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Eagles rookie Quinyon Mitchell has quietly fought for what he wants: ‘He’s one of one’

Eagles rookie Quinyon Mitchell has quietly fought for what he wants: ‘He’s one of one’

For seven hours on April’s final Sunday, Quinyon Mitchell secured the silence of an open road. He’d escaped his crazy calendar. He strode the stage of the NFL Draft in Detroit, then taxied to Philadelphia’s airport twice in two days. He still found time to clear his mind on a road trip from Toledo, Ohio, through the full length of Pennsylvania.

The No. 22 overall pick arrived to the Philadelphia Eagles’ rookie minicamp last weekend. Afterward, Mitchell returned home to Williston, Fla., as he promised he would. He celebrated with four sisters, three he helped raise. He visited kids who played in the youth league in which he’d been an inaugural player. He survived the turbulence of his small town by binding himself to its tranquility, by committing himself quietly to the people who loved him unconditionally.

“That guy don’t even talk,” said Keith Hardee, a family friend who’s known Mitchell all his life. “He’ll just smile and look at you.”



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There’s strength beneath that smile. Don’t let his silence fool you. David May, a former assistant football coach at Williston High, says Mitchell would utter maybe five words during the school day. But come weight room time, “It was like you’d just turned the light on.”

The skinny kid could squat over 400 pounds. He’d dominate 5:30 a.m. workouts and crack-of-dawn competitions in which the last person to steal the fabric flag from the ankle of a teammate’s shoe took home a makeshift title belt. Mitchell lost once. And he stewed like it was the Super Bowl.

“Something even as stupid as a belt,” May said. “He hated losing.”

Ric Whittington, another former Williston assistant, gave Mitchell rides to school. He’d pull up the road and flash his brights. Sometimes those headlights gave Whittington a glimpse into Mitchell’s world. In a family that managed the best it could, Mitchell partly grew up in his grandmother’s house near the dead end of a gravel-rock road. It was a safe space, Marilyn Johnson’s home. It was a place where principles of honesty, respect and loyalty formed a conviction within Mitchell that helped him avoid the calamities surrounding him. Few in Williston knew how much Mitchell dealt with, since his words hardly revealed anything.

Justin Wentworth, Mitchell’s head coach at Williston, once tore into Mitchell for giving him some attitude. Whittington tapped Wentworth on the shoulder and pulled him aside. He hasn’t eaten all day, Coach. Mom’s at work. Grandma’s sick. Sisters are sick. He’s had to take care of them. 

That was Mitchell. After Hurricane Irma devastated Florida in 2017, Mitchell rode around Williston in the back of a coach’s truck handing out PB&Js to anyone hungry. He helped the school start a meal program for athletes who shared his experience. He’d empty himself. Several nights a week, an exhausted Mitchell fell asleep on May’s couch after playing video games and eating dinner with other teammates at the coach’s house.

“Whatever he does in life, whether it’s in the NFL or running his own company, he’s going to be successful because of how he’s persevered,” May said. “He knows that fighting for what you want is the only way in life.”

If a young Mitchell ever wanted to know what it was like to be a professional athlete from Williston, all he needed to do was open his back door.

Jiwan James lived close enough to hurl a baseball and hit Mitchell’s house. Drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 22nd round of the 2007 MLB Draft, James played nine seasons in their minor league system. Every winter, he’d return home to Williston, 20 miles south of Gainesville, where he’d been a local legend in a town with a population just above 3,000. As Wentworth puts up, Williston “is straight out of a Tim McGraw song.” There are three stoplights. Two of them are flashing.

Athletes must be astounding to keep recruiters from just passing through — if they drive by at all. James, an all-state selection in baseball, basketball and football at Williston High, attracted enough attention to turn down a scholarship offer from Florida and sign with the Phillies. He loved the bus rides to little-known cities, playing before thousands of fans and interacting with kids who looked up to him. He loved returning home and spending time with his nephew, Jeremiah, and the quiet kid with whom Jeremiah was inseparable.

“How is it?” Mitchell once asked about playing professionally.

