Steinberg: Unraveling the story of an All-Decade quarterback
On a high-profile team like the first ever CFL All-Decade Team presented by LeoVegas, first team quarterback is as prestigious as it gets. That nod goes to go Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell in the face of competition over the last ten years from some of the greatest to play the game. But, in the end, it would have been tough to argue anyone ahead of Mitchell for the quarterback of the decade.
“It’s pretty cool,” Mitchell told me upon hearing the news. “I appreciate everybody that did vote, I definitely feel blessed. Just to have Ricky Ray and Wally Buono kind of give me that nod was a compliment in itself. To be a part of it, to be the quarterback named for it is definitely very special and hopefully I can, you know, be in the conversation in another decade.”
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Because he hasn’t always been the most popular figure in other markets (ahem Saskatchewan), Mitchell wasn’t sure how voting for the All-Decade Team would end up going. Whether he was a part of it or not, though, there was something special about publicly having Ray’s vote in the weeks and months leading up to the unveiling.
“There’s just certain guys within the game that, you know, whether it’s your position or other positions or, you know, coaching or management, that you just have certain respect for by the way they carry themselves. The way they’ve handled themselves throughout their career. He’s just one of those guys that…he’s always handled himself like a champion and definitely, obviously, one of the GOAT’s of the game.
“When I first heard about the CFL, I Googled it and the first thing that came up was Ricky Ray and throwing for, you know, almost 6,000 yards in one season. Instantly I was like: oh man, you know, if you can throw for over 5,000 yards I want to be up there.
“It was one of the first things that I saw, I didn’t know who Ricky Ray was but obviously found out a lot about the guy. He’s done a lot of big things in his career and it’s just pretty cool to hear him put you in the same sentence as guys that have been doing it so well for so long. It’s a guy I have a lot of respect for and he does things a little bit differently than a lot of other guys.”
How it started
Mitchell’s path to the CFL and the Stampeders didn’t begin in storybook fashion. After earning the starting job as a freshman at Southern Methodist in the NCAA, things went slightly sideways in his sophomore season. That prompted Mitchell to transfer to Eastern Washington, a Division 1-AA school miles from his home state of Texas.
But while it might have looked like a step back for Mitchell on paper, it turned into a massive leap forward for his career. Mitchell led the Eagles to a national championship as a junior in 2010 and won the Walter Payton Award as a senior as the top offensive player at the FCS level. It was during these two years the CFL popped onto Mitchell’s radar.
“My head coach Beau Baldwin started to let me know about the CFL,” Mitchell said. “The extent of my knowledge about it came more from (former Eastern Washington teammates) JC Sherritt and Matt Nichols and Greg Peach all coming up here.
“My head coach and I are driving to an alumni dinner and he’s like ‘hey man, just so you know, where they’re projecting you in the NFL Draft…I just think you should really consider the CFL. It’s a great game for you with a big arm, you can make all the throws and make all the reads and I think it’d be a smart idea for you to start in the CFL.’
“I didn’t even ask who the starting quarterback was, I just said: Dave (Dickenson) whoever your starting quarterback is, I’m coming to take his job.
– Bo Levi Mitchell on joining Calgary as a rookie
“I just feel really blessed to have a guy like that, you know, be in my corner. If that conversation never happens, I might not be standing here right now having this conversation.”
Mitchell wasn’t selected in the 2012 NFL Draft but did attend a Stampeders tryout in Florida. He ended up getting a contract out of that audition and was one of three quarterbacks on the roster for the 2012 season. But it was that spring session in Florida when then offensive coordinator Dave Dickenson caught on to the personality the Stamps were about to sign.
“I went out for the tryout down in Florida…and Dave is showing us some film of the current team,” Mitchell chuckled. “I’m watching Drew Tate, and at the time I didn’t know it was him. I had known who Drew Tate was…if you’re from Texas then you’ve heard the name All-State Drew Tate.
“I didn’t even ask who the starting quarterback was, I just said: Dave whoever your starting quarterback is, I’m coming to take his job. And Dave said ‘he just took Henry Burris’s job’, and obviously at that time I didn’t know who Henry was. That’s the confidence that’s always been in myself and I wasn’t that successful in football until I gained that confidence.”
Upon arriving in Calgary for his first CFL training camp, that same confidence was apparent. It rubbed some the wrong way, but for many, it signified Mitchell was someone to keep an eye on. Tate was the young and upcoming quarterback of the future and Kevin Glenn was second on the depth chart, so Mitchell had an uphill battle in front of him.
Mitchell got a few snaps as a rookie and started his first three games in 2013 when the Stampeders ran into injury issues with both Tate and Glenn. Those three games were enough for head coach John Hufnagel to name Mitchell the team’s starter ahead of his third pro season in 2014. It was something Mitchell felt truly ready for.
“Anybody that gets to this level, they’ve been a starter damn near everywhere they’ve ever been. I think the plan was to get the job as fast as I possibly could and never really be scared of the moment. I think that’s the thing that’s carried me a lot, just never being scared of that opportunity or that big moment when you actually got it.
