Long Read: Bo finds his balance in unique MOP season
“Bo, you’re going to have to prove to them that you’re able to play against better competition. I think the CFL is the perfect game for you.”
– Beau Baldwin, Eastern Washington
o Levi Mitchell is dressed like a cowboy — some people likened him to Woody from Toy Story, others said Lloyd Christmas of Dumb and Dumber fame — and he’s headed north up Gateway Boulevard in Edmonton.
The Stampeders had arrived in town moments earlier, the bus trip that dozens of incarnations of Stamps and Flames teams before them have completed in the Battle of Alberta over the years and he’s antsy. Like anyone that’s lived in either city can attest, he complains that the three-hour ride felt like it took twice that.
We continue up Gateway Tuesday night and Mitchell fidgets with the light brown cowboy hat he was wearing, moving it from his lap to the dashboard in front of him. He’s still wearing a moose hide jacket that was a loaner from a Stamps supporter at a Western-style outfitter store. One of the top paid quarterbacks in the CFL, Mitchell says the coat would be far too expensive for him to ever actually buy. He’s still wearing his salmon-coloured shirt with the bolo tie, blue jeans and the brown cowboy boots that he wore at his media availability.
He’s happy with the look, he says, noting that many Stamps players have long dressed Western-style to go to the Grey Cup. He admits that he was hoping for something a little different.
“Have you seen that Tarantino movie that’s a Western?” he asks. He pulls out his phone for Google to fill in the blank that his driver is drawing.
“The Hateful Eight,” he says. That’s the look he was going for.
He was hoping for the same weathered hats that sat on the poncho-wearing, gun-toting, violent men that are trudging through the thick of a miserable 1860’s winter, existing together and looking over their shoulders at the same time. The OG gunslingers, a good 150 years before the man riding shotgun into downtown Edmonton had it tattooed on his throwing arm.
It’s five days until the Grey Cup and Mitchell realized on that long bus ride that he needed a haircut. So the 2018 Most Outstanding Player asked the guy that won it last year where he should go. Mike Reilly suggested MAST Hair in downtown Edmonton. On the 20-minute ride from the Stamps’ hotel to downtown, it doesn’t take Mitchell long to start talking about the people that matter the most to him. Family is everything, he says.
There are his three brothers, Patrick, Cory, and Scooter. His parents, Dwight Mitchell and Barbara Miller. This is Mitchell’s fourth Grey Cup appearance in his seven years in the league, but this year is the first time he’ll have his entire family at the game.
Mitchell saves the most important piece of the puzzle for last. His wife, Madison. It sounds weird, he says, but it’s true. He wouldn’t have had the season he’s had, he might not have steered the Stamps back to their third straight Grey Cup appearance if it wasn’t for his wife and the changes he’s made.
“If I win (MOP), my speech will be mostly about her,” he says.
* * *
It was early January, 2011 and Cheney, Washington was ready to celebrate. Mitchell had led the Eastern Washington University Eagles to their first-ever Div. 1 FCS national championship. There was a parade scheduled, a rally and the mayor of the small city would give a speech. So would the quarterback.
“We’re about to do the parade and the football team gets there and all of a sudden the cheerleader bus gets there,” Mitchell recalls. “She was the last one out. It’s kind of cliche, but as she gets out, it was probably the sun kind of hitting a building at the right time but I just see this bright light, like an aura around her. I just said, “Who. Is. That?’”
The parade went on and Mitchell spent the entire ride distracted, trying to figure out where the girl with the aura was.
The parade ends at a mall and the mayor is declaring it Eastern Eagle Day in Cheney. Mitchell spotted her again as he was going up to the stage for his speech. If you’ve seen Mitchell in interviews with the Stamps over the years, you know his demeanour. He holds court, is witty, funny, gives thoughtful answers, always seems to be in control.
“I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got it, I practised (the speech). I get up there and with her being right there I completely blank, I stutter through the whole speech,” he says.
“My centre, Chris Powers, he’s laughing hysterically. We were in our chairs (after) and I’m sitting there staring at her and he’s like, ‘Dude, just stop looking at her.’ I couldn’t.”
They met briefly that day. Mitchell mustered enough cool to pretend to thank a thank a young kid standing near him for coming to the rally as he saw Madison and another cheerleader approach him.
“I grabbed his shoulders and turned him and said, ‘It was awesome to meet you too, I’m really glad you came out,’” Mitchell says.
“He was next to me, not talking to me.
“I told my wife (years) after that and it was hysterical. She said, ‘That’s why I thought you were so sweet.’”
