John Biever/Sports Illustrated

Before he went on ‘The Biggest Loser’ and dropped 124 pounds, he was a big winner in the early days of NFL free agency. The 12-year vet retraces his journey from backing up an all-time great in Miami to battling the pressure as a high-priced starter in Detroit to facing his greatest challenge in retirement—on national TV

By Jenny Vrentas
March 06, 2015

First, there was Reggie White. One year later, in 1994, there was Scott Mitchell. They were the players who ushered in the era of NFL free agency, cashing in on the open market in a way their predecessors weren’t afforded. For Mitchell, seven starts in place of an injured Dan Marino in Miami earned him a three-year, $11 million contract with Detroit—star money in those days—and matching expectations. More than two decades later, Mitchell is still bugged by the perception of not living up to that price tag. After a 12-year career as an NFL quarterback, including five seasons with the Lions, he’s now president of sales for a Utah-based software company, and he’s also fresh off dropping 124 pounds on The Biggest Loser. On the eve of another free agency frenzy, The MMQB turned back the clock with one of the league’s original free agents—and in the process got some enlightening perspective on quarterback development and weight loss.

VRENTAS: The year after Reggie White, you were the biggest free agent on the market. What do you remember about that time?

MITCHELL: Oh my goodness, there is so much. The biggest thing: I finally was able to realize a dream I’d had my whole life, of being a starting quarterback in the NFL. I had gone to the NFL somewhat unheralded. I left after my junior year at Utah and ended up with the Miami Dolphins, and I thought it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. It turned out it was a very good thing. I was able to watch, arguably, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time [Dan Marino] every day in practice and meetings and games, and arguably one of the greatest coaches in Coach [Don] Shula. I sat between those two guys for four years, and I really learned a lot. It was a great experience. So when I did get an opportunity to play, I was ready for it. I had worked really hard. A lot of people said, “Oh gosh, the guy got lucky. He played just a short period of time and then he was able to capitalize on it.” But it was four years, it was a lot of hard work, and when I did get my opportunity, I had to play well.

VRENTAS: That was in the infancy of free agency, and you were one of the first players to cash in, with a three-year, $11 million deal. When you began your pro career, did you ever imagine you would sign a contract like that?

MITCHELL: It’s kind of funny now when you say those numbers, because it’s almost like nothing compared to what happens today. But at the time, it was a huge deal. And a lot of people were like, “How can you give that guy all that money?” But at the time, for me, that was tremendous. That was a huge moment in my life. I remember getting the first check and it was like, gosh, I’ve never seen this many zeroes in my life. It was really quite a fun moment. And then I had to pay the IRS, and I couldn’t fit all the words on the check, it was such a big number. It was quite a surreal moment.


VRENTAS: What was the courting process with teams like back then?

MITCHELL: It was kind of funny, actually. I was in Detroit, and we were sitting with Kevin Colbert, who is now the GM for Pittsburgh. He was in Miami when they drafted me, so he knew a lot about me both when I was in college and then in Miami. So they were really interested, and we were sitting in his office and he said, “Look, I’m going to be really candid with you. We’re interested in you, but we are also really interested in Erik Kramer, who was here last year. You’re the guys we really want, and we’re going to pick one of the two of you.” Halfway through this conversation, my agent gets a phone call. He leaves the room, and he comes back in a few minutes with the Cheshire Cat grin on his face, and he whispers in my ear, “Hey, Erik Kramer just signed with the Chicago Bears.” We didn’t tell Kevin. For me, it boiled down to Detroit and Minnesota, and they were very similar: good running backs, good offenses, good receivers. I just felt like, when it got down to it, that Detroit really wanted me more than Minnesota did, so I went there. And I really had a great experience. We had some really great teams and some really good offenses. That whole process was a really interesting thing, almost like going to college again and having everyone want you.

VRENTAS: How much did free agency change the game for players?

MITCHELL: It was certainly a nice departure from what had existed before. I remember feeling like, I can play in this league and do well, but I am stuck behind a really good player who has a lot of years left. And there’s really not a chance for me to go out in the open market and see what I’m worth and find an opportunity for myself. It was very restrictive. They had what was called Plan B, and Plan B was basically getting rid of all the players at the end of the year you didn’t really like or really want, or who weren’t long-term players. There was a lot of frustration, because here are people who maybe aren’t the upper-tier players in the league, who are getting to set their value in the marketplace. So then free agency came along.

Overall, I think it has been a tremendous help to the league as far as player salaries and how things have gone. People can’t argue it hasn’t gotten better. I think the one thing that has been a detriment, though, is the continuity of teams changes so quickly. Teams are more willing to keep three or four one-to-four-year players now, because they get four players for the price of one veteran. You see a lot of teams with one or two superstars, and then a lot of young inexperienced players. It kind of hurt that average but really solid veteran who you need on your team. Teams like the Patriots and the Steelers have said, We’re not going to break the bank in free agency, and we’re not going to be held ransom by a player, and they’ve been able develop these mid-tier players and get a team of really solid players that maybe aren’t those superstars. They’ve kind of had a different philosophy than other teams, and I think they’ve managed that process quite well.