“But after going through the playbook and going through film and starting to realize really the nuances of the CFL and understanding where I stood and how I had to adapt my game a little bit, I knew it would probably take me a little more time to be the successful player I wanted to be.
“Everything at practice became me competing against myself to get better and actually get better at those weaknesses I had. I think getting that opportunity be the starter, it came at the perfect time. It came at the time where I felt I was ready mentally, I knew I was ready physically, but I was finally able ready mentally to understand the game.”
As a first time starter, Mitchell led the Stamps to one of the best seasons in CFL history. Calgary went 15-3 in the regular season before rolling over Edmonton in the Western Final. That put Mitchell in the driver’s seat for his first taste of Grey Cup action. The Stampeders matched up with Hamilton in the 102nd Grey Cup in what is seen by many as Mitchell’s true arrival.
“I was so ready for it,” Mitchell said. “I’ve been in championship games at every single level I’ve ever been in. I myself knew that the moment we got there I was ready for it. It was a moment that I had been preparing for my entire life: to win a championship at the professional level.
“I felt so confident, so calm about what was going to happen and just kind of knew the right things would just fall into place as long as I was prepared. That 2014 team was very, very special and…it almost felt easy at the time. Even though it was such a close game and so many things definitely could have happened. But when you prepare the way you want to and you feel confident, the game kind of comes easy to you.”
Calgary prevailed 20-16 over the Tiger-Cats and Mitchell was named Grey Cup Most Valuable Player. It was the start of a five-year stretch where Mitchell and the Stampeders would appear in the Grey Cup four times.
How it’s going
Mitchell was back playing for a championship as an established, All-Star caliber quarterback two years later. Much like his first trip to the big game, Calgary was coming off another historic regular season, this team finishing 15-2-1. But after easily dispatching of the Lions in the Western Final, the Stamps were upset in an instant classic by Henry Burris and the 8-9-1 Ottawa REDBLACKS.
“The 2016 loss was the most eye-opening, waking up moment and humbling experience for sure,” Mitchell admitted. “We all started hearing the rumours of Henry (Burris) going down and at that moment you feel bad for a guy as a quarterback. I think a lot of guys started feeling a little overconfident. Obviously we were in the media, we felt confident about that game. We had one of the best seasons in CFL history, so I think we all felt very, very confident.
“When we fell behind because of the way I was playing in the beginning, I think guys at that moment finally locked in. It was definitely a moment to say: hey man, no matter how prepared you are and how good your team is…anybody in the CFL can win on any given day. I think that was a good thing for me, a good thing for our team.
“Obviously we would have loved to win…but it proved positive when it came to 2018 in not giving anything up or not taking anything for granted. You’ve got to show up and give your absolute best to get by in this league. I wish I could have learned in a different game, but it was definitely something that is going to stay with me my entire career.”
After another heartbreaking loss to Toronto in 2017, Calgary got back to the top of the mountain in 2018. The Stamps took a decisive victory over Ottawa in the 104th Grey Cup and earned Dickenson his first ring as a head coach. For both Dickenson and Mitchell, it was redemption after facing a ton of criticism for the two prior losses.
It was also an opportunity for Mitchell to win a championship with two different head coaches. His first ring came with Hufnagel on the sidelines and the second was with Dickenson at the helm. Funny enough, Hufnagel was voted first team All-Decade head coach with Dickenson earning second team honours.
“You can see why, it’s very well deserved,” Mitchell said. “It’s one of the coolest things in the world. If you’re a football junkie like myself, just sitting there and listening to these two talk football, listening to these two guys talk about a play or a coverage in front of you. You’ll just sit there in silence. You don’t want to talk. As much football as I know, to sit there and get to listen to these two guys speak…it’d be like sitting there and listening to (Bill) Belichick and (Tom) Brady talk about something. It’s very, very special.
“I’ve seen firsthand what they can do for a player, what they can do for an entire team. To not skip a beat when it went from the success that Huf had to the success Dave had the first year and carried on. We’ve been through a lot together, but I think if you ask for any player who’s ever played for them, they have made them better. You wouldn’t ask to play for any other coach in the league, I can tell you that.”
Mitchell took his shot at the NFL following the 2018 Grey Cup win and, despite multiple contract offers, re-signed with Calgary as 2019 free agency opened up. The run of consecutive Grey Cup appearances ended with a playoff loss to Winnipeg last season, but that doesn’t diminish what Mitchell accomplished the last decade.
We’ve heard Mitchell talk many times about being the best quarterback to ever suit up in the CFL. While his story is far from being written, and knowing that will always be a subjective topic, Mitchell is well on his way to being part of the conversation whenever he decides to retire. For now, though, Mitchell is very open on how much that drives him.
“I have always said that because if I’m not setting my sights to the absolute highest goal, then to me, I don’t really know why I’d be playing the game. If I’m not trying to be better than Flutie or Moon or Dave or Ray…if I’m not trying then why am I out here doing this? No matter where on that list in somebody’s opinion I fall, I gotta give my all and that’s kind of the way that I carry myself.”
So far so good: two Grey Cup wins, four appearances, two Most Outstanding Player awards, and now the nod for first team All-Decade quarterback. I’d say Mitchell’s resume is tracking towards the heights he strives towards each and every day.