you want to win so bad.”
He tells me that part of the reason he wanted to play for a winner was because he had never won a championship before.
“Little league, middle school, high school, I’d never won it all,” he tells me. All that changed at Mount Union.
“It was an amazing experience to go out and accomplish that on the biggest stage I’d ever been on – it was on ESPN – with my brothers, and especially to see the seniors go out on a high note. I was just as happy for them as I was for myself.”
BJ was named a team captain as a senior. He tells me that he’d always felt like a leader on the team, especially considering he was once one of the few freshmen to start for the program. He admits that it was a bit of a learning curve, “It was different, having to be a vocal leader and motivate the team.”
That wasn’t the only shifting variable for him that year. The team had lost a lot of players to graduation, and BJ welcomed a second son, Bryce, into the family, and he wore his sons’ names on his eyeblack that year.
He garnered All-American honors, but ultimately, Mount Union failed to defend their national title, losing 14-12 to the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in the semifinals.
I ask him what the biggest play he remembers from his time as a Purple Raider is. He doesn’t take long to come up with an answer. “It was the second or third game of my senior year, against Marietta. First carry of the game, I made a couple guys miss, split a couple guys, and then sprinted up the sideline.”
“I remember thinking that I wanted to dominate the competition all season long, the same way guys like Pierre Garcon and Cecil Shorts did when they were at Mount Union.”
Once their attempt to repeat fell short, BJ turned his eyes to the bright lights of the NFL. “Growing up as a little kid, you daydream about scoring touchdowns in the NFL or winning a Super Bowl, but you always see yourself in a team’s jersey,” he tells me.
For BJ, that team was always the Detroit Lions.
“I remember the best Christmas present I ever got as a kid was a Barry Sanders book called ‘You See Me Now.’” He tells me that the book came with a DVD of his highlights.
“I watched those highlights five, ten times a day, every day.”
I ask him what his experience as a Detroit fan was like growing up. “Probably the same as everyone else’s,” he quips, and we share a laugh. “It was tough a lot of the time. Always had those Lions moments – you think you have it, and then you don’t.”
“As a kid, I always wanted to grow up and join the team to help fix them,” he says.
So, he began the pre-draft process, looking to land with any team he could. I ask him how guys from smaller schools find an agent. He wasn’t wooed by any big time agents “who offer cash advances and things like that,” but he still drew the attention of several agents.
“You have to determine who has your best interest at heart,” he cautions.
He then selected a personal trainer who had experience training some NFL players, and began working out with him four days a week – Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. He usually works out by himself on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and rests up on Sundays.
BJ wasn’t invited to the combine, but he was given the opportunity to participate at Toledo’s pro day, just four years removed from being told by the coaching staff there to wait for fall ball. He credits his trainer for helping him prepare for his Pro Day, “He knows the science behind the body and how to get it to peak performance.”
Between some of the drills, he noticed – who else? – Detroit head coach Jim Caldwell observing the action.
“In my head, I’m like, ‘I’m from Detroit, I can’t let him walk out of these doors without introducing myself,’” so he walked up to the coach and introduced himself. He tells me that he shook his hand and that Coach Caldwell smiled, at which point I begin to believe he was making things up, because I don’t think anybody’s ever seen Coach Caldwell smile.
“Mr. [Bob] Quinn was there, too,” and they talked for two or three minutes. “They told me I looked good out there,” he beams.
Nevertheless, the draft came and went, and BJ never heard his name called. He hadn’t gotten much interest; scouts had told him he looked good, but he’d only spoken to Bob Quinn and Jim Caldwell at that point. But right after Day three of the draft concluded, the phone rang.
It was the Detroit Lions. They wanted him to tryout at their rookie minicamp.
I ask him what it was like going into the tryout; if he felt any pressure. “I knew it was the only opportunity I was guaranteed, and had to make the most of it, but it didn’t feel any different than any other situation I’ve been in before,” he says, “I went into it with the same underdog mentality that I’ve always had.”
Ultimately, BJ left Allen Park without a contract. “They just said I looked good and to stay in shape.”
I ask him how it felt to be that close and leave without a deal. “Honestly, it stung at first, if only for a little bit,” he confesses, “In my head, I know I’m that close, but I came back to the reality that this is a business.”
“I don’t know what they have going on with their roster, or what’s going on behind the scenes. It could all change later.”
I ask BJ what his biggest strengths are. “Lateral quickness, navigating through traffic, setting up my blockers,” he says, “I use my size to my advantage well in that regard.”
“I can be a utility player for a team,” he continues, “I can run the ball, catch the ball, return kicks, and I pride myself on pass blocking . I’m a good pass blocker, even though you may not expect that by looking at me. I can even run through people when I need to, because I get low and get leverage.”
I ask him to compare his game to somebody in the NFL. “Besides Barry Sanders, I was a big Reggie Bush head growing up,” he says, “He’s why I wore number five in high school.” Bush played for the Lions from 2013-2014. As for active players? “I think I can be used like Dion Lewis, but I’d say I run a lot like Lesean McCoy.” It’d be hard to disagree with him, if you’ve watched his highlight reel.
I then pose a hypothetical to him: if he’s on an NFL roster a month from now, having survived the final cuts of the preseason, why did he make the team? His answer is not one I would have expected.
“My passion, that’s what separates me,” he says, “I love the game. A lot of guys disrespect the game and take advantage of it. They do it for a check.”
“I’d do it for free if I could.”
I decide to flip the script. I ask what he thinks is holding him back from being signed. “I’m not sure, maybe my size, or maybe coming from a small school.”
“I just don’t have the right set of eyes on me yet, or maybe I do and they’re just not in a position to make something happen yet.”
But, he remains confident in his chances. “Look at [Chicago Bears running back] Tarik Cohen. We have similar skillsets, similar size.” The 5’6” Cohen was drafted in the fourth round out of North Carolina A&T, an FCS school. “I was really happy for Tarik when he got drafted. It just goes to show that guys like us have a place in the league.”
He tells me he’s on the shortlist of some teams, and that his representatives are “out there banging on doors.” His agent still believes the NFL is a very good possibility for BJ. Training camps are right around the corner, and the surprise roster moves that come with it often create opportunities for undrafted free agents.
I ask him what he’d like to do when, and if, he finally realizes his dream. First and foremost, he emphasized wanting to be able to take care of his family, but he has another item on his to-do list.
BJ, who graduated with his bachelor’s in exercise science this spring, wants to show kids like him that there’s a way out. “Once I make it in the league, and I’m on a team and established, I want to have my own camp.
“I want to give back to Detroit.”