VRENTAS: What are the expectations that come with being a top-dollar free agent signing?

MITCHELL: Well, you pretty much have to poop gold nuggets. You have to walk on water. I went to Detroit, and they had been to the playoffs, and it was one of those things where it was like, we really feel like we are just a quarterback away from winning it all. You go in with that expectation, but it’s really an unreasonable expectation, because it takes more than just a quarterback. I stepped into a very tough situation. It was Detroit, and they are brutally ruthless on quarterbacks there. It is not a quarterback-friendly place for the most part, and that’s fine. I didn’t have a problem with that. Then I was, all of a sudden, one of the first people to really be able to take advantage of free agency. If you look at what I did in Detroit, when I was playing and I was healthy, I was very productive. I was a very good player. But there is the tendency to kind of minimize what I actually did there. I don’t really know where it comes from, if it’s just that expectation, or if people were jealous, [thinking] that guy got money and maybe he didn’t deserve it, or he didn’t play long enough to prove that he was that valuable. I really don’t know. But I just know my performance was better than I got credit for, and the expectations were probably a little bit unrealistic.

However, I felt that had I been given enough time, we could have been something very good in Detroit. There are a lot of factors that always play into it, the success and the failure. You can’t just say, well, the guy maybe wasn’t good enough to deserve it. I hear this all the time, especially with all these quarterbacks recently who have been in a system and have developed and done well, and then they’ve gone out in free agency and haven’t measured up to what teams thought they would have. I think that’s unfair to put that all on the player, because there’s so much that goes into having success in a situation. You’ve gotta have a system that fits your personality, your skills. You’ve gotta keep people healthy. It’s not just the player and whether they’re good or not. If you can play in the NFL, you’re good, period. And how good you get, a lot of times, just depends on situation and things working out the right way.

VRENTAS: You began a trend of a backup quarterback performing well when thrust into a starting role, and then getting a lucrative opportunity as a starter elsewhere. Like you mentioned, too many times, we see that success doesn’t always replicate when the quarterback goes to a new team. What are the challenges?

MITCHELL: We were able to [have success], and that’s the interesting thing. I went to Detroit and we have a guy named Tom Moore as our offensive coordinator. In 1995, we start out the season 0-3, and then on a Monday night we are going to play the 3-0 San Francisco 49ers, who had just won the Super Bowl. We all had a gut check and said, OK, wait. We’ve got this QB in here; we’ve got all these good players; what’s going on? And we kind of revamped our whole offense and just said, here are our best players, and let’s put them in a position to make the best plays they can to succeed. We’ve got this running back who really runs best when you spread out a defense, and we’ve got all these great wide receivers. Let’s go three wide receivers, and spread out the defense. We simplified what we did on offense, and all of a sudden we had this record-setting year in 1995. Started the season 0-3, and ended up being one of [five] teams ever to make the playoffs after starting 0-3. And it’s the genesis of Tom Moore’s Peyton Manning offense. That all started in Detroit.

I just think so much of the success you have as a player is a coach who is willing to say, “What do you do well? Let’s structure our offense to fit your strength.” Then you can just go out and let your natural abilities develop and prosper and come out. If we’re always trying to force you to be something that maybe you are not, then we are asking too much. The game is so hard and it’s so fast, you just have to play by your instincts anyway. So putting a player in a position to be able to do that is really god coaching. That’s what they did in Detroit; that’s what Wayne Fontes did. That’s what Don Shula did in Miami. That’s what a lot of these really successful coaches do. If you’re going to bring someone in, and you’re going to give them all that money, put a system and players around them to give them the best shot to succeed.

VRENTAS: A lot of times that doesn’t happen, right? Coaches try to fit the quarterback to a system, rather than the other way around.

MITCHELL: Think about this. We had eight passing plays. Eight passing plays, and I threw for [nearly] 4,400 yards. I had two wide receivers that had 100-plus catches, a running back that rushed for 1,500 yards, and it was just easy. I remember throwing a five-yard hitch three times in a row against the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. I threw it three times in a row to Herman Moore, and it resulted in 78 yards and a touchdown, on a five-yard hitch. You know why I did it? Because it was there. They kept giving it to us. I think we do make it a little too hard sometimes. I really do. From someone who played the position, I’ve been around coaches who made it brutally complicated.

