After 31 seasons, during which time he had been a part of so much, Danny Mitchell felt ready. Ready for retirement, ready for a life without football. And ready, finally, to part ways with his home away from home … otherwise known as Hampton High School.
But a funny thing happened. The season began rolling, the kids energized him, and Mitchell is a new man. And retirement? Well, it's not like he had pulled a
and played games with everyone.
"This year has revitalized me," Mitchell said. "I've lost probably 55 or 60 pounds. Being retired I can get to the gym and do a lot of walking on the treadmill. I really feel good now, and I want to come back next year. If they'll have me, I want to come back.
"Really, I don't know what I'd do without it. I don't know what any of us would do if Friday night came and we didn't have a football game to go to. If we didn't a Hampton football game, that would be a lonely Friday to me."
Mitchell is now in his 32
season an assistant coach with the Crabbers, which is longer than a lot of marriages last. (Not his own, he's happy to report). Before that, he was a center and defensive lineman in 1969 and '70, when Hampton went 20-1 and won a state championship.
But the Mitchell family's association with Crabber football didn't begin with him. His father, Hotie, played for Suey Eason on the 1948 state championship team. And his grandfather, also known as Hotie, was a trainer in those days.
"He's got history further back than I do with this school," said
, Hampton's head coach since 1971. "There's no doubt he's a Crabber."
None. His wife of 36 years, Sindi, reports that it goes down to his choice of clothing.
"I can't remember the last time I saw him wear something other than red or black," she said. "Well, I take that back. Our son (Matthew) is at Averett now, so he wears some shirts that are blue and gold, which kills his soul."
Wait … blue and gold, as in Phoebus colors?
"Oh, no," she said. "The blue is more navy, and the gold is more yellow."
Since joining Smith's staff in 1979, Mitchell has been a part of 346 wins and 10 state championships. He and Alvis Mann, who came aboard in 1975 and retired in 2008, were the cornerstones of the Hampton coaching staff. Along with Smith, of course.
Mitchell never set out to be a coach, but after college he was playing minor league baseball and looking for direction. Kecoughtan's coach at the time was
, who had coached Mitchell in junior high. He asked Mitchell to take over the junior varsity.
"That's how it all got started," he said. "After three years, I came over here. Been here ever since."
Mitchell remembers his first practice as a coach on Queen Street.
"I kept thinking we're gonna have a meeting, we're gonna have a meeting," he said. "Well, we never had one. The whistle blew and I asked (Smith), 'Coach, what do you want me to do?' He said, 'I want you to coach them.'
"That's one of the good things about Mike. He allows you to coach. He lets us do our job."
And they do it. There's no offensive or defensive coordinator. There are areas of responsibility, and Mitchell's has been the offensive and defensive lines. But if another coach has some advice he'd like to share with the linemen, Mitchell doesn't get territorial. The same goes if he has something to say to the receivers or kickers.
Of course, Mitchell has had his chances to leave. Since his first season as an assistant, there have been more than 40 coaching changes in the Peninsula District. As one of the most respected assistants around, naturally Mitchell drew some interest.
"There were chances to leave, and a couple of them I seriously thought about it," he said. "But other than my dad, Coach is probably my biggest mentor. It would have been like leaving the family. It was nice to hear your name called and it was flattering. I just thought it would be better to stay here.
"I'm the child who never left home. I've lived on Queen Street all my life except when I was away from school. I've never wanted to leave."
Sindi knew he never would.
"I saw him agonize over it," she said. "But he would always say, 'I'm happy here. Why would I leave?'"
He did have a chance to run things. In the 2003 Eastern Region Division 5 semifinals, Smith underwent emergency gall bladder surgery two days before the game. Mitchell handled the head coaching duties, and the Crabbers lost 24-20.
A year earlier, Smith had announced his intentions to retire. He changed his mind less than two months later, so no replacement was ever named. But Smith had recommended Mitchell or Mann.
"I'm glad it worked out that way," Mitchell said. "My son wanted to play for Mike as badly as I wanted to coach with him."
Coaching Matthew, a place-kicker and the Crabbers' starting quarterback in 2007, was maybe Mitchell's greatest moment. The family has always been a part of it. Sindi has missed only one game in her husband's 32 years, but she had a good excuse. She had given birth to their oldest son, Danny Jr., the day before.
They're Crabbers through and through.
"Most definitely," Mitchell said. "I love this place. It's more than just a school to us, it's family here. People have a hard time understanding that, but I've been a lot of places and done a lot of things. This is where I belong."
HIGH SCHOOL: Hampton High, '71
COLLEGE: Concord College, '75
FAMILY: Wife, Sindi. Children Brooke, 34; Danny Jr., 25; Matthew, 20.