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Remembering Kevin Mitchell: Five Years Later

By Jake Russell | May 4th, 2012

While Redskins fans were still buzzing on Monday after the most anticipated draft in decades, Denise Mitchell spent the day at her husbands grave. She and their three children, Jonathan (9), Kayla (7) and Alyssa (4) laid flowers on his grave and reflected on what was, as well as what could have been. To commemorate the day, the family went out to dinner to celebrate his life and reflect some more.

Monday April 30 marked the five-year anniversary of former Redskin linebacker Kevin Mitchell’s untimely death. Here in the D.C. area, the day came and went as any other day would. But for Denise, April 30th has as much significance now as it ever has.

“We visit his grave faithfully on his birthday, Father’s Day, and the anniversary of his passing,” she said.

“We typically stay home together as a family on the 30th (his brother and mother included) and do everything he always loved to do, which includes preparing a huge meal and watching comedy movies. The kids watch home videos and love it.”

Denise recalls the night of his death proceeding as any other Sunday would for their family.

“We had a normal Sunday,” she said. “Sunday was typically our family day. We went to church and took the kids to a birthday party. He cut his hair and worked out. We ordered Chinese food and watched a movie with the kids. He played with them a little more than usual.

“He insisted on reading their bedtime stories and tucked them in. We sat on our porch and had a long talk about our plans for May. We both fell asleep in front of the television, and he woke me up to get into bed while he went to check on the kids.”

She did not know that that would be the last time she would talk to Kevin.

“I woke up to him in distress in the middle of the night and called paramedics. His body was in distress and I could tell he was unconscious. I couldn’t find a pulse and administered CPR with 911 on the phone until the paramedics arrived,” she said.

At the age of 36, Kevin Mitchell was gone.

He had continued to stay in shape even after his playing days were over, which made his death even more shocking. Less than three months later, the Virginia medical examiner’s office ruled that his death was a result of heart disease and natural causes.

In the blink of an eye, Denise became a widow and returned home from the hospital early that morning with many questions and was having a hard time finding answers. Not long after she had been home, she experienced a strange sign. Soon she realized it was a symbol of comfort.

“I came home from the hospital at 4:30 a.m. I was by myself (the kids were asleep) when the entire house lost power at 5:57 for a good five minutes. It was kind of scary,” she said.

“I knew the exact time because I was staring at our bedroom clock when it happened as I just sat on our bed in complete shock. This was strange to me at the time as the weather was calm and there was no reason for the power to go out. [It] became even stranger when my next door neighbors said that none of them lost power. It became significant when I looked closer at the time. His number was 55 and 7 means completion in the Bible… 5:57. His journey was complete.”

But that wasn’t it for Denise. Not only did she receive a sign the night of his passing, she was given one last gift from Kevin the day after his funeral in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pa.

“I knew there was a possibility that I was pregnant before Kevin died and I shared that with him,” she recalled.

“Although this would have been somewhat of a surprise to the both of us, he said ‘better sooner than later because I ain’t getting any younger.’

“The day after his funeral was probably the hardest day for me. I remember returning home to Virginia from Pennsylvania with two of my closest girlfriends and my children. I experienced a big breakdown when I got home and my friends didn’t know what to do. They both knew about the possibility of me being pregnant and so one of my friends took my kids to the playground and the other one went to CVS to get me a test. I took the test and it came back positive.

“My first thought was ‘he’s still with me.’ I ran around the house screaming and jumped on all of the beds. I was so happy. A number of Kevin’s family members were still at his mother’s house after the funeral in Pennsylvania when I returned home. I called his mom up immediately after confirming the pregnancy and she shouted it to all his relatives and I could hear them screaming in the background. Everyone was so happy.”

It’s hard to imagine the strange dichotomy of joy and grief that the entire Mitchell family experienced that day.

Kevin spent four seasons with the Redskins from 2000 to 2003 and took part in training camp in 2004.

He broke into the NFL as a second round pick by the San Francisco 49ers in 1994 and played two seasons with the New Orleans Saints before joining the Redskins.

“San Francisco was a bit challenging for him,” Mitchell said. “While he was grateful that they drafted him and that they won the Super Bowl at the end of his rookie year, it was the first time in his entire football career that he wasn’t a starter and played on the second team. This was a humbling experience for him and he struggled a bit accepting it.

“He enjoyed New Orleans and playing under Mike Ditka, who named him the starter for both of the years he played there,” she added.

