Malcolm Mitchell on the Patriots, his art, and finding a purpose in life after football

"I’m expressing what I was expressing on the field, just in a different arena...It’s the same emotion, but nobody is throwing me a pass anymore."

Former Patriots wide-reciever Malcolm Mitchell discussed his retirement from football, his art, and how he's expressing himself off the field.
Former Patriots wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell discussed his retirement from football, his art, and how he's expressing himself off the field. –Read with Malcolm

Malcolm Mitchell’s last football game was the 2017 Super Bowl.

After a solid career at the University of Georgia, Mitchell established himself at the next level during his rookie season with the Patriots. He inked a million-dollar rookie contract, started in games, and was delivering on the field. He caught all four targets from Tom Brady to help the team in an epic comeback over the Falcons to win Super Bowl LI.

And then injury after injury ended his run with the team. Mitchell’s knee problems began in middle school, progressed to a torn meniscus in 10th grade, and continued throughout his brief career. He sat out his second NFL season and was waived by the Patriots in 2018. He was forced to retire shortly after.

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“The NFL did not see me at my 100 percent best,” a 26-year-old Mitchell recently admitted over the phone, and it’s a harsh reality he’s had to accept. But rather than dwell in the what-ifs, Mitchell’s been trying to find a new sense of purpose outside of football, experimenting with documentary film, Super 8 cameras and poetry. He’s exploring the texture of leather for fashion designs instead of first downs. He wants to encourage children to read.

Boston.com chatted with Mitchell about his creative pursuits, and how he’s dealing with life — and loss — now that football is over.

Boston.com: What is the inspiration behind your documentary, “TREASURE BOX”?

MM: TREASURE BOX was a short film that was inspired by my relationship with sports, but combined with my enthusiasm for art. I think I wanted to have a conversation about my relationship with football to free myself from the agonizing pain that I was going through during that breakup.

I knew it was going to happen, the world kind of saw it unfold with the Patriots releasing me. But, I also knew that I wanted to move into the creative space…I love football. I love the fans, those people, the energy and I didn’t want to move on in life without them. So, TREASURE BOX was my way of trying to infuse this reality that I’m going with, but also move the people that follow me in a direction that I’m headed in now. 

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It was trying to expose the reality of the psychology behind people having to move on from something they’ve been attached to a majority of their life. I’m 26, but for some people it happens earlier. I feel sorry for the people who it happens to later, regardless of its injury or retirement. 

What it was like to dive into a project like this?

I directed the film and I wrote the dialogue that you hear in it. I shot some of the shots — I used this Super 8 camcorder from the 1950s or something, I think before my mom was even born. It was liberating [but] it’s tough to explain the creative process. It’s like having a million things going on and then even as you try to shoot it there’s a million things going on. Once you get into the editing process you try to clean it up, and I know the film was very abstract in thought so it was delivered that way. Trying to make it commercial quote-unquote was the real challenge. 

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Tell me more about your creative pursuits. How did you balance that with football? Did art ever take a backseat while you were playing?

It definitely took a backseat when I was playing. When I became an avid reader, which was in college, that’s when my creativity started to become apparent in my head at least. That’s what gave me the confidence to write the Magician’s Hat, the picture book. That was my first form of creative expression, but from there, [art] took a backseat: I was recovering from injuries, I was drafted, played in the Super Bowl, so of course all those things took way more importance over writing poems and thinking of cool clothes. 

It’s still tough today, life without football. Once football was no longer an everyday activity, those things became more powerful in thought. But, you know what’s funny? The same unity, culture, age, and diversity that sports brings, it’s the same thing I’m trying to push creatively. That’s why I decided to use a camera from when I wasn’t born, or that’s why I decided to infuse things from different points of time – that’s what sports does. It collaborates,  it brings a million different people together. But art is segregated: if you fit into this box then you should work or buy this type of stuff. I don’t think it should be that way. I come from a world where everything is combined, the only thing that matters is your talent and how it’s delivered. 

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What’s been the response to the film? Have former teammates or other athletes reached out to you about it?

I’ve talked about creativity, and some people saw it in the picture book, but I don’t think anyone saw or understood that I could be that complex or deliver it in such a way. So, obviously everyone was attracted to Part 1 [of TREASURE BOX] when I’m actually talking about football and how I feel that it’s over. That got the biggest emotional response from everyone: former teammates, some old coaches, fans. As I moved on to the more abstract part of it, I think that’s a bit more difficult for people to try to understand. 

Do you feel like the inspiration from your art is the intersection of sports and artistry?

Of course, 100 percent. There’s nobody I’ve run into with my perspective — not a lot of people have won a Super Bowl. Making it to the NFL would be excelling to the top of my profession, and then you switch careers. That doesn’t happen much, so now when I walk into a creative space and I interact with people, I am a foreigner. The experience I was able to have by the time I was 26, most people in their profession go their whole life trying to do that. But, in sports it’s different because you get to it at such a young age, so my perspective with sport makes me an anomaly everywhere I go now and everything that I do. I could direct a film but [the title] Super Bowl champion is on there and that’s going to make someone say, ‘well wait a minute what’s happening?’ 