“Yeah,” James answered humbly. “It’s aight.”

Mitchell smiled in return.

Could Mitchell shine bright enough to leave Williston? His grandfather had been fast enough to earn the nickname “Speed Buggy.” His father, Quentin, had been a running back at Troy. But there was a time when Mitchell’s family worried he was too small to play football. There was a time when there wasn’t a competitive youth league.

Hardee, who coached Quentin at Williston, says they were sitting on the porch together when they decided to start their own football program. Excited, but devoid of resources, they relied on donations and connections. They chose a vacant park as their home field. They asked a buddy who was a groundskeeper for the University of Florida’s football games to lay down the chalk. They didn’t charge anyone who joined the league. They just put up signs that said come to the park and play.

And there was a 7-year-old “Buggy,” whom Hardee thought had only earned half of his grandfather’s nickname.

“We didn’t know which way he was going to run,” Hardee laughed. “But he started it off running 85 yards for a touchdown.”

Later, on the road to the airport for the NFL combine, Mitchell turned down the radio and asked Hardee if he’d finally call him “Speed Buggy.” Well, let’s see how you run.

Mitchell ran a 4.33 in the 40-yard dash, tied for the third-fastest time in this year’s event.

Born in West Philly, Hank Poteat, who retired from the NFL in 2010, returned to the Delaware Valley to try out a career in sports media. Garry Cobb, a former Eagles linebacker and radio analyst on WIP-FM, secured a role for Poteat where he’d appear on a segment every now and then. It didn’t stick. Poteat decided to coach, and, after a six-year climb through the college ranks, landed a gig coaching Toledo’s cornerbacks on Jason Candle’s staff in 2017.

One of the Toledo assistants on the recruiting trail sent Poteat a video of a prospect. He loved what he saw. He always preferred players who shared a do-it-all background that showcased the full range of their capabilities. The kid was more than a cornerback. He returned kicks and punts and played running back. Sure, Williston was a class 1A program. But it was one of the few small schools in the area that had 22 starters who didn’t have to play both ways. Poteat couldn’t believe Mitchell wasn’t yet on anyone else’s radar.

Three months after Poteat landed a commitment from Mitchell, his sleeper prospect was no longer a secret. Mitchell attended a Florida recruiting camp and ran a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash. Arizona State offered. Mitchell de-committed. But as his senior year at Williston dragged along, Power 5 schools moved on when it became clear he wouldn’t qualify academically.

James, who briefly worked at Williston, said Mitchell wasn’t inherently a bad student. It was just about managing priorities. One time, an assistant coach dumped Mitchell’s book bag out in front of him. Every assignment he was missing was in the bottom of his backpack. Most had been completed. Man, just turn in your work. Mitchell still needed to take an extra semester to qualify.

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Whittington, who returned as Williston’s head coach, watched Mitchell disappear into studies with teachers and administrators. Other former assistants and family friends kept tabs, too. That was a moment when Mitchell could’ve easily chosen to fade away, they say. That was a moment when Toledo could’ve easily chosen to forget him. But when Mitchell rectified his grades, Poteat offered a delayed scholarship that would begin in 2020.

The name, image and likeness era erupted a year later. The transfer portal became a largely unregulated madhouse, as the NCAA battled legislation that addressed inequities they had long ignored. Mitchell rebuffed offers even after transforming into a two-time All-American at Toledo. Nick Saban said on ESPN’s draft-day broadcast that Mitchell would’ve been Alabama’s No. 1 target in the transfer portal, “and he would never get in the transfer portal.”

“Toledo just kind of stuck with me,” Mitchell said. “So that just showed me, be there for those who are there for you.”

Maxen Hook awoke at 4 a.m. to the sound of his roommate banging on his door.

“Yo, Max!” Mitchell hollered. “Open the door!”

Their apartment was flooding. A pipe had burst. Water pooled in the hallway.

Hook tried calling maintenance. There was no answer until daybreak. After the apartment was finally drained, the whole place smelled horrible. Days passed. Mold sprouted. Festered. The landlord insisted the Toledo teammates could live in such conditions. Until Hook threatened to sue.

