Great Read

It's his place to keep Oregon's offense on pace

Kwame Mitchell's fast work on Oregon's sideline keeps Ducks on move; 'We love that guy,' a player says

The running back gives a little wiggle, then lowers his shoulder to break free and scamper downfield. A roar fills the stadium as the remaining defender gives chase.

It is a footrace, a test of speed and will, man against man. But the players are not alone.

On the sideline, a guy in a T-shirt and shorts is matching them stride for stride, his head cocked slightly back, his hair standing tall in a classic flat-top Afro.

Kwame Mitchell is so close to the action that when the defender finally knocks the ballcarrier out of bounds just short of the end zone, he must skip out of the way.

"I need to be right there," he says.

If you watch college football's championship game on Monday night — Oregon will face Ohio State for the title — you might spot Mitchell sprinting up and down the Ducks sideline.

The 24-year-old Oregon student will keep his sneakers tightly laced. He will wear receiver's gloves for a sure grip on the ball that is always in his hands.

For three-plus hours, his love of the sport will impel him to run every bit as hard as the players on the field.

"You feel like you're part of the team," he says, pausing before adding: "Which I am."

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During the course of a game, each team uses its own footballs, handpicked by the quarterback.

Whenever a runner or receiver crashes out of bounds, or an incomplete pass sails out of play, the ball must be retrieved. If that cannot be done quickly enough, a replacement is handed to the officials for the next snap.

That's where the ball boys come in.

At Oregon, they work as a foursome. Two stand at the line of scrimmage on either side of the field and two more stand 15 yards downfield to corral long, wayward passes.

This duty is particularly important for the Ducks, who try to confuse and wear down opponents by running plays in rapid succession without a huddle. They want a new ball in place within seconds.

Mitchell feels the pressure if only because he works his team's sideline, right in front of coaches and players.

"We're all about tempo," he said. "If you're late getting the ball in, people look at you like, 'Hurry up.'"

As he races around, that prominent hair — bleached blond along one edge — shows up in television shots and newspaper photographs.

Like many teams, the Ducks enlist students from campus for this work. Mitchell had to compete for the spot in tryouts.

"We love that guy," center Hroniss Grasu said. "He's a big part of what we do."

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Before the Ducks reached the title game, they needed to defeat Florida State in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. On that day, Mitchell faced a showdown of his own.

The Seminoles have a ball boy named Frankie Grizzle-Malgrat — nicknamed "Red Lightning" — who is conspicuous with his bushy red beard.

The Internet has transformed Grizzle-Malgrat into a folk hero by way of highlight clips.

Last season, television caught him shoving a rival linebacker aside to reach a ball on the sideline. This season, when Seminoles players got into a shoving match with Oklahoma State, the 5-foot-7 ball boy waded into the scrum, a bright red dot bobbing in a sea of helmets and shoulder pads.

"He takes it to a whole different level," Seminoles running back Karlos Williams said. "That gets us pumped up."

Florida State officials declined to make Grizzle-Malgrat available for an interview.

Mitchell had seen enough of Red Lightning on the Web to recognize admirable speed to the ball. The other stuff — the physical contact — did not impress him as much.

"I tend not to stir up any conflict," he said. "Unless someone's hurting my player, I'm not going to push them."

Mitchell seems a bit uncomfortable in the spotlight. Yet he smiled at the suggestion that he and his counterpart have drawn attention to their job.

"Who are we? Just some guys on the sideline," he said. "But we feel like we're making a difference."

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Four years ago when he arrived in Eugene, Ore., from his hometown of San Jose, Mitchell planned to study environmental science and maybe join a fraternity. A few Saturday afternoons at Autzen Stadium — one of the loudest venues in college football — gave him another idea.

"This is exciting," he remembered thinking. "I wonder what would it be like on the field."

Calling the team's office, he learned about student manager tryouts. It didn't seem like a big deal; it would involve helping with spring practice. He figured that his days of high school basketball had him in good enough shape to handle the job.

But the fast-paced scrimmages took him by surprise. During games, the Ducks run a play every 20 seconds or so, nearly 10 seconds quicker than more traditional offenses. Practices can be especially harrying for student managers because, with no officiating crew, they must shag and place the ball each time.

"We bust our tails," Mitchell said. "It's exhausting."

His speed and determination won him a coveted spot as a ball boy and the equivalent of an in-state scholarship, which all the student managers receive. It ultimately landed him on the field at this year's Rose Bowl.

Midway through the first quarter, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota lofted a pass downfield. Mitchell waited for the ball to leave Mariota's hand, then shuffled a step or two, scanning the secondary.

Three years on the job have taught him to anticipate completed passes. Spotting an open receiver, he broke into a sprint, racing 19 yards to where Evan Baylis came down with the ball.

Two plays later, a 15-yard throw to the sideline had him scrambling again, handing the official a ball seconds after the tackle. "You look bad if you don't give it to him right away," Mitchell said.

There was no time to rest. The Ducks followed with another pass, then an option for 16 yards. Two more plays got them to the end zone as the ball boy thrust his hands into the air.

It was the start of a long day.

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By game's end, the Ducks had amassed 639 yards of offense and set a Rose Bowl record for scoring in a 59-20 victory.

Mitchell kept pace every step of the way — staying nearby when his team was on defense too — which equated to roughly half a mile of skipping, darting and dashing over the course of four hours.

"I wasn't too tired," he said. "All of us were fired up about winning."

After the game, he helped the locker room attendants collect soiled jerseys and pants. Then he caught a flight back to Eugene and started classes.

Mitchell is on track to graduate this spring. Monday could be his last game with the Ducks, the last time he runs the field with one of the fastest offenses in the country. He says: "I'm pumped."

His arms will swing and his legs will churn as he scoots along the sideline at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

The ball boy doesn't want to slow his team down.

"There won't be any fooling around," he says. "Just the refs, the game and me."

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesWharton

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