NORMAN, Okla. — Like much of the football world, Joe Mixon has seen the video.
“I made the decision on what I did and I’ve got to live with it,” he said. “At the same time, I can only learn from it.”
In his first interview since declaring for the NFL Draft, Mixon said Sunday afternoon he hopes that violence he perpetrated 2 ½ years ago doesn’t come to define him, that football teams are willing to give him a chance when they gather in Philadelphia for the NFL Draft in April. The 20-year old running back will surely be one of the most intriguing, controversial, polarizing and unpredictable prospects the NFL has seen in recent years. After he was suspended for the entire 2014 season, Mixon emerged as a dominant force in the Sooner backfield, rushing for 1,274 yards and 10 touchdowns last season as a redshirt sophomore.
After deciding to leave school early, he’s forcing NFL teams to study film — of the athletic, quick tailback ducking defenders but also of the angry young man who knocked a woman to the ground — and make difficult decisions. They will listen to what he says now, and weigh it against the horrific video of what he did then.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t really know me,” Mixon said. “People portray me as one guy, as a bad guy. But at the end of the day, everybody who knows me knows that’s not me … I can’t control what other people think. That’s their thoughts and their feelings. I respect them for it, but at the same time, I know that’s not me.”
When 330 of the best football prospects in the country converge on Indianapolis this week for the NFL Scouting Combine, the league’s annual job fair where players are measured, tested and interviewed, Mixon instead will be back in Norman. Because of the assault, he did not receive an invitation to the combine, even though talent evaluators say football-wise, he could be a first- or second-round talent, probably one of the best three to five running backs available.
Instead, Mixon is a question mark — either a high-risk gamble or, as he says, a young man who was forced to grow up quickly. “From 18 to 40 in one night,” he said. Teams have two months to decide which might be closer to the truth.
It’s likely that some won’t even consider Mixon. It’s perhaps more likely that several others would be more than happy to invite him into their locker rooms, particularly if they feel they have veterans or resources in place to help guide young players.
There have been no shortage of NFL teams willing to roll the dice on players who committed crimes in college. Just last year, the Kansas City Chiefs selected Tyreek Hill in the fifth round. Hill had been kicked off the team at Oklahoma State for choking his pregnant girlfriend. Just last month he participated in the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
While many prospects draw red flags from teams every year, Mixon’s case is a different hue. The league is especially sensitive to issues involving violence against women. After video emerged of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice hitting this then-girlfriend in 2014, the league was dealt a major public relations hit and drew heat from domestic violence groups and members of the media. It has taken several measures to address the issue, including barring prospects from the combine who’ve been involved in violent crimes.
While excluding Mixon from this week’s event certainly sent a very visible message, it also means teams will have to work harder to do their due diligence. Many will still try to interview Mixon. They’ll travel to Norman for his Pro Day next week, and he’ll likely be invited to visit team facilities in-person, where personnel executives can decide for themselves whether the assault should disqualify him from a job in the NFL.
Mixon knows that to have any sort of an NFL future, he’ll have to relive his past, recounting the events of July 25, 2014 over and over, until each team has exhausted all of its questions.
“I’m just gonna be totally honest with what happened,” he said. “I never told a lie about anything. At the end of the day, I’m gonna take full responsibility for my actions. I know it wasn’t right. If I could take it back, I will. But at the same time, I can’t go back. It’s what you do from there and that mistake. And as long as you learn from your mistakes, they’ll see improvement.
“Once they sit down and talk to me for a while, I feel like things have changed and they’ll know that’s not me from that night,” he continued. “As long as I know that’s not me from that night, I’m not worried about it. … Once they take the time to know me, they’ll see the guy who I really am.”
‘I know I did a bad thing’
Mixon had just turned 18 one day earlier. The native of Oakley, Calif., was set to begin his freshman year at Oklahoma, and his new Sooner team was about to open its training camp. He and some buddies encountered a student named Amelia Molitor and a friend outside a Norman restaurant called Pickleman’s Gourmet Café.
Molitor later explained to police that the incident started because she rejected the advances of Mixon and his friends. They were “making catcalls at me,” she told police, “like saying — commenting on how I looked and what — it just kind of, like, escalated from there.”
“I mean, it was degrading kind of, in a way, the things that they were saying to me,” she said. “Like I was, like, a piece of meat, and I don’t take kindly to that.”
While Mixon has denied the harassment outside the restaurant, he says he eventually followed Molitor inside and admits to using a homophobic slur. The incident escalated, according to his account to police, when one of Molitor’s friends first uttered a racial slur. “The gay dude … he called me something,” he told investigators. “He was like [expletive]. So then I was like, you got me messed up. And then I called him a [expletive].”