The next year we started out [4-2], and I was leading the NFL in the passing categories at that point. I got injured, and I wasn’t healthy the rest of the year, so I really struggled to even play, and we struggled as a team. Wayne got fired, and the coaching staff was dismissed. I was now with a coach who kind of had his philosophy, and his philosophy did not match the personnel that we had. It was just a recipe for disaster. It was Bobby Ross, and he was a power-running, four-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football team, and we were more of a spread offense, fast break. The personnel just didn’t fit the style.

Before and after on “The Biggest Loser.” (Trae Patton/NBC/Getty Images) Before and after on “The Biggest Loser.” (Trae Patton/NBC/Getty Images)

VRENTAS: Most recently, we saw you on The Biggest Loser, dropping 124 pounds. Have you kept the weight off?

MITCHELL: You want to hear a funny thing about that? So yeah, I was on the show, and I didn’t want to go on it. It kind of found me. It’s really been quite an amazing story for me. My dad passed away from complications of obesity about a year ago, and I watched him over the past six years die just this terrible death. It was awful. It was so hard. And I saw that was where I was headed. I was right there. I was 366 pounds, and I played quarterback in the NFL. You talk about humiliating. And I want to go on national TV and show people what’s become of me? Heavens no, I don’t want to do that. But I thought, I’m going to end up like my dad, and for whatever reason, I was able to find this show. It was an opportunity to get my life back, and I have. I lost all this weight, but I really learned why I gained it. Yes, I have been able to keep it off. But I was talking to my mom, and she said, “It’s funny, I just watched this commercial with Dan Marino, and he lost 22 pounds on Nutrisystem.” And she’s like, “Scott, you lost 120 pounds on The Biggest Loser. You’re better than Dan Marino now.” Yeah, Dan Marino could be my backup on The Biggest Loser now.

VRENTAS: Do you get more questions about your reality TV stint than your playing career?

MITCHELL: It’s shocking. I’ll go anywhere, and people are like, “I saw you on The Biggest Loser!” It’s almost 100 percent women. I’m not the kind of person who hides in a crowd—I’m 6-6, and I kind of stand out even if you don’t know who I am. So people kind of catch my eye, and then they go, “Oh, hey, I know who that is.” It used to be because of football. I’ve been recognized in other parts of the world because of football. Now it is The Biggest Loser. But you know, I had a life-changing experience, and I didn’t feel like I was on television. I had to keep reminding myself that I was on a reality game show. It was really an incredible experience.

“The thing I was most afraid of was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

VRENTAS: A lot of NFL players struggle with their weight after retirement. What challenges did you face?

MITCHELL: Part of it was my growing up as an athlete, and you are always working out, so you can eat whatever you want. Then you’re an NFL player, and you can eat really good food. I loved going to really good restaurants and having amazingly tasting food, and in order for it to taste great, it had to be unhealthy for you. I wasn’t even aware of how much I was consuming on a daily basis. I had to be accountable for the calories I took in [once I started The Biggest Loser]. Then understanding how some of the relationships growing up, with my parents, affected me in my life. And some of the events that happened in my life that I didn’t realize had weighed so heavily on me and had an impact on my relationship with food and my relationship with myself. Even my career, I felt like my career was a failure as an NFL player. Here I played 12 years in the NFL, I lived my childhood dream, but to me it was a failure because I wasn’t a Hall of Famer, I didn’t win a Super Bowl, I got essentially benched two years in a row for my job. It really weighed on me emotionally and affected me—I had no idea how hard it was for me. I think there are some times in our lives when we are successful, but we put so much pressure on ourselves and we’re not OK with the success we have. I just really had beaten myself up over it to the point where it was really affecting my life, and I wasn’t aware of it. I kind of found that all I have been through in my life has really made me a dynamic person. All of the failures and disappointments really gave me strength and perspective and kindness and the ability to love. So it really changed how I viewed myself and how I viewed my life.

Initially I turned the show down, because I said, there’s no way I’m going to talk about what I just talked to you about. Just to talk about it, period, but to talk about it in front of millions of people? There’s no way. I know how harsh people can be. I know how critical people can be, especially in the sports world. There have been a lot of people who have been very critical of me, and it’s hurtful. But when I let go and opened up, I realized there are so many people who can relate to it. The thing I was most afraid of was the best thing that ever happened to me, and the thing that resonated with other people. On a daily basis, people are saying, “I appreciate your honesty and your vulnerability and having the courage to go and do this.” They had former NFL players come on the show, which terrified me. I didn’t want my contemporaries to see. Michael Irvin came on, and I got to spend some time with Michael. I’ve always had a lot of respect for him, and he just said, “I am so proud of you, and when I heard you were on this show, I just wanted to come here and support you.” I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.

VRENTAS: You mentioned hurtful comments. Two years ago, former Lions offensive tackle Lomas Brown turned heads when he said on ESPN Radio that he once purposely whiffed on a block so that you would get injured and have to leave the game. Where does your relationship with him stand today?

