Tuesday July 29th, 2014

First, there was Keith Mitchell The Person: a young, thoughtful man who grew up in a spiritual family in Garland, Texas, and who happened to be good at the sport of football.

Then, there was Keith Mitchell The Player: a powerful, ruthless, often violent linebacker, who took down opponents with as much savagery as he could summon and who had all but forgotten Keith Mitchell The Person.

For years, Mitchell says he was Mitchell The Player: through his collegiate tenure on one of the best-ever defense teams at Texas A&M; during his five seasons with the Saints, who signed the linebacker in 1997; and for the year he spent with the Houston Texans. He was still Mitchell The Player when he signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars after leaving Houston in 2003. But that fall, during his second game as a Jag—a September matchup against the Buffalo Bills—a routine play flipped the life of Mitchell The Player upside down.

“I knew the play was coming,” says Mitchell, now 39 and based in Los Angeles. “It was coming backside, and I saw it—I had been a starter my whole career and had read a lot of plays and had anticipated a lot plays before they happened. So I saw it, and I lunged into the chest of [Bills’ running back] Travis Henry. There were other dynamics with other players, but I had done this a million times up to that point in my life. But then I hit the ground … And all I remember is trying to get up, having an idea to get up, but my body wouldn’t respond at all.”

Lawrence Phillips (33) of the San Francisco 49ers moves with the ball as Keith Mitchell (59) of the New Orleans Saints tries to tackle him.
Jon Ferrey /Allsport

It was the hardest hit of Mitchell’s career—and the one that would eventually end his career at age 31. For the next six months, Mitchell, a former Pro Bowl player, suffered sporadic waves of paralysis that prevented him from playing, training, and, at times, even functioning. It was during this miserable time, with pangs of numbness shooting through his body, that Mitchell says he began to hear again the small and stifled voice of Mitchell The Person. 

“I had been this gladiator, this strong individual my whole life—it was something that had been conditioned in me,” Mitchell says. “And then to see myself vulnerable and weak—that was not supposed to happen. I knew the character I was as a football player was dying, and I was holding onto everything I could to prevent him from dying because football was my life. Psychologically, it was then that my journey started.”

After his injury, Mitchell began seeing a physical therapist who encouraged him to meditate. “When I found meditation, it was like unfolding a lot of things for me,” he says. “In those dark places when I was by myself, all the anxiety, depression, fear … I pulled from my mediation practice and really went there with myself. I knew the church of the football player was dying, and I was beginning to reincarnate myself to who I was, Keith Mitchell, an individual.”

Beyond Downward Dog: The Rise of Yoga in the NBA and Other Pro Sports

If Mitchell sounds introspective, that’s because he is. The 6-2 former defensive terror is now one of the most recognized yoga and meditation advocates in pro sports, regularly traveling the country to promote his idea of mindful living at large conferences, schools, and, perhaps most important, to retired athletes like himself. (Click here to see Mitchell in the NFL Films feature Yoga and Football.)

“We look at sports, and we’re so caught up in the amazing things guys do during games,” Mitchell says of football. “But the reality is that there’s a high level of insanity happening out there—it’s a very violent game, and I played the most physical position on the field. To have someone highly motivated to hurt people physically on a day-to-day basis, that’s typically fueled by a lot of fear and anger—and I was the poster child for all that.”

But Mitchell says finding yoga calmed the violence in his football self and gave him peace. But he didn’t discover the practice until several years after his injury. Diagnosed with a spinal contusion after his September 2003 hit, the linebacker was released by the Jags that winter. “Every day I wasn’t right,” Mitchell says of the time. “My body wasn’t right. I didn’t feel I could hit anyone—I didn’t feel safe. I would talk to trainers, but I had this ultimatum over my head. And I just said, ‘I can’t do it.’”

So Mitchell didn’t do it—or nearly anything else physical for the next several years as he allowed his body to heal while refocusing his mind through meditation. But as he began to be able to move his spine again, he suddenly became interested in yoga. “I found a [yoga] teacher out of Dallas, and I resonated with him because he was my size—a masculine figure. And he really connected to the possibilities of what I was feeling,” Mitchell recalls. “After that, I started connecting with other teachers and building a yoga family—a community to help me and support me.”

Six years and lots of tree poses later, Mitchell says his mission is to bring mindful yoga (yoga with meditation) to retired players like himself who don’t necessarily realize there’s a healthier life after football.

Duce Staley (22) of the Philadelphia Eagles rushes against Mitchell (59) during the game in 2002.
Al Bello/Getty Images)

“A lot of players who leave the game don’t look well: They look decrepit, toxic, and bloated,” says Mitchell. “But then, look at me. These players don’t have to be like that. Yet the thing is, they don’t know they don’t have to be like that. That’s why I’m motivated to help.”

So far, Mitchell has worked with retired players such as former Eagles running back Correll Buckhalter, former Jets fullback Jerald Sowell, and former Giants tight end Derek Brown, showing them all how yoga and meditation can help them regain peace and a holistic sense of health after football. He’s also helped current players such as Broncos tight end Julius Thomas, who practiced yoga and mediation with Mitchell this off-season.

“It can take your game to a whole new level,” says Mitchell of mindful yoga. “Physically, it can regenerate your body tissue, it can work with your bone structure, it can relieve inflammation and stress—and there are a lot of aspects there that haven’t even been explored with the NFL. There’s an opportunity here to really get these guys playing and feeling better.”

While yoga is gaining popularity among many pro athletes, meditation has yet to spark the same fire. Yet for Mitchell, the practices go hand in hand in helping a former NFLer like himself realize there’s a game called life after the sport of football.

“Meditation is your playbook, yoga is your practice, and your life off the mat is the game,” Mitchell says. “And in the game, you have to stay aligned in your intention, whatever that is.”

For Mitchell The Person, that intention is still self-discovery. “The pendulum is still swinging...I’m still in my journey,” he says. “But now I’m at this pinnacle point of promoting my journey and coming out to share my practice.”

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