The restaurant’s surveillance video shows Mixon confronting Molitor and her friend. As Mixon turned to walk away, he appeared to say something to Molitor’s friend. That’s when Molitor lunged at him. She slapped the player — “It felt like a dude hit me,” he told police — and he responded by violently punching her in the face with his right fist. She fell to the floor, as he quickly exited the restaurant. The punch broke four bones in her face, including her jaw and cheekbone.
“It was like I got hit by a train,” Molitor said.
Mixon says he’s seen the footage, though he didn’t really need to. “I know I did a bad thing,” he said. “Like I said, if I could take it back, I would. But I can’t do that. Like I said, if I could replay that night, I would go back and do it all differently. I would walk away. Unfortunately, I didn’t and I’ve got to live with the decision that I made.”
Mixon entered a plea on a misdemeanor assault charge that conceded the prosecution could likely prove its case. He was ordered to serve 100 hours of community service and undergo counseling. He avoided jail time but says he’s reminded of the lessons learned every day. That year he was suspended from football, he said his teammates and coaches kept his spirits up, and he received encouragement from NFL stars Marshawn Lynch, a fellow Bay Area product, and Adrian Peterson, a former Sooner tailback.
“Basically, in any moment, any split-second decision you make that’s bad, it could cost you for your career, it could cost you for your life, it could cost you period,” Mixon said. “You never know the people you affect by it. I affected a lot of people.”
School officials largely shielded Mixon from reporters during his time with the Sooners. He says he was eager to tell his story, but lawyers advised against speaking about the incident and Oklahoma officials were weary of him talking publicly at all.
“I wanted to, but at the end of the day, I guess it wasn’t the right timing,” he said. “I used to ask all the time.”
Mixon finally spoke at a news conference in December, where he made a tearful public apology — more than two years after the assault. “It’s never okay to hit a woman,” he said. “Never. I will preach to anybody. It’s never okay.”
Who is ‘the real Joe Mixon’?
Molitor filed a federal lawsuit against Mixon last July and the release of the surveillance footage and police interviews has brought increased attention to the incident in recent months. At the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans last month, fans were chanting at Mixon, “He hits women! He hits women!”
Three days later, he decided to forego his final two years of college eligibility and declare for the draft. He spent 1 ½ months at the Texas training facility run by Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson and the past couple of weeks in Norman, where he’s been prepping for Oklahoma’s Pro Day on March 8.
All 32 teams will likely send coaches, scouts and talent evaluators to Norman, tape measures and stop watches ready. Mixon hopes to post a 4.39-second 40-yard dash time but knows that’s not necessarily what will sway teams.
“I can only control the things I can control,” he said.
Because he’s missing this week’s combine, many teams will likely invite Mixon to their facilities to question him. His agent, Peter Schaffer, says Mixon already has a half-dozen visits scheduled and eventually could make more than a dozen trips to interview with NFL teams.
“I tell everybody, you can come up with whatever reason you want to draft him or not draft him, but he’s gonna play in the NFL,” Schaffer said. “Just get to know him as a person and you’ll realize he made mistake, admitted his mistake, has done everything possible to show it was an isolated incident and he’s not making excuses.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Mixon has plenty of advocates from high school and college. Kevin Hartwig coached him for four years at Freedom High in Oakley, and Mixon can only improve his draft stock by talking openly. “He’s not fake, he doesn’t do PR. He’s just himself,” Hartwig said. “He’s genuine. He is not someone who’s blowing smoke.
“Not to condone what happened,” he continued, “but a half-second decision — a reaction — has sort of defined him for the public. But that’s not who he is.”
Mixon will have to convince teams that’s true, and his performance in interviews will be crucial. That’s where coaches and front-office executives will be looking for evidence, trying to decide whether Mixon has changed, needs to change or is even capable of change. For Mixon’s part, he says he’s received no coaching for these sessions.
“I don’t need anybody to tell me what to say. … They’re gonna hear from my mouth and they’re gonna hear from the heart,” he said.
And when they do ask, he’ll tell them about the night at Pickleman’s Gourmet Café. He’ll tell them about an incident from last season in which he allegedly tore a parking ticket into pieces and threw it at an attendant (which earned him a one-game suspension but no criminal charges). He’ll even tell them about a one-game suspension he faced in high school when he got caught up in an on-field tussle with a player from an opposing team.
“They’re going to ask me questions and I’m going to answer them straight up,” he said.
Mixon hopes they’ll get to know him through the process, how his mother raised three boys and three girls, how he’s grown in three years in Norman, what he’s learned about defenses from playing Madden on Xbox, how he’s hosting a football clinic back in Oakley this spring for children.
He realizes that NFL teams know the headlines; he wants to tell them everything else.
“I’m just trying to let them get to know the real Joe Mixon. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing the past 2 1/2 -3 years,” he said. “Like I said, each and every day, you’ve got to improve as a man and as a person in life. If you’re not, you’re just going back, regressing.”