Kalamazoo — When Derrick Mitchell first started hanging around the Western Michigan football offices and hallways last year, he’d get his fair share of odd looks.
“This guy is really old,” Mitchell said, with a laugh.
The glances might have died down, but they’ve been replaced by nicknames.
“Gramps definitely is the popular one,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell is pushing 30, and is closer in age to coach P.J. Fleck, 35, than his Broncos teammates.
But there isn’t much that is conventional about Western Michigan these days, including its 11-0 record it takes into today’s regular-season finale against Toledo at Waldo Stadium.
“It’s crazy, but that’s a little bit about what our program’s always kind of been about,” Fleck said. “It’s very different ... it’s a little bit out there.
“But it’s real.”
Mitchell, 29, having already had a 10-year professional sports career, is a kicker-punter for Western Michigan.
He’s a sophomore, sharing housing with a teenager, Butch Hampton, a true freshman from Oklahoma who’s also a kicker.
“It’s no big deal,” assistant and special teams coordinator Rob Wenger said. “He’s a professional athlete playing an amateur sport. He wants to be really, really great. He’s one of those guys, ‘It doesn’t matter how old I am.’”
Wenger is 30, about six months older than Mitchell.
Mitchell grew up in Paw Paw, exit 60 along I-94, just west of Western Michigan’s campus. He was a punter in high school, and had plans to continue in college.
But baseball was a first love, so any college would have had to have the baseball coach allowing him to moonlight in football.
Michigan State seemed like that in college when Mitchell graduated in 2005. But then-baseball coach Ted Mahan was about to be let go.
“I wanted to stay close to home so family could come watch,” Mitchell said. “But the coach that signed me at Michigan State go fired that year.
“That made it a little bit easier once I got drafted.”
In 2005, the Phillies made him a 23rd-round pick.
But, 23rd-round picks don’t get huge bonuses or salaries, and are a long shot to make the majors.
But Mitchell didn’t care. He signed and off he went.
He started as a second baseman and shortstop, and spent his first six seasons rising from rookie ball to low A to high A before he reached Double A in 2011.
By then, he was an outfielder, and had his best season offensively with 19 home runs, 79 RBIs and a .769 OPS. In 2012, he was at Triple A, playing for Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg, and was on the short list of callups should the Phillies needed another outfielder.
Then came a doubleheader in early June against Pawtucket. Mitchell had eight RBIs, including a grand slam to win Game 1.
The next day, Pawtucket decided to pitch Mitchell inside, and on a check swing, he got drilled on his right hand.
His throwing hand was broken in a couple places, and he was out until the final week of the season.
The next year out of camp, he was assigned to Double A, and Mitchell had been around long enough to knew what that meant.
“From there, I never really got as many shots,” Mitchell said. “As a 23rd-round draft pick, you only get so many chances and everything’s gotta kind of fall into place unless you put up really good numbers. I did well, but my batting average was never really consistently there.”
Mitchell started at Double A in 2013 and briefly got back to Triple A before his time with the Phillies was up.
He signed with the Braves in 2014, and split that season between Double A and Triple A. In 2015, there were some Independent League teams interested, but Mitchell decided, enough was enough.
“No regrets,” Mitchell said. “I saw a lot of guys in my career come and go. I think the one thing, as a 23rd-round draft pick, it’s kind of like how we talk in football — as a 23rd-rounder, you have to find a way every day to come to the field and open someone else’s eyes up.
“Coming here and hearing the coaches talk ‘Row the Boat,’ it’s just all related.
“Row the Boat,” Fleck’s mantra, is about looking forward. So when Mitchell decided he’d had his fill of baseball, he knew he wanted to go back to school to get his degree — business and finance.
He settled on Western Michigan because it was close to home.
He also knew he had eligibility left — in football — so he decided to attend an open tryout last season.
Kicks and counsels
Mitchell tried out at quarterback, but at the end of the session he mentioned he also kicked in high school.
And here he is.
Last year, Mitchell tied the program record with 36 touchbacks on 87 kickoffs.
This year, he’s split kickoff and punting duties; his punting style is rugby-like. He also holds on field goals.
Mitchell also plays another role — mentor.
He’s been around the world, seen a lot, had to overcome a lot, and freely shares his experiences and counsel with his younger teammates.
“I think that’s one thing that probably doesn’t get talked about or brought up enough,” Wenger said. “He brings a certain perspective to the group that really has helped some of our younger guys. The room has been his. It’s his group. You can kind of see that.
“He’s got no problem letting the guys know what’s going on. He does a great job of keeping the guys in the right frame of mind.”
That, of course, leads to questions about Mitchell’s future — specifically, whether he sees himself coaching down the road.
He’s not sure. But he knows he’s not looking forward to a full-time desk job.
But that’s a discussion for another day.
Today, Western Michigan can secure its first perfect season.
And that’s Mitchell’s sole focus.
He’s not living in the past, even if he can’t always escape the reminders he’s not exactly young anymore.
“I get laughed at walking down the hallway, kind of get that look,” said Mitchell, laughing. “Look, I know I’m old! It all works out.”
Toledo at Western Michigan
Kickoff: Friday, 5 p.m. Waldo Stadium, Kalamazoo
Records: Toledo 9-2 (6-1 MAC), 14 Western Michigan 11-0 (7-0)
Line: Western Michigan by 8