Stump Mitchell arrived at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport last week, parked his car in one of the economy lots and took a shuttle to his terminal.
He was there to catch a flight to Alabama to work out Crimson Tide running back Eddie Lacy, one of his many new responsibilities as the Cardinals’ running backs coach. Lyvonia Mitchell was back in the South for just a day, returning to his roots where an undersized, stocky boy who played football with his older brothers earned a lifelong nickname.
Home, by all accounts, is in Georgia, but three time zones to the West, is Mitchell’s second home. He was a running back for the Cardinals when the team relocated to Phoenix from St. Louis in 1988, and left the team a season later as the franchise’s second-leading rusher.
In February, new Cardinals coach Bruce Arians hired Mitchell, who returned to a new Arizona. It’s changed quite a bit since he last lived at Chandler Boulevard and 42nd Street some 24 years ago. The Loop 101 and Loop 202 were built, as was Tempe Town Lake. The airport has
“It takes you so long to get out of the airport now,” Mitchell said laughing.
Just as he did out of Sky Harbor, Mitchell found his way back to Arizona.
His return started years before he congratulated Arians at the Senior Bowl in January. After suffering his first career-threatening knee injury with the Cardinals in 1989, Mitchell joined the Kansas City Chiefs in 1991. His running backs coach was Arians, who watched Mitchell’s career end for good when he blew out his knee on a kickoff return.
“No one touched him,” Arians said. “It was a shame. It put tears in my eyes because he’s such a fabulous person.”
Arians kept tabs on Mitchell’s coaching career, from Casa Grande High School to Morgan State to the Seattle Seahawks to the Washington Redskins to, finally, Southern University. Mitchell was fired two games into the 2012 season and was looking to return to the NFL.
Mitchell didn’t feel comfortable bringing up the idea of joining Arians’ staff at the Senior Bowl.
“I didn’t say anything to him at that point in time about a job because I knew he pretty much knew what he wanted to do,” Mitchell said.
But Arians texted Mitchell less than two weeks later with an invitation to meet him at the Super Bowl in New Orleans. They talked, and Arians flew back to Phoenix with his new running backs coach.
Mitchell wanted to be a part of the Cardinals’ resurgence. That much was clear to him the first time he coached in University of Phoenix Stadium with the Seahawks in 2006.
“Seattle is loud, no question about it,” Mitchell said. “But when we came here and played in that stadium, it actually brought tears to my eyes. I cannot believe how loud it is in this place. It was unbelievable.
“I was just so elated that the fans had finally gotten behind this team.”
The days of playing in Sun Devil Stadium, where the biggest crowds he saw were for the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers, were long gone. A couple years after that first trip to University of Phoenix Stadium, Mitchell was in the stands at Super Bowl XLIII.
Loyalty in sports has waned as contracts have grown. But Mitchell is old school. He broke into the NFL as a small running back during an era when the trend tilted toward bigger, taller backs. Taken in the ninth round of the 1981 NFL Draft out of The Citadel, Mitchell has reserved a special place for the Cardinals.
Without them, Mitchell doesn’t think he would’ve had an NFL career.
“He was the only member of the coaching staff that I hugged when I first saw him,” Cardinals President Michael Bidwill said. “He was a great player for us for a long time. I was a ball boy when we drafted him.
“When we had a chance to bring him back, I was so excited. He was probably the one coach I checked on more with Bruce Arians during the hiring process. ‘Have you talked to Stump?’ It was nerve-wracking because we wanted to have him back.”
Coaching against his former team was easier than the idea of playing against it, Mitchell said. Even though he’s embedded in the Cardinals’ record books, Mitchell hopes the new crop of running backs,
Although he was never faced with the dilemma of playing the Cardinals, Mitchell was ready just in case.
“I had always told myself no matter what the circumstances are, I would never score against the Cardinals,” Mitchell said. “I would never score. I would run out on the 1.”
This wasn’t a fleeting thought. Mitchell firmly believed, even in the heat of a run, he’d be able to bounce out-of-bounds just before the goal line.
“That’s just who I am,” he said. “I’m very appreciative for the opportunity that I was given and that’s what I want from the guys I’m coaching, to be appreciative of the opportunity that they have right there.”
The Cardinals again gave Mitchell an opportunity.
He’s back in Phoenix, a city he hopes to make his permanent home. He’s still learning his way around the freeways, finding a new strip mall or neighborhood at every turn. Even the building he works in every day is new to Mitchell. The Cardinals moved into their Tempe practice facility in 1990, after he was released.
If that wasn’t enough for Mitchell get used to, Sky Harbor literally changed overnight.
After returning to Phoenix last week, Mitchell attempted to find a shuttle back to the economy lot that housed his car. Except there was no shuttle to find.
“Now you have to catch the train,” Mitchell said. “Things are changing day-by-day.”