Graduation Was a Major Milestone for NFL Player
More than five years after leaving the UA, Earl Mitchell returned to campus with his mother and sister for Commencement, celebrating the completion of a longtime goal.

By Doug Carroll, University Relations - Communications
May 19, 2015

Earl Mitchell with his mother, Lisa, and sister, Sekeyla Watts, in front of Old Main. (Photo: John de Dios/UANews)
Mitchell with learning specialist Marisol Quiroz, who says "he's the same guy he was as a freshman." (Photo: John de Dios/UANews)
Mitchell, a defensive tackle, signed a four-year, $16 million contract with the Miami Dolphins in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Miami Dolphins)
Mitchell at a photo shoot in Arizona Stadium: "When you get the opportunity to get your degree, you should take advantage of it." (Photo: John de Dios/UANews)

It’s a long way from the streets of Houston to the Grand Ballroom of the Student Union Memorial Center at the University of Arizona, but Earl Mitchell prepared for the trip.

He prepared for it back when he played school in the summer with his older sister, using textbooks from their real school. She was the "teacher" and their grandmother was the "principal."

He prepared for it in return visits to the UA campus long after his time as a football player for the Wildcats had ended. There was unfinished business — six classes toward a degree in social behavior and human understanding — and he is the type who sees things through to completion.

And he prepared for it in one small but significant way, buying a frame for a diploma and a graduation photo that would sit empty in his home, a constant reminder of his final destination.

Mitchell crossed his own goal line last week to the surprise of no one who knows him, walking across the stage at Thursday night’s convocation for the UA’s Colleges of Letters, Arts and Science before a capacity ballroom crowd. He also participated in Saturday night’s Commencement at Arizona Stadium.

With his muscular, 310-pound athlete’s body shrouded by a blue gown, he blended in with the rest of the graduates and received relatively little fanfare — which is just the way he likes it.

"He’s really, really regular," says his sister, Sekeyla Watts, on hand to witness her little brother’s big occasion along with their mother, Lisa Mitchell.  "It comes from us. We’re a plain family. Simple people."

There’s nothing plain, however, about the line of work Earl Mitchell is in. This fall, he will begin a sixth season of collision-filled Sunday afternoons in the National Football League — high-risk, physically demanding labor for which the Miami Dolphins are compensating him well at the age of 27. He was excused from the team’s offseason workouts to attend graduation.

Mitchell, a defensive tackle who began at the UA as a tight end, signed a four-year, $16 million contract with the Dolphins a little more than a year ago, with $9 million of it guaranteed. After being selected in the third round of the 2010 player draft, his first four seasons in the league were with his hometown Houston Texans.

Two Ambitions in Mind

It’s safe to say that he has one of the highest-paying jobs in the Class of 2015. But Mitchell insists he came to the UA out of high school with no designs on a pro career, wanting only to play major-college football and earn his degree. He says he never envisioned doing one without the other.

Although he was a co-captain of the 2009 team as a senior, his sincerity won people over long before that.

"Earl is one of those guys everyone has been rooting for since he got here," says Marisol Quiroz, who has seen 12 years’ worth of student-athletes come and go at the UA as a learning specialist and assistant director for CATS Academics.

"In our office, everyone is so excited for him. He’s the same guy he was as a freshman. He’s humble, grounded and hardworking. He’s respectful of everyone, and he’s appreciative of those who worked with him. He’s grateful for this."

Before the second semester of his senior year at the UA, Mitchell made what he describes as one of the hardest decisions of his life, leaving school to begin training full time in preparation for the NFL Draft. He was "on a roll" with his studies, he says, and it wasn’t easy to walk away.

He knew even then that many players in those circumstances never return to college to finish their coursework. He resolved to be one who did, no matter how challenging and inconvenient it might be for him.

"The very first time I came back (on campus), that’s when I realized how tough it is," Mitchell says. "You don’t have the academic tutors like you used to. You don’t have the services you had as a student-athlete, and you have to push yourself to do well in your courses."

From his childhood in Houston, he was familiar with tough. At the age of 10, he and a cousin were witness to the robbery of a store.

"It was tough in our neighborhood," Lisa Mitchell says. "Ever since then, he said, 'I’m going to do better than that.'"

Then, at 14, he lost his 77-year-old grandmother, Narnie Mitchell, to heart failure. She was the one who was certain from the size of little Earl’s hands that someday he would be a football player, and she presciently sewed an NFL quilt for him. The two of them were very close.

"She just wanted me to be successful, that's the only thing she ever preached to me, just to be a man," Earl says. "That's how I try to approach every situation. I try to take ownership and make sure I do everything the right way.

"She was an amazing woman, and she's a lot of the reason I am the way that I am."

Learning to Keep Going

His mother was no slouch as an encourager, either. Lisa recalls a youth league football game in which Earl had taken an especially hard hit.

"He just laid there on the bench," she says, "and I asked him, 'You still want to play football?' He didn’t say anything. He just laid there. Then he jumped back up and ran out on the field."

There will come a time when he won’t go out on the field anymore, and Earl Mitchell knows this. Already, his preparation for that day has begun.

"Everyone says the NFL stands for Not For Long," he says. "So you want to make sure that you have something you can rely on and say that you accomplished when the game is done. When you get the opportunity to get your degree, you should take advantage of it.

"I wanted my younger family members to see this. There are a lot of players in the league right now who are constantly thinking, 'Should I finish or not finish?' I kind of wanted to encourage them, too.

"It was definitely worth it. It always was a dream of mine to graduate with a college degree."