STARKVILLE – The bricklayer must be a patient sort, one whose determination to see the finished product carries him through the tedium of the process.
Set the brick, apply the mortar, smooth it out. Repeat.
Charles Mitchell is quite familiar with masonry work. When he wasn’t tearing up the football field or basketball court or track for Clarksdale High School, he could often be found laying bricks in the sweltering summer heat of the Delta or during a bitter winter’s day.
If he wasn’t laying bricks – which isn’t as easy as it might look – he was working construction. But always, Mitchell was building something.
As he enters his sophomore year at Mississippi State, the 5-foot-11, 205-pound strong safety still finds himself in the midst of such work. As new coach Dan Mullen tears down and rebuilds a program that’s resided on a shaky foundation for most of this decade, Mitchell is considered by the coaching staff a key building block.
“It was a whole bunch of little things that get put together to make one big thing,” Mitchell said of his old jobs. “You have to start, like it is right now, we’ve gotta start day by day by day, and it’ll lead up to big rewards, something big, something good.”
The constant worker
Even though he was an all-star athlete at Clarksdale – he was named the state’s top player in 2007 – Mitchell would get teased and called “coach’s pet” for his non-stop work off the field.
“I really just ignored it and kept on going. Because I knew what I wanted to do,” he said. “I knew listening to them wasn’t going to get me there. I just kept going where I was going.
“Now I’m still doing what I love to do, and a lot of those guys are not doing anything.”
His high school coach, Jim Hughes, had some awfully good teams at Clarksdale. The Wildcats reached the Class 4A state championship game in 2006.
But Mitchell stood out even among all that talent.
“He was with a group that wasn’t exactly like him ethics-wise,” said Hughes, who’s now defensive coordinator at Lee Academy. “A lot of the players he played with and grew up with didn’t have the parental guidance he had.”
More than a quarter of students at Clarksdale High come from single-parent homes. Mitchell considers it a blessing he’s not among that group.
His father, Neal Sr., is an investigator for the Coahoma County Sheriff’s Department, where he’s worked nearly 14 years. His mother, Connie, works at the Region One Mental Health Center.
It’s Neal Sr. who taught Charles how to lay bricks, and how to work for what he wanted. He taught whatever he knew to all his children, which include Jonathan Chatman, Neal Jr. and Charnele.
“Most of the time, we just tell him that if it’s something he wants out of life, he’s gonna have to work hard at it and stay out of trouble,” Neal Sr. said.
Mitchell didn’t follow his dad around on his job, but he knew what was on the line each day Neal Sr. suited up. In 2002, the elder Mitchell got shot in the thigh during a standoff in Friar’s Point.
“The job he has is a real serious job,” Charles said. “I take football really serious.”
That’s evident to MSU’s coaches. Mitchell’s position coach, Tony Hughes, said his pupil is always at the top of the class in the weightroom, during drills, practice – you name it.
“He pushes the limit and raises the standard,” Hughes said. “Charles Mitchell is one of those guys that has kept challenging and said, ‘Let’s raise this standard, let’s go. Let’s raise it to the next level.’”
Felt, not heard
Mitchell’s talents extend beyond the football field. When he’s home, he plays keyboard for his home church, Rise Again Missionary Baptist.
During a particularly rousing hymn, Helen Dickerson, associate pastor Charles Dickerson’s wife, has been known to shout, “All right, Charles!”
Mitchell just blushes.
He’s not an attention seeker, but Mitchell will be drawing plenty of notice this season from opposing quarterbacks and receivers.
Last season, in backup duty, Mitchell played all 12 games and made 31 tackles. This year, he will start in place of the departed Keith Fitzhugh.
Mitchell looks like he’s cut from stone – his body fat’s around five percent – and when he hits a ball carrier, it’s the height of football violence.
“He wouldn’t tackle you, he’d hit through you when he hit you,” Jim Hughes said.
He hits hard, but talks softly. Mitchell is trying to become more of a vocal guy, but it doesn’t come easily. He’s used to just bearing down and getting work done.
“He’s one of the keys,” Tony Hughes said. “If he plays well, then I think you’ll see improvement just not our defense but our whole football team.”
Mullen promised his players that this offseason would be the most taxing they’ve ever gone through. Mitchell said it’s been even tougher than advertised, but that’s playing to his strength.
“We work to break down the mental barriers in our mind that say we can’t do stuff,” Mitchell said. “Once you get that ‘can’t’ out of your system and get that ‘can’ in, you’ll be a better person and a better player.”
Like any good bricklayer, Mitchell has a sturdy resolve. And it’s rubbing off on his teammates.
Mitchell is helping change the culture of the MSU program. The Bulldogs are being picked by most pundits to finish last in the SEC’s Western Division, which is where they wound up last year.
“I can look around in my teammates’ eyes, and I can tell, we’re on another level than where we were last year, any time of the year last year,” he said.
Bricklayers are always working in an upward direction. It’s slow and steady work, and it’s what Mitchell specializes in, and it’s what MSU needs.
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal