Mac Engel

Meet the guy who kept LT on the bench

It does not come up regularly but every now and then people will ask, and immediately assume.

“As the conversation goes on people ask me, ‘Were you a defensive back?’ ” he says.

No. Not a defensive back. Running back. At TCU. In the mid 1990s.

“You were a running back when LT was there?” they ask.

Yes. A running back when LaDainian Tomlinson was at TCU.

“They assumed he started in front of me,” he says.

He didn’t. Basil Mitchell is the last man to start ahead of a running back who will be enshrined Aug. 5 in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Today, Mitchell is 41, lives in Dallas and works as a real estate broker. He will never be enshrined in Canton, but he is forever a small piece of football trivia for the most important player in the modern era at TCU.

Mitchell was a junior when LT arrived at TCU in 1997. For the next two seasons he would start ahead of a player who would become the best running back in college and then in the NFL for eight seasons.

Hindsight is never wrong, but in recounting his time with LT, Mitchell says with certainty he knew the kid from Waco University High would be good when he first met him. Mitchell hosted LT during his recruiting visit to TCU in 1996. LT was quiet and reserved, but inquisitive and patient.

“He would ask question after question and he just soaked it all up because he wanted to go to TCU,” Mitchell told me in a phone interview. “I always felt that I started because I was smart. When LT got there, he picked it all up. I was like, ‘This guy is smart, he’s built like a tank and talented.’ I had to raise my game, and he helped me in that aspect.”

Early in LT’s first fall practice at TCU, Mitchell was out with a sore hamstring. He watched the freshman from the sidelines with running backs coach Bud Casey.

“That’s when I knew,” Mitchell said. “I remember telling Coach Casey, ‘If this guy doesn’t get hurt, he’s going to be incredible.’”

LT didn’t get hurt. He just could never beat out Mitchell.

As a sophomore, the first season for head coach Dennis Franchione, the staff wanted the best players on the field as much as possible, mostly because there were not enough good players. That meant putting LT in as a fullback, where he would block rather than run.

“LT was a terrible fullback, I mean terrible,” Mitchell said. “He had been a fullback for one year in high school because the guy ahead of him was older. He wanted to be on the field but he didn’t want to be a fullback. So one day he told (offensive coordinator Mike Schultz), ‘I can’t do it.’ They told him Basil is hot and we will move you back but you’re going to be behind him. He said, ‘Whatever.’ ”

This was not a white flag from a pouting quitter. LT was smart enough to know playing fullback was going to get him killed and make him irrelevant. Mitchell had told him to be patient. He just had to wait.

And Mitchell was not a bum. He ran for 1,111 yards as a senior on a team that, despite winning one game the previous season, went 7-5 and beat USC in the Sun Bowl, where Mitchell was named the game’s MVP.

During that 1998 season they were at a party together when Mitchell’s brother, Cecil Palmer, was talking to LT in his room. LT was hanging some posters of his favorite NFL players.

“You really want to be one of the best in college don’t you?” Palmer asked LT.

“No, I don’t want to be good,” LT said, looking directly in Palmer’s eyes. “I want to be the best player ever.”

Palmer recounted the exchange to his brother after the party and told Mitchell, “Just the way he looked at me — I believe him.”

In 1999, Mitchell moved on to the Green Bay Packers where spent two seasons. In Fort Worth, LT finally was named the starter. He didn’t whine when he didn’t start. He did not threaten to transfer. He waited, and in 1999 and 2000 he put together the most impressive statistical seasons by a TCU player ever to that point.

(FYI: Quarterback Trevone Boykin’s junior year in 2014 should remain the gold standard for absurd seasons by a TCU player. He threw for 3,901 yards, ran for 707, caught two passes for 53 and combined for 44 touchdowns).

In LT’s final two years at TCU, he ran for 4,132 yards with 42 touchdowns. No TCU player since the days of Davey O’Brien or Sammy Baugh did more for the school than LT did in those two seasons.

He was a Heisman trophy candidate, and every game he played made national news and helped establish the Horned Frogs’ brand as a national entity.

Meanwhile, Mitchell was playing for the Packers in Green Bay, talking to the team’s scouts. The topic of the best college running backs was a point of discussion. The class also included Deuce McCallister of Ole Miss and Michael Bennett of Wisconsin.

“I kept telling them, ‘LT is the best running back in this class and it’s not even close.’ They were concerned how fast he was, and because he was playing in the WAC.”

Once teams saw LT perform at the combine and timed his sprints in the 40-yard dash, there was no more convincing. LT was selected well ahead of McCallister (23rd) and Bennett (27th), when the Chargers took him with the fifth overall pick in 2000.

LT started for the Chargers for nine seasons and then the Jets in 2010. In 2011, his final year in the NFL, he was finally back in a reserve role. Injuries and age combined to put LT on the bench.

The last player to do it?

When someone asks, it’s Basil Mitchell.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof

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