Things didn’t unfold that easily for them. Madison had a boyfriend and Mitchell said he backed off after he’d found that out. It was later in the year, during the new football season and Mitchell was still thinking about her. She wasn’t his to hang onto, but she felt like the one that got away.
He was in practice one day and called a receiver over after they didn’t connect on a passing play.
“He’s like oh man, Bo’s gonna tell me how I ran the route wrong. He sits down and I say, ‘Hey, you see that girl over there? I’m gonna marry her one day,’” Mitchell says.
The receiver was confused and told him to focus on practice.
Another day during practice, he waved a waterboy over to him.
“I get a Gatorade and tell him to bring it to her and to tell her that it’s from me,” Mitchell says.
“He runs it over there, she looks at me, waves thanks. I turn around and (later), she told me that she poured it out.”
The message was clear: She didn’t know him.
“I was a little hesitant to date Bo. I wasn’t too sure about him,” Madison says. “But he ended up being an awesome guy. He’s a couple of years older than me, I wasn’t sure about that either, but after our first date we just sat there having milkshakes and we talked for hours until it was dark outside.
“I think we both knew after that that we were going to end up together.”
After one date?
“It was definitely a different feeling,” she says.
Once they got together, they were inseparable. She finished off her degree and Bo went north to Canada to join the Stampeders. She moved up to Calgary with him in 2014 and they were married in 2015. Their baby girl, Ele, was born in February, 2017. Madison is due with their second child on April 30th, 2019.
* * *
Mitchell is seated at MAST, a brightly-lit barbershop downtown and he has the place to himself. The hum of the clippers on the back of his head mixes in with the music playing in the background. A stylish girl with dark, blue-hued hair named Alex, holds the clippers. She comes across as the kind of person you easily trust with your hair, even if the cut is straightforward.
When you grow up with three brothers — Bo is the second-youngest of the four of them — they make sure they toughen you up. All four were coached by their father in baseball, but football eventually took hold of most of the boys.
Patrick, the oldest brother, is 33 now, Bo says.
“He’s six-foot-six, threw a 90-mile-an-hour fastball, just a freak of an athlete. He played quarterback as well. He was a pitcher and he got a scholarship to play baseball at a junior college in Texas.”
“He’s probably the biggest one in our family and he’s the biggest one about family. He’s kind of the instigator as far as us calling each other every day and everything, being a big brother.
“He’s also the one when we were younger, he would instigate the fights. That’s where all the fights would happen. It was a love-hate relationship growing up, but now, as you get older, you realize there’s a lot more respect because you realize he was trying to toughen you up the entire time.
“My second oldest brother Cory was the best athlete on every single team he played for. I was not the athlete either two of those guys were.”
» Mitchell takes home CFL’s Most Outstanding Player Award
» On Demand: Stream the Shaw CFL Awards in its entirely
» More on the Shaw CFL Awards
When Mitchell was in the sixth grade, he stood at the six-foot-two that he does today. His doctor told him he might grow to be six-foot-six, maybe six-foot-seven. It turned out the doctor was wrong. His youngest brother Scooter shot up from five-foot-seven in the ninth grade to six-foot-three in the 10th grade. Mitchell had height, but as Div 1 colleges told him in high school, not enough.
“For me, I worked so damn hard. I never put the football down,” he says. “Every single day in the house I was throwing it, spinning it on my hand, just trying to get to know it.
“I think through all that work for years and years and years I built that confidence. I was very very confident in baseball but in football it was more learned confidence. It took me winning a job or two to find out that I was really good at it.
“Basically my junior year was the eye-opening moment. The letters started coming (from colleges) for football and not for baseball and that’s when I realized.”
He was getting offers from Div II programs when the University of Hawaii called. He committed to coach June Jones right there on the phone. Done deal. Before Mitchell could get to campus, Jones called and told him he was taking a job at Southern Methodist University. He asked him to come with him. The trip to Hawaii turned into a 260-mile drive to Dallas, but it was only a two-year stay. Something didn’t feel right.
“When I decided to transfer, everyone at SMU was there for themselves and about getting to the NFL. It wasn’t a team atmosphere,” he says.
“For the year or two that I was at SMU, I was thinking about Eastern Washington and how it was (on his visit as a high school senior). So when I opened up my recruiting it was the first place I contacted.”
When he was done at Eastern, those same doubts from his high school recruiting emerged from the NFL. His coach, Beau Baldwin, suggested the route that his former QB, Matt Nichols was taking, with the CFL.
“He was just straight up. We were heading to a team dinner and said, ‘Hey man, they’re not calling right now because of your size, the level of competition you play in and the fact that at SMU you didn’t play very well.’ He said, “You’re going to have to prove to them that you’re able to play against better competition. I think the CFL is the perfect game for you.”