They moved to a place 10 minutes from campus. A place with a pool. A place with a washer and dryer. Not bad for a couple of college kids who became friends just before the COVID-19 pandemic. They lived together for 4 1/2 years, mostly in that final off-campus spot. Neither lost anything in that flood. Mitchell hadn’t brought much to college to begin with, Hook said. Last week, Mitchell fit everything he owned into a Honda Accord he’d driven up from Florida. He left his bed and other furniture behind.

Those who know Mitchell can’t say which describes him more: that he chose to make the drive to Philadelphia as a first-round pick who could afford to travel any way he’d like — or that he did so in his old Honda. He favors simpler things and tolerates flair, they say, like the all-black suit he wore on draft day and the subtle jewelry around his neck and wrist.

He held No. 27 in all four seasons at Toledo. When a reporter asked why he sported No. 30 at rookie minicamp, he shrugged and said, “They gave me this number.”

Mitchell knows there can be serenity in simplicity. There can be clarity in the repetition of mountains and forests along a Pennsylvania highway, a trance that sweeps the subconscious clean in favor of more important thoughts. Same with football. When other Toledo teammates carefully curated pregame playlists, Mitchell just picked a random song and played it over and over again.

“That’s Q,” said Corey Parker, Mitchell’s position coach at Toledo in 2022 and 2023. “He’s definitely cut from a different cloth. It’s the Quinyon Mitchell cloth. He’s one of one.”

Mitchell and Hook arrived on campus in January 2020, the same month as Vince Kehres, Toledo’s defensive coordinator. Kehres remembers how it was 15 degrees outside when a support staffer picked Mitchell up at the Detroit airport. Mitchell rolled into the facility wearing a pair of shorts and some slides. A new defensive staff began developing a cornerback who was competitive enough to play immediately but still rugged enough to be refined.

On the first day of workouts, the Toledo staff set up a speed competition drill. Groups were tiered by talent and tenure, Hook figured. He was in the fourth group. He thought it was notable that Mitchell was already in the first. Oh, man, my roommate must be fast. The whistle blew. Mitchell won by 5 yards. Coaches grinned at each other.

“Oh, my God,” Hook remembered thinking. “Is that my roommate?”

Mitchell was a freak athlete who developed into a humble star. He hardly showed any emotion after logging four interceptions and two pick-sixes in a blowout win over Northern Illinois in 2022.

Parker made it his mission to draw out some intensity in the young cornerback’s demeanor. He urged Mitchell to flex a little bit after major plays, to spur energy throughout the stadium. Mitchell erupted during practice and in a game — until his grandma got a hold of Parker and asked Mitchell to stop showboating.

Yes ma’am, Parker replied.

They struck a balance.

“He’s not a man of many words,” Parker said. “He doesn’t speak much. But when he does? Oh, yeah. It’s on.”

Mitchell’s words carried weight. After Toledo won the MAC championship in 2022, Mitchell earned his first All-America selection and Hook was named first-team All-MAC as a safety, most of the team started getting lured by myriad NIL offers from other schools. Hook remembers being back home when he got a call from Mitchell.

“What are you doing?” Mitchell asked.

“What are you doing?” Hook replied.

“I want to do what everybody else is doing,” Mitchell said.

“Well, if you stay, I’ll stay,” said Hook.

“Aight,” Mitchell said. “We’re staying.”

“After that, we kind of made our decision right there,” Hook said. “It was like, ‘Well, if Q’s staying, who am I to leave?’”

Maxen Hook (left) and Quinyon Mitchell (right) spent all four seasons together at Toledo. (Courtesy: Maxen Hook)

Poteat, who left for Wisconsin in 2021, remembers how he showed his new Badgers defensive backs 2020 Toledo film in preparation for a game against Eastern Michigan. His players laughed at a late-game touchdown in which Mitchell had a back-shoulder fade read, had the ball in his hands and had it pulled away from him. Poteat said the Wisconsin defensive back room didn’t know how livid it made Mitchell. How much it made him work even harder. When the NFL Draft ticker flashed the name of Philadelphia’s No. 22 pick, Poteat said he texted his former players: “Remember that corner you laughed about?”

