If you’re like me, you’re counting down the days until college football starts. Nothing compares to Saturdays in the fall and the tailgating, pageantry, and traditions that go along with college football season — especially here in the South.
I’ve written in the past about how the South does college football best, and I devoted an entire chapter in my new book Football, Faith, & Flannery O’Connor: A Love Letter To The South about how Southerners go crazy for college football — and plenty of other sports.
As young men all over the country get ready to take the field in the golden light of autumn afternoons, one player from my alma mater, the University of Georgia, is gearing up for a unique challenge (one with which I can identify). Bulldogs wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell has cultivated a reputation as a fast, agile player who has overcome injuries, but his latest passion has taken a relatively newfound love for reading to the next level. On August 29, Mitchell will become a published author with the release of his children’s book The Magician’s Hat.
Reading hasn’t always been something Mitchell has been fond or proud of. When he started at UGA, he could only read at a junior high level. He had not read a complete book, not even a children’s book.
However, he doesn’t blame his family or his upbringing as a reason for his struggles with reading as a child and as a teenager. He is still proud of how his upbringing has shaped him.
Mitchell read his first children’s book when he got to college, and he now collects and reads different types of books. Mitchell now reads two to three books at time. His favorite series is “The Hunger Games,” while his favorite book is “The Glass Castle.”
When he began reading in college, he dove in head first and devoured every book he could get his hands on. The time on his hands after a 2013 injury led him to read even more voraciously. And a trip to an Athens bookstore led to a conversation that changed his life.
It was in the best seller section of a Barnes & Noble in this college town that Kathy Rackley found a novel story of her own — a young man by the name of Malcolm Mitchell.
“I mean a chance encounter in a bookstore, how wonderful is that?” said Kathy. She had no idea who Mitchell was. “None whatsoever.”
And Malcolm didn’t tell her. “I knew they were going to find out,” Mitchell said. “But I wasn’t going to say it.”
Fact is, Rackley may have been the only one in Athens who didn’t know the name Malcolm Mitchell. Number 26 for the University of Georgia Bulldogs was one of the top recruits in the country a few years ago. He’s Georgia royalty.
And presumably, if Rackley had known that, she wouldn’t have stood in that Barnes & Noble talking his ear off about the book club she had just joined.
“I mean he like stepped back and he said ‘You did? You did?’ and he said, ‘Can I join your book club?'” Rackley recalled.
“And I said, ‘I don’t know if you want to join mine. We’re all 40-, 50-, and 60-year-old women.'”
But Mitchell was undeterred. So now, one of the top wide-receivers in the country has been meeting monthly with his book club lady friends.
“I’ve always searched for ways to be creative. And when I [got] injured in 2013, reading picked up,” Mitchell said. “It was one of the hobbies I picked up. And as you read more over time, you get more creative.”
He read as much as he could and ultimately began to do some writing as well. Like all writers, Mitchell was worried about how his writing would be received at first, so he sent most of his drafts to the trash.
After his book club story made the news, Mitchell began to reexamine some of his writing. Then, inspired by his friend and former teammate Chris Conley, who wrote and directed a Star Wars fan film before graduating from UGA last year, Mitchell decided he would write a children’s book.
The result is The Magician’s Hat, about a magician named David whose greatest trick doesn’t involve illusions but stems from his ability to demonstrate how much fun reading can be. It’s a neat metaphor for the author himself. Coach Mark Richt wrote the foreword to the book.
Mitchell has had to navigate thorny NCAA compliance issues in order for his book to see the light of day. The University of Georgia cannot assist him financially with the publication, and he cannot use any likeness of himself on the field or in uniform on his website.
“I go through compliance every step of the way trying to make sure everything is going smooth,” Mitchell said. “Our compliance office has done a great job of helping me. The NCAA has done an outstanding job of allowing me to do certain things.”
Mitchell has demonstrated a unique entrepreneurial spirit with The Magician’s Hat. He says he has spent about $1,000 of his own money to finance the independent publication — he didn’t want a publisher to change the vision he had for his work — and he has had to line up interviews on his own. He brought a copy to SEC Media Days in July, which certainly helped him gain publicity for the book.
The gridiron star has parlayed his love of reading and writing into a way to inspire kids to read as well. Through Read With Malcolm, the foundation and website he calls his “personal playing field,” Mitchell sets up speaking engagements to motivate kids to read like he has.
He knows that most kids and adults know him for his prowess on the field, so Mitchell seeks to prove that student athletes have value beyond the sports they play. When he goes to schools, he does not wear his jersey, and he downplays his athletic accomplishments in comparison to his growth as both a reader and writer.
Malcolm Mitchell has his eyes on the NFL during his fifth-year senior season, but he hasn’t ruled out any more creative writing. In fact, part of the mission statement at Read With Malcolm talks about “explor[ing] a career in creative writing.”