A Hall of Fame career is not made up of just one play, but it is amazing how one play can be the quick reference guide for a great player. Such is the case with former Gamecock football student-athlete Jimmy Mitchell (1969-1971) who is one of nine members of the 2016 University of South Carolina Athletics Hall of Fame class sponsored by the Association of Lettermen. As a sophomore in October of 1969, Mitchell’s 72-yard punt return for a touchdown lifted South Carolina over North Carolina State and kept the Gamecocks undefeated in the ACC.
“That sort of secured the ACC Championship,” Mitchell said. “It was going down between us and them. That was probably my single biggest thrill as far as one play. We actually put in a special punt return that week. I was supposed to catch the ball, fake outside and then it was supposed to be a middle run with a break to the right return. Believe it or not I took about three steps to the right after catching the ball, then cut back up the middle, and it was wide open. The only guy left on the right side line was the punter, and he didn’t have much of a chance. That was a great thrill to be able to contribute to that 1969 team.”
Mitchell was a first-team All-ACC receiver, and he keyed many Gamecock victories with touchdown catches or punt returns. He earned honorable mention All-America honors in both 1970 and 1971, and ended his career as the Gamecocks' second all-time leading receiver in catches, yards and touchdowns. For his career, Mitchell averaged 16.4 yards per reception on 90 catches.
“Gosh, I’m just so proud,” Mitchell said of hearing he was named to the Hall of Fame. “It is so good to get in with so many of my teammates and friends such as Jeff Grantz, Tommy Suggs, Fred Zeigler, Dave DeCamilla, and my roommate Dickie Harris. Being in their ‘club’ is a thrill for me and my family.”
Mitchell, now 66, lives in Columbia where he owns the construction company Mitchell Builders Incorporated. As he thinks about his time on campus, it’s the people, rather than the plays, that make up his best memories.
“I can always talk about the plays and the games, but for me, football became something else,” Mitchell said. “It was about friendships and brotherhood. To this day, we’re still together. We have about 15 of us that meet every Wednesday night. We’re in each other’s weddings. We celebrated when we had the birth of our children. We coached little league together. That’s the most important thing I got out of playing football at the University of South Carolina.”
I’d love to play now with how much they throw the ball.Jimmy Mitchell
Born in Spartanburg, S.C., he lived in Atlanta for a short time as a child before later moving to Greensboro, N.C., where he attended high school. Mitchell was recruited by several schools, but South Carolina was the right fit.
“I didn’t want to be too far away from my parents so they could come to the games,” Mitchell said. “They came to every game I ever played. I wasn’t going to be a running back in college, so I knew I would be a wide receiver. I figured that I needed to go to a school that threw the ball a little bit, and Tommy Suggs was a sophomore then, so I knew the future was bright for the passing game at Carolina. As a sophomore, I played behind another hall of famer in Fred Zeigler in 1969.”
Being part of that ACC Championship team is still a great source of pride for Mitchell and his teammates.
“Ken Wheat (1969-71) is one of my best friends, and he just donated to the university to name the indoor practice field after the 1969 team,” Mitchell said. “He was gracious enough to donate on our behalf. We all got together again for that. 1969 was a special year.”
After his playing days were over, Mitchell helped coach wide receivers on the freshman team while he finished up his coursework and earned his degree.
“Jeff Grantz was a freshman that year, and I coached him and his receiver corps,” Mitchell said. “To this day, Jeff and I are still very close friends. Our sons are close friends, and our wives are close.”
Seeing how the game has changed now with the various spread offenses, Mitchell admits he would love to be a wide receiver in the game of college football today.
“I’d love to play now with how much they throw the ball,” Mitchell said. “I’m probably not fast enough to play the wide out. I’d probably have to be a slot receiver and try to catch something across the middle. It would be great to play now, but it was so good back then with Tommy Suggs throwing. I led the nation with 22 yards per catch one year and made All-ACC. There were some big plays that year.”
With an enduring affection for his alma mater, Mitchell feels like his time at South Carolina prepared him well for his life after college, and he looks forward to sharing his entrance into the Hall of Fame with his teammates.
“The thing about football is you learn so much about brotherhood and teamwork, it really helps you in the business world,” Mitchell said. “I’m going to see a lot of good friends that weekend. I know Dickie Harris, my good friend, is coming down from British Columbia up in Canada. A lot of my teammates will be there. Bo Davies is going into the Hall of Fame with me. We were freshmen together. To this day, we’re still just as close as can be. We see each other about four times per year.”
Mitchell and the rest of this year’s Hall of Fame class will be honored and inducted on Thursday evening, October 20, at the Zone at Williams-Brice Stadium, and recognized at the South Carolina-UMass football game on Saturday, October 22.
“I’m a little bit anxious and maybe a little nervous about the whole Hall of Fame thing, but I’m looking forward to it,” Mitchell said.
If he treats it like a punt return, he’ll be just fine.