Even on draft day, there were questions about whether Mitchell (the No. 2-ranked cornerback, per The Athletic’s Dane Brugler) should’ve been the first corner off the board. Doubts persisted over whether or not Mitchell could thrive in press-man coverage after playing in Toledo’s zone-heavy scheme. Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said Mitchell dispelled their concerns by locking down top receivers at the Senior Bowl. But Parker says Mitchell didn’t alter his preparation for the all-star event, only mastering the techniques he’d already been taught.

“When you look at his press-man clips, every one is not the same at the Senior Bowl,” Parker said. “He chose to use different techniques on different guys by what they’re doing, trying to make it the most difficult for them in an offensive drill that’s set up for them to win.”

So, what did Mitchell learn in Toledo’s defense? Kehres and co-defensive coordinator Ross Watson built a base 4-2-5 system that often deployed “Quarters” coverage. Yes, that contains zone principles. Toledo believed giving its defensive backs space in off-man alignments helped limit explosive passes.

But Mitchell’s distinct speed and quickness allowed Toledo to play him tighter within the scheme. Kehres says they often placed him on an island in “catch-man” techniques in which Mitchell “caught” receivers in stride and basically played man coverage thereafter.

Kehres argues NFL teams don’t make press-man and catch-man coverages their starting point with cornerbacks, since it’s difficult to rely on a game plan in which the cornerback heavily covers a receiver with no help from other defensive backs.



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Still, that rare skill set is exactly what teams in search of an elite cornerback require. Mitchell indeed had such great speed that if a receiver tried to run by him, he could stay with him. Kehres said he used more catch-man coverages with Mitchell later in his career, which allowed Toledo to play aggressively with their safeties and challenge and rob throws in the middle zones.

“We played more coverages where he was not going to get help,” Kehres said. “There were man concepts and Quarters concepts where we just knew he didn’t need it. We could utilize the help in other places.”

The Eagles are expected to deploy an array of coverages under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who’s historically used Cover 6 (a blend of Cover 4 and Cover 2) as his base coverage. Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said he was “excited” to see Mitchell during rookie minicamp, in which Mitchell “made a couple of nice plays on the ball” during seven-on-seven drills.

“You saw the burst and quickness that we saw on tape of why we drafted him in the first round,” Sirianni said.

Sirianni accepted the phone from Roseman in the Eagles’ draft room and spoke to his new cornerback for the first time as his head coach.

“I’ve been hearing about you for about three years from all my guys over there,” Sirianni told Mitchell. “They’ve been lobbying for that for a long time.”

For a player who values a sense of belonging, it’s notable how many Eagles connections Mitchell already has. Parker is friends with Brandon Graham’s high school coach, who sent Parker a text recently that said, “B.G. is going to look out for him.” Darius Slay once visited Parker in Detroit and took a picture with his son. In a video released by the Eagles, Roseman, who values mentorship among players, joked with Mitchell how he wanted the rookie to live next door to Slay.

“I might move in with him,” Mitchell responded. “Real talk. I’m finna text him right now.”



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Sirianni was the youngest of three brothers who all went to the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio. Sirianni’s middle brother, Jay, shared a house with Kehres, who was the defensive coordinator on a Mount Union staff whose head coach was Larry Kehres, Vince’s father. They all recruited Nick, who later joined the staff himself as a defensive backs coach.

Now, at Toledo, there are three former Mount Union coaches: Candle, Kehres and Watson. They all shared the same core values, the same words Mitchell heard at Toledo: Work. Commitment. Loyalty. Hope. 

Mitchell has already experienced his fair share of all four.

A few weeks ago, Mitchell and Hook went out together to kick back and celebrate the send-off. They recalled their memories and kept saying, “I can’t believe it’s over.” They enjoyed the silence one final time.

(Top photo: Todd Rosenberg / Associated Press)