Hitting the books: Football star shares the joy of reading

Malcolm Mitchell sits in front of 67 fifth-graders who’ve assembled in the media center at High Shoals Elementary School in Bishop. The UGA student and football player greets the children on this sunny February day and then asks a question.

“Does anyone know why I’m here today?”

“Because you’re awesome,” someone replies.

Everyone laughs, including Mitchell, and then he gets serious.

“I’m here because I read.”

Mitchell may be as well known for reading as he is for athletics. A top recruit out of Valdosta, the wide receiver posted impressive numbers his first two seasons but was sidelined for a year after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in the 2013 opener. Last fall he was back on the field, and the Bulldog Nation exhaled in relief when he announced that he would return for his senior season.

But Mitchell has gotten just as much attention-if not more-for his off-the-field hobby. In August, UGA’s Athletic Association posted a video about his love of reading and how a chance encounter led to him joining a book club. While perusing bestsellers at Barnes & Noble, Mitchell asked a stranger, Kathy Rackley, for recommendations. In the course of conversation Rackley mentioned that she’d joined a book club, and Mitchell asked if he might be able to join too. Rackley explains her reply in the video.

“I said, ‘Well, I don’t know if you want to join ours. We’re all 40-, 50- and 60-year-old women,'” she remembers. “And he said, ‘I don’t care. I just like to read.'”

So Mitchell joined the book club, becoming fast friends with a group of women who are twice his age-or more. But stepping out of his comfort zone has had benefits, he tells the High Shoals students.

“This is one of the things reading did for me-it brought me to meeting great people, great new people, just like today,” he says.

“I just really want to encourage y’all just to keep reading, because it will make you smarter,” he says. “It’ll make you a better person. And some of you might come to really enjoy it and love it just as I do.”

The 21-year-old didn’t always enjoy reading. As a kid, he spent his time outside playing football and basketball with friends. When he began college he was reading at about a junior high level, he told CBS News, which did a story on him in September. But, he tells the kids, several things convinced him that he needed to step up his reading game.

First, he read a label incorrectly and picked up the wrong item at a grocery store, not realizing it till he got home. Second, the movie buff was having trouble reading captions onscreen before they disappeared. And third, after watching interviews with people who he looked up to, he noticed that many of them said reading helped them to be successful.

“That’s when I picked up my first book and started reading,” he says.

These days, Mitchell has a book in his hand every spare moment. He reads after practice, in between classes and even during commercial breaks when he’s watching “SpongeBob SquarePants.” In addition to books, he reads magazines, journal articles, comics and sometimes newspapers. He prefers fiction to nonfiction, and his favorite genre is mystery. He read the three-book Hunger Games series in two days-one of his proudest accomplishments, he told CBS News.

“[Football] came natural. That’s a gift,” he says in the video package. “I had to work to read.”

With acclaim comes the opportunity to have an impact on others. When the UGA Libraries instituted a “Student Picks” list, Mitchell was asked to make the inaugural pick. He chose The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, a memoir about the author’s unconventional upbringing. He’s set up special email and Twitter accounts to communicate his message about the importance of reading. And when he visits Georgia schools-he receives dozens of invitations-he tries to inspire children to embrace something that’s made a difference in his life.

“When I started reading I started liking it because it helped me have better conversations with people. It helped me be a better person, make better decisions,” he tells the kids. “It helped me be a better football player, to be honest, because the more I began to read the smarter I got. That’s just one of the many things that comes from reading.”

Mitchell is visiting High Shoals Elementary today as a favor to one of the therapists who helped him rehabilitate his knee. The therapist’s child is in the audience, which seems to have an inexhaustible supply of questions.

Was it hard to read the Hunger Games series in two days? (No, because he loved it.) Who is his favorite character on “SpongeBob?” (Patrick Star.) Did he play baseball when he was little? (No, and he calls his mom several times a week to ask why.) Does he like all the traveling he does with the football team? (Yes, he loves going to new places.) What does it feel like to lose a game? (It feels terrible. He goes home and doesn’t want to talk to anybody.)

The kids give Mitchell a book-“The Crossover” by Kwame Alexander, the 2015 Newbery Medal winner-and a recommended reading list. In a few minutes he’ll pose for pictures and then hand each child a UGA backpack as he or she heads back to class. In the backpack is a Read With Malcolm poster, a UGA folder containing stickers, and other assorted swag. But first he’s got to answer a question that’s more difficult.

“Would you rather read or play football for the rest of your life?”

Mitchell pauses.

“If you’d asked me this last year, I probably would have said football,” he says. “But now I will have to put a lot of thought into answering that question. Because reading does so much more for you than football possibly can.”

– Allyson Mann; photos by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA

Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Georgia Magazine