Oct. 24, 2013
RALEIGH, N.C. - When the Wolfpack Nation heard the news that Brandon Mitchell had broken his foot and would miss several games, there were many different reactions from the fans: disbelief, anger, disappointment, resignation. After the graduate transfer had come in and shown such a brief flash of greatness, to have it all snatched away so quickly was a tough pill for the Pack faithful to swallow.
When Mitchell himself heard the news, he felt just one emotion: relief.
"I knew it was broken, but I thought it was worse than it was," Mitchell remembers. "I didn't want to come out of the game because I thought once I came out, I was going to be done for the season."
It was an anticlimactic exit after an entrance that was so wrought with excitement. Mitchell was a name Wolfpack fans hadn't heard just a couple of months before the season opener. The Amite, La., native had spent four years at the University of Arkansas, where he appeared in 13 games at quarterback but was never named the permanent starter. Prior to the 2012 campaign, he moved to wide receiver just to be able to get on the field.
After going through spring practice with the Razorbacks, he decided that he could take his degree and his talents somewhere else for his final year of eligibility. His old strength coach, Jason Veltkamp, had joined Dave Doeren's staff in Raleigh, which put the Wolfpack on Mitchell's radar screen.
"Once I made the decision to leave Arkansas, NC State wasn't even on my radar," he says. "I felt like they had a good team and were just missing that one piece at quarterback. When I talked to Coach V and he told me about the situation here where they hadn't named a starting quarterback coming out of spring ball, I knew it would be a great opportunity for me."
From the time he first came to visit on May 18 until the day he took the field as the Wolfpack's starting quarterback for the 2013 season opener, only 105 days passed. But during that time Mitchell saw State for the first time, met and "fell in love" with a new coaching staff, made new friends and emerged as a team leader.
On his visit, he met Dontae Johnson and D.J. Green as soon as he walked into the Murphy Center. He watched film with Jacoby Brissett and Manny Stocker. He met another transfer, Travares Copeland.
"I instantly built relationships with some of those guys so by the time I got here I really felt comfortable," said Mitchell, who arrived in time for the second session of summer school in early July.
Although he was one of the oldest players on the team, Mitchell was a bit of a rookie in terms of being a player for the Wolfpack. But even that part worked out for him in a special way.
"I had worked with Coach Veltkamp and Brad Stewart my whole collegiate career, and these guys had never been through a summer program with them," he says. "So when I got here I knew exactly what to expect. So instead of being the new face, I was turned instantly into the vet. Everybody was like `how do you do this drill?' I knew exactly what Coach Veltkamp was expecting and what he was trying to get done, so I think that helped me in a leadership role. "
Mitchell and teammate Pete Thomas, who quickly became friends as well as competitors for the same position, enjoyed a vigorous battle for the starting job during preseason camp. About a week and a half before the Louisiana Tech game, they were both informed that Mitchell would get the starting nod.
"We both felt real comfortable with it," Mitchell says. "We both talked a lot about how each of us had to be ready to become that starter on any given play and I think we both accepted our roles."
Before each Wolfpack game, Doeren selects one player to speak to the team before they load the buses and head to the stadium. For the very first game of his tenure at NC State, Doeren gave that honor and responsibility to Mitchell.
"It was a great opportunity," Mitchell recalls. "I also got to lead the team prayer and was very emotional all the way to the stadium. I tried to stay calm, but to finally be THE guy for the program was a really good feeling. It was a moment I had always worked for and always wanted and I knew I could seize it."
Seize it he did, although afterwards it really did feel like it had indeed been just a moment. State took the opening kickoff and drove 65 yards in seven plays for a touchdown. Mitchell rushed twice for 15 yards and threw 26- and 11-yard passes on the drive.
On his second rush, a 10-yarder to the Bulldog three, Mitchell's shoe came off and when he was tackled, he knew immediately that something was wrong.
After a brief three-and-out by LaTech, he came back out with his new team, rushing for a yard on first down, but handing it off on the next two plays. A 56-yard completion to Rashard Smith set the Pack up for the next score and the 75-yard drive ended with the Pack up 14-0 and the sold-out crowd already envisioning the future with No. 8 at signal caller.
After another three-and-out, Mitchell came back on the field, although at that point, he knew that something was terribly wrong with his foot.
"I just stuck it out for the next two series, but the third series when I couldn't move any more, I didn't want to put the team in jeopardy of possibly losing the game so I came out," he said.
Mitchell says that for 5-10 minutes, he was "really disappointed." He adds, "I think I even threw my shoe down." But the bad news that everyone else was about to receive was music to the ears of Mitchell.
"We walked off the field and did the x-rays and the doctor came out and I thought he was going to tell me I was done, but he told me I was going to be out about 4-6 weeks. I was mad, but then I smiled because it wasn't as bad as I thought it was."
That smile has seldom left Mitchell's face since. Through surgery and rehab and watching his team struggle at times on the field, he's remained upbeat and positive. "Our team chaplain, Mr. Al Byrd, had just talked the night before about how guys were going to get hurt, but the theme of our team was to overcome adversity. When I got hurt, it automatically clicked in my head `this is that adversity we talked about last night.' I didn't want to get too down and I also wanted to help Pete any way I could."
During his time out, Mitchell watched the Pack's games from the coaches' box, where he says he was able to gain invaluable knowledge about the game from a coach's perspective. Now, as the Wolfpack heads to Florida State to take on the team that many feel is the hottest in the country right now, he's once again set to start.
Some would hope to ease back into the fray, but not Mitchell.
"It fits what we've been preaching as a team - facing adversity. We're going in as a 28-point underdog, they have 300 former players coming back. But we just want to go in there and ruin their plans.
"I've played in big-time games against teams that won national championships and my teammates have beaten Florida State before so we have a lot of confidence here to play Florida State. I am excited about the opportunity."