SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. (WRCB) -- Stephon Mitchell starts his pregame routine a little earlier than the rest of his South Pittsburg teammates.
It's not one of superstition or superfluous swagger, but rather one of safety. It's designed to protect against future injuries, and hopefully erase any fear lingering from those in the past.
"I have to put on two different braces, then I tape my ankle and tape my cleats over my ankle. Then I have to tape up my braces and all the space left in between," Mitchell said. "It takes awhile, but as you do it every week it becomes a regular routine."
It's a routine that takes more than 20 minutes in all, but every second is worth it.
Securing his left knee and lower leg make it possible for Mitchell to take the field, which is a thought that couldn't be farther from his mind a year ago.
"Oh man. When we saw him go down last year, it was bad," said teammate Kahlil Mitchell, shaking his head.
It was just a freak play in an early-season game against Lookout Valley last August. Mitchell's leg was caught in the turf during a collision with a teammate.
All of the sudden, he wasn't able to get up.
"I remember just laying there and my team coming around me and telling me it would be okay," Mitchell said. "They said it would be okay because the ambulance is coming to pick me up."
It was then Mitchell realized the severity of his situation. Or so he thought.
The news only seemed to get worse at the hospital.
"I just kept thinking that it was a good thing they're taking me to the hospital. They'll know what to do and be able to fix everything," Mitchell said. "But when I got there they just kind of looked at me. Then they were calling other doctors to ask how they could put it back together."
Mitchell had torn every ligament in his left knee in addition to his meniscus and calf, and his kneecap had been pushed all the way around to the back of his leg. Even worse, he had suffered severe nerve damage all the way down his leg.
Even now, his lower leg can't support itself without the help of a brace.
"It took a month or so just to find a doctor who could do the surgery," he recalled. "Then they told me I could play any sport except football."
Mitchell originally resigned himself to that thought. In fact, before the surgery he questioned whether he'd even want to play football again.
Then he found some extra motivation.
"I got about four weeks into therapy and just felt like I didn't know if I wanted to push myself like that (to get all the way back)," he said. "Then we lost in like the state quarterfinals last year. After that, I knew I had to come back."
Fueled by faith, family and friends, Mitchell made it his mission to play his senior season. He continued rehab and found the braces necessary to aid his return to the field: one for his knee, and another to support the lower portion of his leg.
Still after six months of rehab, Mitchell was nowhere close to being cleared for spring practice.
"When I first got here, I would have put odds against him ever getting back," said first-year head coach Tim Moore. "Just seeing him walk around, you never thought he'd be able to play."
Mitchell would soon prove him wrong.
Finally cleared by doctors late in the summer, he returned in time for fall camp and went to work adjusting his stance and technique to work with his braces and limitations. Coaches moved him from the interior of the line out to left tackle where there was less of a threat of his leg being caught up in a pile.
Not only did he prove he was strong enough to compete, but he eventually earned a starting spot.
"When he came back, it was like we have to play for him," Kahlil Mitchell said. "That's all heart. He's our heart, and everybody needs that heart. You can point to him when the young guys don't want to finish that last sprint or that last rep. If he can do it, you can do it."
The Pirates certainly have been able to do whatever they'd like on offense with Mitchell helping to pave the way. Kahlil Mitchell and Jajuan Lankford have each rushed for more than 1,000 yards and South Pittsburg has racked up more than 3,500 yards on the ground as a team en route to its fifth state championship game appearance in the last seven seasons.
"He's been great as a leader, and he's a heck of an offensive lineman. There's no doubt about that," said Moore, a former offensive lineman himself. "He's one of the best we have up front, even with his leg like it is."
And because his leg is like it is, Mitchell will be at his locker a few minutes earlier than his teammates this Friday in Cookeville.
He'll go through his normal routine, only this time he'll be bracing up for the moment that's motivated him for the past 15 months.
"It would mean the world to me to win a state championship this year," he said. "It would be like I made it. I came back from this and we won. Just being out there playing with my team and these other seniors and helping them get another win, that's all that matters to me."
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