By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 23, 2007
The last day of Kevin Mitchell's life was a Sunday, a day he and his wife Denise called family day, a lazy day to mostly hang around the house and play with the kids, 4-year-old Jonathan and 2-year-old Kayla. Denise took the children to a birthday party, Kevin worked out and got a haircut. The family ate dinner together and played outside, and Kevin insisted on reading the kids their bedtime stories and tucking them in.
Then Kevin and Denise sat and talked for a while, about the Memorial Day family reunion planned for their home in Ashburn and Kevin's long-term goal of returning to Harrisburg, Pa., to participate in the revitalization of his home town. This would be hands-on work; Kevin had gone into business with a local contractor and thought he'd found his next calling, something to be as passionate about as he'd been about football over a 10-year NFL career as a linebacker that concluded with four seasons with the Washington Redskins. The Mitchells drifted off to sleep with happy, hopeful thoughts.
"It was a great day," Denise Mitchell said.
Kevin died in his sleep in the early morning hours of April 30 of what a preliminary autopsy determined to be a heart attack. He was 36. Denise Mitchell woke, saw her husband in distress, and called paramedics, who could not revive him.
Preliminary autopsy results show that sleep apnea or hypertension may have been contributing factors in his death, Denise Mitchell said as she sat in an Ashburn coffee shop last week. She is anxiously awaiting the state medical examiner's final report to see what health implications there might be for her children. She said she thinks Kevin's father suffered a heart attack and died relatively young, perhaps in his 50s, but doesn't know the details because Kevin and he were estranged.
There had been no previous incidents or medical clues, she said. Kevin had gained some weight since his playing days, but she said it was a natural weight for him because he'd always had to work to shed 10 to 15 pounds before training camp to get down to his playing weight, listed as 258 pounds in the Redskins' 2004 media guide.
"He was in good shape," Denise Mitchell said. "It's a mystery, so we're anxious to see what the actual underlying cause was to his heart attack."
Bubba Tyer, the Redskins' director of sports medicine and former athletic trainer, said that he and a team physician went back over Mitchell's medical records and found no indication of anything that would have been a warning signal.
"It was terribly shocking," Tyer said. "It was a shock to everybody. We'd seen him a few weeks before. He lived a mile-and-a-half from the [Redskins] Park. We feel so bad about it. He was one of the good guys."
Mitchell's sudden death left many similarly shaken.
"He was just a good dude," said Redskins linebacker Lemar Marshall, a teammate of Mitchell's for two full seasons and parts of two others. "He was a friendly guy, a great family man. He loved his wife, loved his kids. I went to his funeral, and it was just such a sad experience. I talked to him about a month before his passing, and he was in good spirits. It was just very unfortunate, very shocking."
Said former Redskins linebacker Eddie Mason, a close friend: "You hear about things like that. You read about it. But you never expect it to happen to someone you know. It was devastating. I'm still recovering from it."
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The news has been filled lately with the trials, both physical and emotional, of former NFL players, and with stories of their friends and family members blaming the sport for leaving the players' lives and bodies broken. Marshall and Mason also were teammates of former Redskins wide receiver Justin Skaggs, who died last week at 28 after a brain tumor was diagnosed. Neither death has been linked to football-related injuries, but Marshall said he nonetheless has spent time reflecting on the possible long-term medical ramifications of playing the sport for a living.
"I've been playing football since I was 6 years old," Marshall said. "It does take its toll on you. I'm 30 years old, but I might have the body of a 45-year-old. It's something that everyone in the league could maybe take a closer look at and work on."
Mason, who now runs an athletic training business in which Mitchell once helped out, said he's certain that the game exacted a price on his health but has no regrets about playing it.
"I tell guys who are still playing, guys who are living the dream, 'There's nothing wrong with dreaming, but there are consequences to everything we do in life,' " Mason said. "I do believe there's some effect on the human body. How can there not be? It's not created to bang around like that. I've got aches and pains of my own. But would I do it again? Yeah, I would. I love the game.
"And I don't think about that when it comes to Kevin. He'd just lost about 20 pounds. He looked like he was ready to go play, to me. I believe it was just his time."