MITCHELL: It was like two days before Christmas, and I didn’t even hear it. Someone called me and said, “That Lomas Brown—that’s so low.” So I go to look it up, and it just was so crushing to me. It’s one thing if it is someone who has never played, but when it is your teammate, and someone who understands all of what goes into games and playing, and they know the challenges, to take a shot like that and such a low blow, it just killed me. It killed me. And the crazy part was, this guy never even [actually] did it. This was a guy I had in my own home; I had dinners for all the offensive linemen in my house. It was someone I bought gifts for every year, and he accepted them very graciously. Someone who I always kind of thought had my back. I got booed at home games for five years, every time I got introduced—it was just how it was. Lomas was the beloved player, but he held out one year, and when he finally signed, everyone was really mad at him, so people started booing Lomas. He started to understand what I was going through, and he came to me and said, “We’re kind of the boos brothers.” So I thought, this is my guy. It just didn’t make sense, but what it did was it perpetuated how people viewed me.

I always felt I have been unjustly criticized. Unfortunately my career has ended and there’s nothing I can do about what people say now; I don’t have a chance to prove them wrong. But I had a better career than a lot of people have said. [Brown] called me, and he was very apologetic. He kind of explained his reasoning. He said, “I’m trying to get a better deal with ESPN. They wanted me to be more controversial.” But either way, you are going to use me and our relationship to better yourself and essentially lie, or you really meant this? My agent wanted me to sue him. There was no way I was going to do that. Can you imagine that? That would certainly take on a life of its own: Former NFL quarterback sues his former lineman. But it really hurt. None of it was good, let’s put it that way.

VRENTAS: How do you think this year’s class of free-agent quarterbacks—with guys like Josh McCown, Mark Sanchez and Brian Hoyer—will fare?

scott-mitchell-biggest-loser-head-shot-360 (Trey Patton/NBC/Getty Images)

MITCHELL: As far as quarterbacks go, I think the challenge is the trend that has happened recently. It’s kind of been, these guys have come in and played well, and then they’ve gone to a new team and it’s not worked out. But here’s the thing that happens, and it happens with players and with coaches: The more places you play, and the more places you coach, and the more experience you get, it only makes you better. We are so quick to throw people out. You get in there, and if you don’t succeed, poof, you’re out. I’ll give you a really good example, and it is Bill Belichick. When he was in Cleveland, no one said Bill Belichick is going to turn out to be one of the greatest coaches of all time. Then you have Pete Carroll. Oh my goodness, this guy was the hottest assistant coach in the NFL [when I played]. I always had a great respect for him as a defensive coordinator, then [the Patriots] are firing him for Belichick and you kind of go, what the heck? I would guarantee if you ask him, he would say, I’ve learned so much from everything that I have been in, and it allowed him to become who he is.

I know in my experience, I learned so much each place that I was in. I learned more about myself. I learned more about the game. I really got it. It’s unfortunate that’s the time when [teams] really want to give up on people. But historically, look at some guys. Like Brad Johnson. He’s not even a starter in Minnesota—he gets to play because everyone gets hurt—then he goes to Washington and does pretty decent there. Then he ends up in Tampa Bay and wins a Super Bowl. No one ever really thought Brad Johnson [would do that], but Brad Johnson learned and grew and turned out to be a pretty good quarterback. Or Rich Gannon. He was in Minnesota and Kansas City and all of these places, then he goes to Oakland, and how did he all of a sudden become a great player?

We’re so quick to make judgments about people and players, and we are so quick to throw them out, but it’s these experiences they have that really develop them, if you just give them enough time and have enough patience. You look at teams that know how to develop quarterbacks. That’s really what they do. They just kind of take their lumps with a guy. They live through that growing pain. I just get so disappointed to see so many of these guys get thrown to the curb too soon. I know it’s hard. I get it. There is a lot of pressure, and your job is on the line if you don’t win. But sometimes, just having some more patience and taking a step back and saying, let’s not panic here.

I remember watching Brett Favre when he was in Green Bay, because we played them every year. I never thought, Oh gosh, we’re playing Brett Favre. We’re in trouble this week. I just was like, Brett Favre is going to throw three interceptions, at least. He didn’t scare me. I’d watch him and go, “This guy is never going to last. He’s throwing all these interceptions. I don’t get it.” And then it just finally clicked for him. But he was with a guy that got it. Mike Holmgren got it. He knew how to develop a guy. And you just see a lot of these teams that get that, and they know how to develop quarterbacks and have patience, and know that it’s a process. If I was a quarterback, and I was in free agency, that’s where I’d go. I’d look for an organization that knows how to develop a quarterback.

• 2015 FREE AGENCY: Greg Bedard’s Top 50 | 51-100

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