When Steve Mitchell left Washington in 1977 for the University of Indiana campus, he had high hopes and great expectations -- with good reason.
After all, a brilliant senior season at Dunbar High School had people tabbing him as the best quarterback ever to throw a pass in the Interhigh League in the District.
In 1977, he was the area's Player of the Year for offense. Mitchell had earned All-Met honors for completing 123 of 199 passes for 1.502 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Mitchell's performances were so impressive that scouts from Ohio State, Kansas State and the University of Maryland wanted him for their teams.
He decided to attend Indiana because it was a member of the popular Big 10 conference and there was a chance he could succeed as the offensive ingredient the school needed to compete with perennial front-runners Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
But Mitchell, 20, was soon to find that those high hopes and expectations would turn to confusion and disappointment.
"I was told by the coaches when they recruited me that I would start out as third-team quarterback and would be starting before the season ended," remembers Mitchell.
"In fact, I did start out as third-team QB, but before the opening game things started to change. For no reason, I was suddenly dropped to fourth string. Before long I was relegated to just standing on the sidelines doing nothing."
It was then that Mitchell says things started becoming clearer to him. He believed race was a factor. "They were dogging blacks on the team.Many of them sat passively by and never protested.
"I went along with the program for a while, but it became apparent to me that I had to say something because there was no way that I was going to go through this for four years."
So Mitchell complained to coach Lee Corso that he wasn't getting to play. Corso offered Mitchell a temporary solution.
He told him he could switch to wide receiver for the rest of the season so he could make the traveling squad and get playing time. He also assured Mitchell that the quarterback position would be his the next year.
Because of that assurance and the fact that he was at least playing, Mitchell said he never complained when the coaches substituted a white player for him when passing downs and when his teammates avoided throwing to him.
After the season, Mitchell worked hard to sharpen his passing skills in hopes of assuming the starting quarterback position the next season. "Working on being receiver never entered my mind. I was thinking quarterback all the way," he said.
But, he said, "As soon as I came out for spring practice, one of the defensive backs told me I had been switched to defensive back. I told him he was crazy. I said if that was the case I was going to pack my bags and leave."
The coaches, however, confirmed the tip. "The coach told me that I had in fact been changed to another position. He told me that they needed athletes and that I was capable of playing free safety because of my athletic ability.
"He offered me a choice: Play quarterback and be fourth string or switch to defensive back and start at safety."
Instead of carrying out his threat of leaving, Mitchell decided to stay because he felt he owed it to those who had supported him.
Mitchell admits that accepting the decision was not easy for him. "I was really hurt at first. I once even shed some tears. I went through a period of deep depression. I can remember them having me run back punts, but I was so distracted that I dropped punts all the time."
It became a transition period for Mitchell, and after carefully weighing the pluses and minuses, he made the adjustment.
"I remembered that my mother said you should try to be the best at whatever you do in life," said Mitchell.
Mitchell started the first three games last season as a sophomore. Then he was benched for what he concedes were a couple of poor performances. He later regained his starting position and once earned the distinction of Big 10 Player of the Week.
The Hoosiers last year earned a bowl bid for the first time in 12 years, accepting an offer to play in the Holiday Bowl against nationally ranked Brigham Young. Mitchell made a significant contribution to Indiana's victory in that game.
Trent Walters, defensive backfield coach and the man who recruited Mitchell for Indiana, sees him as an up-and-coming star in the Big 10. "Mitch is without a doubt one of the top defensive backs in the conference," Walters declares.
Although Walters says he can see why Mitchell felt race was a factor in the playing assignments, he denies it was. "I can understand why he felt that way," Walters says. "Many players who are not getting playing time feel just as he did. They try to rationalize by using race or anything convenient as a reason.
We had to decide on whether to wait on him as a quarterback or try to utilize his athletic skills as a defensive back right away," Walters adds. "He has made great strides. He is much stronger and quicker and he reads and moves to the ball much better.
"The one area where we were most concerned was tackling. He even showed signs of improvement there when he made Midwest Player of the Week against Iowa when he made 15 unassisted tackles."
With the days of uncertainty and despair behind him, Mitchell is now a study in confidence and maturity.
"Now that I look back on those times, I can honestly say they benefited me," reflected Mitchell with a convincing look. "If nothing else it has made me a man. It has taught me how to cope."
A favorite topic among many followers of area high school athletes is how many stars have trouble adjusting academically, socially and culturally to predominately white institutions. Mitchell offers this advice to black athletes.
"No matter how much talent you possess, it means nothing if you aren't prepared academically," he said.
Mitchell is a pioneer of sorts. He is the first football player from the area recruited by the University of Indiana. His success with the institution has prompted the school to do more recruiting here. When three area players recently visited the campus, Mitchell was selected to show them around.
"After the things that happened to me when I first came there, I never expected to be doing something like that," Mitchell says. "It just goes to show that if you stick things out, they'll eventually pay off."