SURREY — Khalif Mitchell didn’t leave a lot of friends behind when the B.C. Lions traded him to the Toronto Argonauts prior to last season.
The controversial defensive lineman had been a dominant force in helping the Lions to a 2011 Grey Cup victory, but the following campaign was marked by a number of troubling incidents on and off the field that resulted in both fines and suspensions.
“Good riddance!!!!” tweeted running back Andrew Harris following the April 2013 deal with the Argonauts was announced.
But after Mitchell was released this past off-season by Toronto to pursue NFL opportunities that never materialized, the Lions jumped at the chance to bring the hulking 29-year-old with a unique skill set back into the fold by signing him to a contract on Tuesday.
Despite the baggage Mitchell left behind in Vancouver, Lions general manager Wally Buono said players, coaches and management agreed he deserved another shot with the club.
“Once we got into it, everybody felt it was the right thing to do,” said Buono, whose team will host the Grey Cup. “When you look at trying to improve this football club, Khalif is an outstanding football player and from our point of view we wanted to move forward and we wanted to build a championship team for 2014.
“If I felt I had to convince (players and coaches) then I wouldn’t move forward. This was not a matter of me imposing what I wanted. This was an opportunity.”
The six-foot-six, 315-pound Mitchell, who met the media at the Lions’ suburban practice facility on Tuesday, said he grew up a lot during his time in Toronto and understands why some of his former teammates felt the way they did when he left B.C.
“I don’t believe that anybody’s words were going to be kind when I left,” he said. “I didn’t leave on kind terms.”
An all-star in both 2011 and 2013, Mitchell has 86 tackles and 13 sacks in four CFL seasons. What those numbers don’t show is how much he influences the game from the interior of the defensive line, often occupying two and three blockers to free up teammates.
“We’ve done five camps in the United States looking for another Khalif Mitchell and they’re not out there,” said Buono, adding that Mitchell has matured a lot in the last year. “For us, when he’s here in our backyard, when he’s willing to make a commitment to come play for the B.C. Lions … to me, I thought that was something worthwhile.”
For his part, the eccentric Mitchell downplayed any hard feelings that might linger from his first stint with the Lions.
“This is a place that was my house. (If) you’ve got trash in your house, you just take it out. It’s not something as complicated as the media might make it seem,” he said. “It’s very simple. It’s trash. You take it out.”
The Virginia Beach, Va., native had 33 tackles and six sacks with the Lions in 2011, and had another outstanding campaign with the Argonauts in 2013, registering 32 tackles and five sacks.
“It’s exciting to be back. It’s a place I call home. It’s a place that I have a lot of fond memories of,” said Mitchell. “When I look around I see a lot of Grey Cup pictures and stuff … all of a sudden I get a lot of memories and a lot of butterflies.”
Despite those warm feelings, it’s that 2012 season that often comes to mind when Mitchell’s name is mentioned.
He was suspended for two games by the CFL for violently hyper-extending the arm of an opponent that July before being fined an unspecified amount by the league for making multiple throat-slashing gestures in another game. Mitchell was then fined and suspended again for violating the CFL’s social media policy.
“There’s a risk with everybody you sign, whether it’s a player, a coach, a staff member,” said Buono. “There’s always risks and that’s part of what makes this job and life exciting.
“We all grow with our experiences. I’ve had experiences that I regret … I’ve gotten better for it.”
The move to sign Mitchell would appear to immediately improve a Lions defensive line that surrendered the second fewest rushing yards per game (94.4) in 2013, but allowed the second most rushing touchdowns (17) and recorded the third fewest sacks (45).
“I’m not sure that when Khalif is on his game there’s too many people (as dominant),” said Buono. “A man of his size, with his athleticism and his power, they don’t come around every day. In 2011, why did we win a Grey Cup? A lot of it had to do with the guys up front.
“I believe today that Khalif Mitchell is a better football player than he was in 2011.”
With the Grey Cup set to be played at B.C. Place Stadium in November, the Lions were relatively quiet this off-season, losing a number of veterans through trade, free agency and retirement.
They got a big one back on Tuesday and he seems eager to make an impact.
“I was looking for a team to go ahead and win a championship with,” said Mitchell. “Wally Buono went to go look for players to help put together a team to win a championship with.
“We met somewhere along the path and that’s how we’re here today.”