After playing for two other organizations with two different situations, Mitchell said he thoroughly enjoyed his time in Washington despite the turmoil of the franchise.

“He always said he wanted to retire as a Redskin, and his dream came true,” Mitchell said.

“He really enjoyed playing under Marty [Schottenheimer] and considered him to be one of the fairest coaches he every played for. He was also happy that he was able to survive the numerous head coaching changes year after year in Washington because it allowed him to provide stability for his family.”

His fondest moment in Washington came in 2000 against the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens when he stepped in front of Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe to pick off a Tony Banks pass just before halftime. That throw was destined for the end zone but turned out to be Mitchell’s first career interception.

He played in 61 games as a member of the burgundy and gold and made 96 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and one forced fumble during that time.

Mitchell, who made his mark in the NFL mostly as a special teamer, was a very productive backup linebacker and started 13 games in 2001, ending the season third on the Redskins in tackles.

He was released by Joe Gibbs before the 2004 season but stayed in the area locally for a while helping out former teammate Eddie Mason with his athletic training company. He then worked to get his contractor’s license and help give back to Harrisburg.

Kevin’s successful path in life began there and, to him, it was only right that he put forth the time and effort to make the area better.

“Kevin always credited his high school as the foundation to his successful football career. It was the direction he received while in high school that paved the way to getting a scholarship to Syracuse which set him up to be drafted into the NFL,” Denise said.

“After he retired from the NFL, he became a partner in a home improvement company and was studying to get his contractor’s license at the time that he died. There was a revitalization effort going on in Harrisburg during this time where people were joining forces to reconstruct old/abandoned/damaged portions of the city (particularly in low-income housing areas) so that more people could live in improved conditions. Kevin wanted to use his resources to help ‘rebuild’ his city. We also have plans to set up an annual scholarship in his name to benefit an athlete from his high school,” she said.

His selflessness was not a newfound trait, but rather a characteristic engrained in him his whole life. Being in the public eye as a professional football player, Kevin never turned down the opportunity to make a fan’s day. During training camp and on game days, he relished the chance to flash his signature smile and take a picture or sign autographs for anyone who wanted one.

“Kevin always took time to talk with the fans whenever he could. He saved every letter that he received and did his best to respond to everyone who contacted him. He appreciated his fans because he was once a fan himself before he played football. He knew what it felt like to be in their shoes and so he made the effort to connect with them whenever he could,” Mitchell said.

Little did Denise know how far her husband’s acts of kindness in life would extend after his death.

“Kevin was a homebody and kept to himself when he was playing in the NFL. He kept in contact with people, but in general, he spent most of his down time at home with his children,” she said.

“I knew that he had met a number of people during the course of his life, but I was absolutely astounded by the number of people who came to his funeral to pay their final respects. A large number of people from every chapter of his life came to tell me how much Kevin had touched their lives. I had no idea he impacted the number of people that he did. It truly amazed me.”

At the time of Kevin’s death, Jonathan and Kayla were only four and two years old, respectively, and Alyssa was still months away from being born. They did not have the time to know their dad the way most kids should. To this day they still ask Denise about their daddy, regularly trying to uncover more and more of his personality.

“They always ask me why did God choose him to come home so early,” she said. “They are very interested in his personality and how he would handle situations. They always ask me to tell them stories about when we were all together. All of this points to their struggle in keeping his memory alive since they were so young when he passed.

“My kids pray for Kevin all of the time, which really touches my heart. It is awesome to hear how they ask God to keep him safe and to let him come see them if they do really well in school. They are very interested in hearing about the ways in which they are like him and I often catch them arguing about who is most like him, which is adorable to overhear.”

Now living in Harrisburg, Mitchell and the kids are in close contact with both sides of the family and are doing very well. Having endured a tragedy such as this, it would be easy for anybody to buckle under the pressure of life’s circumstances. But for Denise, three simple words of wisdom have helped her get through the toughest time of her life.

“I think he would be proud of me because I didn’t get stuck,” she said. “I can’t count the number of times I heard him tell me to ‘keep it moving’ when he was alive and even more so now that he is gone. I kept it moving because I know that was what he would have expected of me. He would tell me to do whatever is necessary to keep moving forward and to honor every promise I make to our children.”

Kevin wouldn’t want it any other way.

Edit: This blog was archived in May of 2016 from our original articles database.It was originally posted by Jake Russell

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