Denise Mitchell said that she, at least for now, doesn't see any connection between her husband's football career and his death at such a young age. His football injuries had been knee and shoulder ailments. He'd gotten to play the 10 seasons in the league that he'd prayed for, and he'd walked away.
"I just really miss him," she said. "You know, we were the perfect family. We'd just come off a period where it was really just the four of us. He took a lot of time off to spend with us. We had just gotten to the point where we had figured out what our life was going to look like after football, gotten through the transition period, which often can be challenging for someone who'd been in the league for so long.
"It was all set up. He was my best friend, my soulmate, my partner, my husband, the father of my children. I just miss his presence. That's been the hardest part, just not having him physically here with me. But I hear him every day telling me: 'You better keep moving or I'm going to kick that butt. Let's go.' You have to keep going. You have to keep moving."
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Denise, who is from Hershey, Pa., met Kevin in college at Syracuse when a mutual friend introduced them because both needed rides home from school. Kevin was a second-round draft pick by the 49ers in 1994 and played four seasons in San Francisco. Denise didn't follow Kevin to the West Coast; she had a year left at Syracuse and took a public relations job near Philadelphia, not wanting to give up her career too soon and anger her father, a physician, just after he'd paid for her education.
When Kevin signed with the Saints in 1998, Denise joined him in New Orleans and worked for the Tulane Cancer Center. When he signed with the Redskins in 2000, she joined him in the D.C. area and they married. Denise stopped working to first get her master's degree and then start a family, although she kept her hand in business by doing administrative work for the foundation that her father ran in his native Haiti.
Mitchell joined the Redskins as a less-celebrated member of a free agent class that included defensive end Bruce Smith, cornerback Deion Sanders, safety Mark Carrier and quarterback Jeff George and ended up being, arguably, a better addition than any of them. He was a blue-collar player who contributed on special teams and did what he was asked. He was well liked by his teammates and coaches. He was a starter for the Redskins at middle linebacker in the 2001 season but was a backup for most of his career. He was released by the Redskins in the summer of 2004 on the day that his family moved into its new house in Ashburn.
He spent the rest of that year and 2005 at home with his family, being with Denise and the children and trying to figure out what was next. He and Denise began talking about having a third child; Denise pushed for it, and in recent months he'd agreed to try. He worked with Mason even though Mason couldn't afford to pay him. Last fall, Mitchell got involved with Premier Home Services, a Leesburg-based remodeling and home improvement company.
"He was always tinkering around the house," Mason said. "I used to call him Bob Vila Junior. He knew what direction he was going in. He was in a good place physically. He was in a good place spiritually. He had goals. He had plans. He had stuff in order."
Since her husband's death, Denise Mitchell said she's heard from people she and Kevin hadn't seen in 15 or 20 years, people who went to elementary school with Kevin. She has been overwhelmed by the support, she said.
She allowed herself time to grieve, to feel down and sometimes angry, but she decided it was time to pull herself together for her children. She's 33, and she resolved that she didn't want to spend the rest of her life miserable.
She is putting together scrapbooks of her husband's life for her children. That's one of the positives of Kevin's football life; his whole career is documented in newsprint and pictures. Still, she's also protecting her family's privacy. She declined for her or her children to be photographed for this story, but provided the photo of Kevin that the family chose for his memorial service. She's just beginning to look into the financial implications of her husband's death, she said. At some point, she said, she probably will move back to Pennsylvania to be near her and Kevin's families.
Kevin Mitchell was buried in Harrisburg. On the day after the funeral, just after Denise got home, she found out that she was pregnant. She tells the story with a wide smile: She feels like she's been given one more piece of her husband to keep.
The baby is due in January.
"The day after his funeral was probably the lowest point for me, with everything being done, completed," she said. "I kind of had an idea that it could be the case, that I could be pregnant. It was a good time to wait because I got back and everything was done and quiet. I was really upset. I found out I was pregnant, and it just made me like the happiest person on earth. I was running through the house like a little kid, screaming.
"It's a blessing for me because this is the hardest thing I have ever had to deal with. It's keeping me in the moment. It's forcing me to eat and take care of myself. . . . I really believe it's part of what was given to me to help me get through this."