Jarrett Mitchell walks past Arizona Stadium almost daily.
He pictures himself donning the cardinal and navy blue, donning No. 24, “MITCHELL” laced across the back.
He has watched hours and hours of Wildcats game film on YouTube, has learned what “Bear Down” means and understands how fast coach Rich Rodriguez’s offense moves.
But Mitchell isn’t on the team yet and maybe won’t be at all. Mitchell has enrolled at the UA, where he has received a partial academic scholarship. He will try out for the UA football team on Aug. 25, when the Wildcats’ roster expands from 105 players to 120.
Football is a numbers game, and more than a few can explain Mitchell’s situation. He ran for a school-record 3,990 yards and 42 touchdowns in parts of three seasons. In the 40-yard dash, his personal best is 4.43 seconds. In the vertical jump, it’s 38 inches.
Here’s another number: 6,762. It’s the number of miles from Arizona to Okinawa, Japan.
That’s where Mitchell grew up.
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Mitchell was born in Florence, South Carolina, but moved to Japan when he was 2 months old. His father was in the Air Force, stationed in Okinawa. When his parents divorced, Mitchell’s mother, Antoinette, was left to raise Jarrett and his younger brother, Jahron, on her own.
In middle school, the family met Fletcher Beamen II, a former football player at Jackson State who was stationed in Okinawa with the military. He became a father figure for the Mitchell boys and was a driving force in pushing Jarrett toward football. Jarrett began playing during his sophomore year at Kubasaki High School, a Department of Defense Dependents School (DoDDS).
He was a natural, blessed with speed and a work ethic that few could match. Beamen would wake him up at 3 a.m. on his way to work and force Mitchell to run.
Sometimes, he would stay up all night, doing push-ups.
“Coach would tell me a play, and I’d be like, ‘that’s not a post move?’ ” Mitchell said. “I didn’t know. He said just run to the right. Get the ball and run. I lived by that for a few years.”
And it worked. But not enough. Not enough to get noticed.
• • •
Mitchell may have been a star for Kubasaki, but no stateside colleges were taking notice.
Mitchell decided to be his one-man recruiting coordinator.
The time difference is tricky — Okinawa is 16 hours ahead of Arizona time, for example. So, Mitchell would stay up all night, or wake up early in the morning — 3 a.m. or so — and call, and e-mail, Division I coaches from across the United States. The ones that answered asked for a highlight reel, so he sent it.
He traveled to the United States in the offseason to invitation-only prospect camps at Florida State, Virginia, Alabama and more.
Mitchell was named the top running back at three National Underclassmen camps and earned Player of the Game honors at a Diamond-In-The-Rough national all-star game in Florida.
He applied to more than a dozen Division I schools, but only received serious interest from two of them — Louisville and Purdue. Louisville coach Bobby Petrino initially said Mitchell could come on as a preferred walk-on, but, after the initial contact, nothing materialized.
It never did anywhere else, either.
“At one regional camp, I told the guy running it where I was from,” Mitchell said. “And he said, ‘No one gets recruited from out there,’ and that really got to me.
“There are guys in the overseas able to get to Division I: They just don’t put the effort into it. I want to change that. I want to show that overseas students can get looked at. College coaches should take the time, because there is talent out there.”
Just ask Fred Bales, Mitchell’s coach at Kubasaki. Bales has coached overseas for more than 30 years, including a stop at a DoDDS school in Panama, where he coached Michael Haynes and Daryl Gardener. Haynes went on to star at Penn State, Gardener at Baylor. Both were first-round NFL draft picks.
Mitchell is on that level, Bales said.
“He’s an explosive playmaker on both sides of the ball,” Bales said in an e-mail. “He’s in my top five all time. Jarrett is the real deal. He’s just a special human being.”
Mitchell ran for 1,400 yards, a Japan high school record, as a junior. He then broke it as a senior, rushing for 1,840 yards on just 10 more carries. He set the Japanese high school single-game rushing record with 379 yards.
To top it off, he had a 3.7 GPA and was a three-sport star, playing basketball and running track.
But Mitchell stands just 5 feet 9 inches and weighs 188 pounds, a deterrent to programs that want players to pass the “eye test.”
“I might not be the biggest guy, but you’re not going to catch me: That’s my mindset,” he said. “Once I’m ahead of you, you’re not going to catch me. I’m not getting hunted down.”
• • •
Rich Rodriguez has a soft spot for walk-ons.
It stems from his playing days, when he walked on to West Virginia as a safety.
Jared Tevis, a Tucsonan from Canyon del Oro, came to the UA as a walk-on and is now on scholarship and is the leader of Arizona’s defense.
In 2012, Rodriguez’s first year at Arizona, he started a walk-on — Sir Thomas Jackson — at outside linebacker and gave significant playing time to Johnny Jackson, a walk-on receiver. And at this time two years ago, Casey Skowron was the UA women’s soccer team manager. He tried out for the football team, made it, and is now competing to be Arizona’s starting kicker in 2014.
There are 85 scholarship slots on a college football roster, with 35 more allotted for walk-ons.
So, what does Rodriguez look for?
“You have to have a certain skill set, and certain ability to play at this level,” Rodriguez said, speaking generally. “We don’t just invite guys off the street. But those are usually guys that are extra hungry to prove themselves, that believe they can play on this level. If we didn’t think they could, we wouldn’t give them an opportunity.”
Mitchell believes he can play at this level. Since moving to Tucson, he has been waking up at 5 a.m. every day, running, lifting weights, training with a skills ladder.
Mitchell has been clocked at 4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash but thinks he can run faster. He can put up 21 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press but wants to get closer to 30. He has a 38-inch vertical leap, a 4.21 second shuttle, and a broad jump of 10 feet 7 inches.
He’s a running back at heart but has dabbled at receiver and safety, and he wants to be flexible.
In the last 30 years, only three football players have made the leap from a DoDDS Pacific school to Division I. Mitchell wants to be the fourth and then, hopefully, open up the flood gates for some more to come.
He wants to make the team now, but if he doesn’t, he’ll try again next year and focus on school — he’s a pre-business major — and training for the next go-around.
“He has lived the frustration of knowing he deserved to be signed and being passed over,” Bales said. “He wants to try to shine a light on that and make it better for ones to follow.”
Added Mitchell: “I told my mom I’m going to do something with my life, and I know what I want to do, and I know what it takes to get there. My goal is to influence someone else’s life with what I’m doing. I know I can make it because of all the hard work I’ve done, and I’m not gonna let that go to waste.”