HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Hard work pays off in the long run, even if that distance covers only 105 feet.
Marshall redshirt junior Derek Mitchell has taken a difficult road to fulfill his dream of playing Division I football, but the 2009 Point Pleasant graduate gained the memory of a lifetime last Saturday after picking up a blocked punt and returning it 35 yards to paydirt in a 51-41 setback at Pudue University.
Mitchell — who came into the Thundering Herd’s program as a walk-on in the fall of 2009 — was a first-team All-Cardinal Conference selection as a senior running back at PPHS and was also the 189-pound Class AA-A state champion in wrestling in 2009.
After years of hard work just to get on the field, Mitchell just happened to be the right man in the right place at the right time Saturday in West Lafayette, Indiana. Mitchell had the blocked punt fall right into his arms at the Purdue 35-yard line with 6:09 left in the third quarter — and the former Big Black took care of the rest.
“Honestly, I was surprised when the ball came to me. We executed the block, the ball fell right into my hands and I just took off toward the end zone,” Mitchell said. “When I scored, I found myself holding back emotions in the end zone to make sure that I didn’t get an excessive celebration penalty.
“Then I saw a flag on the sideline next to Coach (Doc) Holliday, who was bleeding on the ground. Luckily, everything got straightened out and the referees penalized us on the ensuing kickoff. They didn’t take my touchdown away, so obviously this ends up being a pretty special moment for me — especially when it was at a great venue like Purdue.”
Holliday — who was chasing the play on the sideline — was run over by an official after the MU coach stepped onto the field as the play developed. Holliday needed seven stitches to close the gash on his right cheek, and he was also flagged for delay of game.
The penalty, however, didn’t negate Mitchell’s scoring dash — which allowed the Herd to pull within 42-28 at the time.
Holliday also has a distant connection with the Mitchell family, as Derek’s dad — Darrell — was a tight end for West Virginia University when both Holliday and former ‘Eers head coach Don Nehlen were in Morgantown.
Derek — who originally joined Marshall under former coach Mark Snyder — says his father was probably happier about the touchdown run than he was. And as Derek notes, he was pretty happy for what he had just accomplished as a defensive player.
“Dad told me during my first freshman camp that if I ever got the chance to get the ball in your hands, try to take advantage of it and score,” the younger Mitchell said. “Dad told me that he played an offensive position and never scored. He caught passes and gained some yards, but he never once scored a touchdown.
“As proud as this touchdown made me, I’d say it meant even more to my parents, my family and my friends.”
Mitchell also commented that it didn’t take long for his hometown to join in on the excitement.
“After the game, I was down because we lost — even though I did score,” Mitchell said. “I turned my phone on when we got on the bus to leave, and I had over 40 text messages from people in Point Pleasant saying good job and congratulations and how proud they were.
“In seeing those texts, I just remember how proud I felt to be from a caring community like Point Pleasant. Those people have made such an impact on my life over the years, and I really appreciate their support. It meant and still means a lot to me.”
Although Mitchell wasn’t extended a scholarship offer to come to Marshall when he graduated from Point Pleasant, he says that never once did he ever consider not pursuing this dream. Now, with six points in hand for the family, he finally feels as though he’s reached a light at the end of one tunnel.
He also knows that he has another year and a half to make the most of this opportunity, which is something that he plans to do. After all, if you can dream — you can do it.
“I started as a walk-on, so I just wanted to do whatever it took to make the team and become a better football player,” Mitchell said. “I always wanted to score a touchdown at the collegiate level, but I never thought I’d have the chance playing defense or special teams.
“This absolutely feels like a reward for all the hard work and sacrifices I’ve made over the years to get where I am. It also shows that anyone can achieve their dreams if they are willing to work hard enough for it.”
Derek — who majors in exercise physiology — is the son of Darrell and Debbie Mitchell of Point Pleasant, W.Va.