Let’s dive into football. Tell me about your time on the Patriots and your experience playing with the team:

I miss it deeply because I love the team. I love the community, it’s something that I wanted to be a part of for a long time. The energy, the camaraderie, the responsibility, accountability, everything about the Patriots are what I hope to embody as a person, period. 

It is a bit devastating to have to have had that breakup. 

How did you handle that “breakup”? 

In the moment I was okay, even six months after that moment I was okay. But, maybe 2-3 months ago that’s when it finally hit me. That’s when mental health became something I had to start working on. It definitely was a delayed reaction.

[I dealt with it] horrifically. I had to go to a neurologist because I thought that something was wrong with my head and then I finally started seeing a psychologist. Every athlete regardless if it’s injury, or retirement, deserves a psychologist for a minimum of a year after they’re done playing. Especially if they make to the professional level. The transition, no one can explain it. 

It’s like being a baby at 26. I was telling someone the other day, it feels like I’m on a second life. I accomplished a lot, but some of that stuff doesn’t exist anymore in terms of what I do. Yeah you have a Super Bowl, all these memories, but now you have to do something with the rest of your life. You’re starting from scratch, unless you decide to be a coach or a broadcaster, something that keeps you close to that identity. But, if you pick anything outside the scope of that identity, which I have, it doesn’t matter what it is — I have a book, I have a foundation [but] I still am going through that psychological warfare. 

Is your art helping you mend, or cope, with your relationship with football?

I’m using it to express it, it’s not mending anything. Me sitting down and writing a poem is not going to give me the same adrenaline that catching a touchdown pass from Tom [Brady] did… It’s just tough because that wasn’t my identity. Those are things that came along as football came along and yeah, now they’re at the forefront and I have the opportunity to expand upon those things and create a new awareness of self. But, what dominated who Malcolm was? What dominated who Gronk was? Andrew [Luck]? I can guarantee that if you talk to them, they’re going to tell you the same thing if they’re being honest. 

What was the highlight of your career during your time with the team? Any favorite moments?

I have two strong memories. The first is playing San Francisco. I think Chris Hogan got hurt the Thursday or Friday practice, and they come to me and tell me I’m going to start. I have a good game and earn some trust, but it was that responsibility and the execution of a task that let me know that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. 

Mitchell’s touchdown reception beating San Francisco 49ers Antoine Bethea during fourth quarter action. —Photo by Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Then, [when] we were playing the Broncos, I was freezing. I think Julian [Edelman] could tell I had never been in that type of weather trying to play a football game. So, by the fourth quarter he looks at me and he’s like, ‘Man stay in the game. We’re going to need you!’ He repeated it for like five drives, and I hadn’t gotten thrown a ball yet. But, it’s 3rd and 7, they call a play, and because of the conversation [we] were having on the sideline, I stayed focused, fought through the weather and caught a first down to keep the drive down and we eventually scored a touchdown. 

Has the team reached out to since you retired and supported your art? 

The McCourty brothers are very supportive, Duron Harmon, Julian [Edelman] and we still talk from time to time, he’s very supportive. Danny Amendola, him and I talk often he’s very supportive. Jonathan Jones. If I ever reach out they hit me back, but I try to respect the sport and I know how busy it is this time of the year. I usually don’t bother them unless it’s the offseason.

Do you plan on watching Patriots games this season? What’s your relationship with football now?

I’ll watch. It’s tough at times, but I still watch and support the team. I’m a Patriots fan and I plan on going to a game this year, too. It’s interesting to watch it from that perspective because I plan on going as a fan and sitting in the stands. 

How do you deal with it being over?
I think Mother Theresa has a quote, “Feeling unloved or uncared for is the worst form of poverty.” That’s how you feel when you split up from this thing you’ve been doing your entire life. 

Don’t you drag me for quoting Mother Theresa, either.

What art or projects are you working on?

My goal is to amplify what I’m doing with my foundation in an artistic way, also. Really infusing art with the nonprofit world in a way that entices kids to really understand or enjoy a love of reading. That’s a big challenge and that’s going to be interesting to do. This world that I’m experiencing now with the non-profit space. The formula now is: your impact is dictated by how much money you can get from someone else. That doesn’t sound right! So, to find an artful way to enhance what we’re trying to do with Read with Malcolm from a social presence is one thing I want to do. 

The next thing is, I’d call it a social elevation, it’s called Literate. It’s my creative platform to design, to write, I’ll do more books [and] then I’ll do this fashion movement. It’s all surrounded by the same thing: creating content that entices people to become more open for exploration like I’ve experienced in sport. 