The BC Lions had Mitchell on their neg list, he says, but it was a short stay. Calgary put him on their list, worked him out in Florida in the winter of 2012 and had him on their roster that season. They said he could compete for the third QB spot. He told them he’d take the starting job from Drew Tate. We all know the rest of that story.
“Dave (Dickenson) defended Drew and said he’s a really hard worker and he’s really smart,” Mitchell says.
“I told him I’ll show him.”
* * *
We’re just back in the car, making our way through a dimly-lit side street near Mast when Mitchell pipes up.
“This year’s been a lot different for me because I’ve put football first for a really long time. It’s kind of the way I’ve always known how to do it. You don’t really change until you have to.
“It kind of started to wear on me a little bit. I’d be up at four and at the stadium at 4:30, 4:45 and I’m going all day, thinking about it, learning the game plan, learning the team, trying to make things better. You get home and try to watch more film. Trying to balance that and marriage,” he trails off.
With any job, there’s a cost that comes with chasing excellence. The depths of obsession with one’s craft are a staple of every mega-success story, whether it’s athletes, entrepreneurs, entertainers, what have you. The idea of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour investment is well known now, but people often lose sight that it’s projected over 10 years. With sports and athletes in particular, that obsession is encouraged and celebrated routinely.
“I wasn’t good at it. I was selfish. I thought that my needs came first and I think the good lesson from it is kind of like the SMU to Eastern (transfer) thing. I realized that something needed to change.
“We had our daughter and just things happened in life where my wife just stuck by me.
“To me, I mean the biggest part of this year…a lot of the credit goes to my wife and my (team) chaplain, but learning how to balance football and family and not trying to be who you’re not.”
“Bo has gotten really good at I don’t want to say turning it off when he comes home but he’s at the stadium from 4:30 in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon. (There) he’s all football for most of his day,” Madison says.
“So when he comes home he’s ready to be a husband and a dad. As a couple we’ve gotten much better at communicating over the past year and him letting me know verbally that he needs to study more this week. I think that’s what has kept us going strong and not put any strain on our relationship, is that constant communication.
“I know what he needs, he knows if I need help around the house. He’s gotten really good about when he comes home, he wants to hang out with Ele and he wants to give me a bit of a break. He’s been awesome.”
He thinks back to those days at SMU and a habit that developed there and stuck with him into his pro career.
“Trying to get everybody to like you,” he says.
It was saying things in the media that rubbed teammates and coaches the wrong way, just to appease the people asking him questions and realizing no one likes a guy who acts one way in the locker room and another in front of the cameras.
“A white guy would get in the car and I’d put on country music. A black guy would get in the car and I’d put on rap. I was just trying to be liked by everybody and that just becomes a very difficult task. It takes away from who you are and I think that’s the really the biggest thing for me.
“I really got back to who I am and that’s why I say in the media, if you like me, you like me. If you don’t, you don’t. That’s the mantra I take.”
Madison thinks about where Bo grew up, in football-mad Katy, Texas, where the Friday Night Lights comparison is so easy to make. There are pitfalls and stereotypes that come with that, and maybe that are enhanced when your job is to get people the ball, to keep your 11 teammates happy and ultimately keep the thousands of fans in the stands happy week after week, season after season.
“That’s a conversation that we probably had around a year ago and I think he’s just really come into his own as a dad, as a husband and just with being himself and letting people either accept him or like him for that or not,” she says.
“I think that’s earned him a lot of respect in the locker room too, just acting like himself and not trying to please others. That’s definitely helped us in our relationship and with his family.”
She describes herself as a Type-A person and admits that the uncertainty around Bo’s future is stressful. There isn’t a bad outcome: He either explores an opportunity in the NFL or signs a new contract, presumably with Calgary. Regardless of what happens, they’ve put their Calgary home up for sale, Madison saying that she wants a slight change of scenery even if Bo re-signs.
She says she’s proud of her husband for being able to find that balance and is dealing with the uncertainty that they can officially enter into as of Monday morning.
And Bo, still just a young man at 28, a gunslinger trudging through his own winter, will lead them headfirst into what’s next.
“I thought (the balance) was going to be detrimental to football a little bit and it was the exact opposite,” he says.
“I was so much more free at football and didn’t have to think about anything else. I knew that while I was there, this is what I needed to focus on and while I was at home I needed to focus on my family. Without my wife giving me the chance to stick by me and watch me grow, I wouldn’t have that.
“I’m just thankful for her, every single day.”