Catching Up With ... Lydell Mitchell

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It seemed an ordinary run — a seven-yard burst up the gut, early in a game that the playoff-bound Colts would win easily. But when Lydell Mitchell trotted back to the huddle on that chilly November day in 1977, play stopped and the Memorial Stadium crowd of 50,957 stood and cheered the man who'd just set a new team career rushing record.

It happened 35 years ago this week, a moment stamped in Mitchell's mind. The player whose mark he broke? Hall of Famer Lenny Moore.

"I don't remember anything else about that game except that, at that moment, Lenny came out on the field and presented me with the football," Mitchell said. "He said, 'You deserve this.'

"That was big, man, when you break a legend's record [5,174 yards] — especially since we were both from Penn State."

A second-round draft pick in 1972, Mitchell starred for six years with the Colts and led the club to division championships in each of his last three seasons. The consummate all-purpose back, he rushed for more than 1,100 yards for three successive years and twice led the NFL in pass receptions.

"I didn't miss too many passes," he said. "My philosophy was simple: Since I was going to get hit by those linebackers anyway, I didn't want to get hit for no reason."

Despite the bullseye on his back, he never missed a game, in part because he ran behind the blocks of Colts fullback Roosevelt Leaks.

"He [Leaks] said, 'Follow me,' and that's what I did," Mitchell said. "I couldn't do it by myself. He'd hit anything that moved."

A typical Mitchell outing: 91 yards rushing, plus 8 receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown, all numbers he piled up in a 37-21 victory over the San Diego Chargers in 1976.

More than three decades later, the Ravens boast a running back of a similar ilk.

"I've never met Ray Rice, but he does remind me somewhat of myself," Mitchell said. "He does all of the tough things and, sooner or later, he makes things happen."

Now 63, Mitchell lives in the Reservoir Hill section of the city. Married 27 years and the father of three, he works as head of national sales for Super Bakery, the brainstorm of his college teammate, Franco Harris. The company sells nutritional snack foods to schools, colleges and the military.

For a running back who took part in so many plays, "I came out of football in pretty good shape," Mitchell said. "The game didn't hurt me as much as some other guys I know."

Still the second-leading rusher in Colts franchise history (5,487 yards), Mitchell walks three miles daily, often around Druid Park Lake Drive, stopping to sign autographs when recognized.

"It's nice to be remembered, but I don't get caught up in the past," he said. "I'm proud of what I accomplished, but I don't wear it on my sleeve."

The one thing he'd change: his exit from the Colts. In 1978, after three straight Pro Bowl seasons, Mitchell demanded a hefty pay raise from his $100,000 contract. After months of haggling, a deal was reached. All it needed was an OK from Colts' owner Robert Irsay.

"I remember that my agent and I went to a Chinese restaurant that night to celebrate," Mitchell said. "I opened a fortune cookie that said, 'A change in venue is best for you.'

"When we returned to our hotel, we learned that Irsay had called off the deal."

The next day, the Colts swapped Mitchell, 29, to San Diego for running back Joe Washington.

Mitchell played three more years, then retired. It wasn't the send-off he'd imagined in Baltimore.

"It hurt me to leave here in the prime of my career, and the disrespect I got [from the owner] for all I'd accomplished," he said. "All of a sudden, I wasn't important to them. I never got over that.

"I'd had a vision of playing here for a long time, then coming back before a game, and being introduced, and running through the goal posts before this magnificent crowd. But I was robbed of that.

"Yes, I went to San Diego, which paid me more than I'd asked for with the Colts. But I left my heart in Baltimore."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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