How appropriate, the man who plays like a wild beast, marked his territory on the first day of Toronto Argonauts training camp with one innocuous comment.
"The kissing guy is gone," declared new defensive lineman Khalif Mitchell, the reference aimed at the recently retired DL, Adriano Belli. And with that said, laid claim to 1x10 yard patch of precious Toronto real estate, his new home along the Argos line of scrimmage.
There is no doubt in my mind that Mitchell, between the lines, will dominate his position in his new home. But determining the success and value of a football player comes with many qualifiers. Some tangible, others more abstract. Sure, tackles, sacks, knock-downs are the numbers most rely on. But rarely do they tell the whole story, especially within the context of a "team."
Those are the metrics that get you a bonus and All-Star votes but do little to hold you in high esteem within the locker room. Trust me, I've played with guys that were all about "the numbers" and put up impressive stats. Some were "team" guys, others were "me" guys. Guess which ones didn't last because they couldn't gain the trust of their teammates?
Numbers don't lie, but they also don't reveal the whole story. In the context of team unity and a healthy locker room, "numbers" won't go out for beers, won't laugh with you on the road, won't come to your rescue during a bar fight and won't comfort you during a family crisis. Statistics are only good during contract talks. Teammates last a life time.
Finding out what's meaningful, what's lasting, what's important to a player over the course of a football career, will go a long way in determining a player's longevity.
Mitchell, I'm sure will get his numbers. He's that good a player. But numbers are never a good indicator of team strife or team unity in a locker room. Both important intangibles with the power to tear a team apart or bring you a championship. That is something Argos coaches will survey as the season progresses. History has proven both general manager Jim Barker and head coach Scott Milanovich are fearless when it comes to excising a cancer from the locker room before it has a chance to metastasize.
Argos brass are gambling Mitchell can be the "lynch-pin" of a stingy Chris Jones defence. The reference more a product of the system, that demands control of the line of scrimmage, rather than Mitchell's ability to be a one-man wrecking crew. But make no mistake, there is validity in both.
I like Khalif Mitchell. There, I said it. For a former O-lineman, no easy task writing those words about defensive linemen. Especially one that has shown a propensity to assault, embarrass, and threaten my fellow O-line brethren. But retirement has a way of softening my biased opinion concerning "low IQ, dirty, knuckle-dragging, cheap shoting" defensive linemen. As a matter of fact, some of the best guys I know are former D-lineman I've done battle with. Ed Phillion, Tyrone Rogers, Johnny Scott, Adriano Belli, Joe Flemming, Steve Charbonneau. That realization however, almost never crystalizes on the field.
In the heat of battle, with your opponents hand on your throat or up in your face mask, (in Adriano's case, around my...well you get the idea), making friends is the last thing on your mind. Planning your retribution for the next play seems more a priority than exchanging contact info. It wasn't until after the game, over beers, in what I describe as "a warriors post game celebration" did you bond with a guy you just brawled with for 60 minutes. You toast your opponent, whether vanquished or victorious, and realize, IQ aside, you really do have a lot in common with your line of scrimmage nemesis. It's that glimpse into your opponent that helps you understand what an asset they are in the locker room, in the huddle and in the community.
Mitchell comes with "baggage." But he also comes with a clean slate and a new opportunity. What he does with it and how he chooses what's meaningful, what's lasting, what's important, will determine his success in Toronto and perhaps beyond. Like Argos fans, optimistic for a Grey Cup re-peat, I'm hoping he chooses wisely.
Sandy Annunziata is a two-time Grey Cup champion who battled in the trenches along CFL offensive-lines for 11 seasons. Hard hitting and thought provoking, he takes you beyond the field and inside the locker room as he delivers a candid view of the game, the health of the league, the business of sport and the sometimes fragile psyche of pro athletes.