What are some things you’re reading?

I’ve read The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Grey, which would probably explain why I’m talking crazy. Where the Crawdads Sing, and truthfully, I just started reading the Bible. 

Are you religious?

I am now. I’m [speaking] from experience when I talk about that openness [and] losses because when football went away, a few months ago I was lost and I realized that I needed to ground my spirit into something that was more powerful than myself in order to function. 

I get emotional when I think about what certain people are going to have to go through, what athletes are going to have to go through when they can’t play their sport anymore. Tom [Brady] is going do to deal with the same thing essentially. It sucks — no one can prepare you for the feelings you’re going to have. 

People like to think, just get a different profession but I’m sitting here telling you I have a functioning and successful foundation. I have a three-book deal with Scholastic, I’m financially stable, today. And still, I have those same feelings. So, it’s not about those things, it’s about something much deeper and complex that no one talks about. 

How is your knee today? Are you still dealing with those injuries?

I still deal with that. Two or three days after I got cut [from the Patriots] I flew down, met with the doctor. They told me I was going to have to have another surgery and some nerve work. I’m like, I’m barely functioning as it is, I can only stand for so long. 

Now when it hurts I say, ‘well I guess I don’t have to play a game.’ 

Do you feel proud of yourself and your career? Do you look back and say, while it was a short ride it was a good one?

I don’t have any regrets, I would say I’m proud. The only thing that sucks is, I feel as a competitor your No. 1 goal is to put your best ability on display. I don’t think I did that. I think I was good, now I thank God that my 90 percent was good enough to make it to the NFL. Once the injuries came, spin moves became a bit different — I couldn’t spin anymore. I couldn’t jump as high anymore, I couldn’t run as fast. I never complained, I was always able to execute and perform well enough to make a team, to start some games and make a lot of plays. But in the back of my mind, and I should not do this, I always say, ‘man if I wasn’t limited from not having cartilage in my knees, how well of a performance would I have put on?’ I shouldn’t do that because I’m very fortunate, but as a competitor you think, “man you think I was good? I could’ve been better.” I’m proud, happy and very thankful but no, the NFL did not see me at my 100 percent best. 

Who is Malcolm the athlete and the artist? Is there a difference?

I don’t think so, they’re the same person. I’m expressing what I was expressing on the field, just in a different arena. That’s what I would love to tell people who see what I’m doing today and they don’t understand it: I would challenge you to go back and watch me play football, and then [read] the stuff that I write or the designs I put out. It’s the same emotion, but nobody is throwing me a pass anymore. 

What are some art forms that you’re into? What reminds you of football?

Film, film photography, or just filming a video. [Also] leather, I guess it’s because of the football, but I’m very interested in the texture of different leathers. That’s a weird one. [Also], literature for sure, that’s the No. 1. Someone asked me who my favorite designers were and I said Robert Frost and Stephen King. To me, when I read their work, they’re designing stories. I take their craftsmanship of a story and make it a garment out of it. [That person] thought I was insane, but that’s okay.

Who are the other creative players in the NFL?

There’s a ton of them. Martellus [Bennet] is good and actually displays it, Todd Gurley, him and I are still friends and went to school together at [Georgia]. He has a creative element that he doesn’t put on display a lot. But, it’s too threatening to your career if you do that. Imagine if I was playing and I posted a poem on Instagram, there would have been questions that would have just stopped you because your money could be at risk, could put the company at risk for saying certain things that probably shouldn’t be said. You don’t have to use vulgar language to offend people. 

Why is there that isolation of sports and creative expression, specifically in the NFL?

I just think as a player you’re too afraid to jeopardize that moment. Maybe no one says it, maybe a million people say it, but to be doing one thing successfully and it brings you millions of dollars, a heightened profile, to try to do something else that doesn’t have that same acceptance, probably makes you feel like you’re threatening what does. So, you refrain from doing it. I can say whatever I want to say today and, what’s the threat? A team is not going to think of trading me because I’m creating these other social identities. I don’t run the risk of not selling as many jerseys or becoming less popular. 

Once you become a successful player, your brand is established. It’s really tough to expect someone to jeopardize that. It depends on what you want out of life and what’s most important. If you already have money and accomplishments, or if you’re like me and you’re forced out of it, then sure you can do whatever. 

So, why do you think people, especially children, idealize sports over art and social intellect? 

Name the Nobel Prize winner. Name the last Super Bowl champion. Name who won the National Spelling Bee. Name the top-rated NFL player this year on the 100-countdown. We all do that, and that’s one of the things I want to bring to certain creative spaces. Why do authors have to dress so bad? Why can’t they be cool? Why can’t directors of films be cool? Outside of Misty Copeland, I can’t name another ballerina. She almost infused herself into pop culture, and now kids that look like her, or anyone, think that being a ballerina is a cool profession.

That’s something to strive for.