Steven Mitchell Jr. has been playing this season with a cardinal-and-gold patch on the left breast of his USC jersey that reads “graduate,” recognition of the first of two diplomas he has earned at the school.
The bachelor’s degree came last year, when he also earned college football’s version of the Purple Heart by undergoing season-ending knee surgery for the second time in his college career.
But while the two injuries — one to each knee — slowed Mitchell, they didn’t stop him. And for that, coach Clay Helton is both awed and thankful.
“To be able to put two injuries behind you like that and play at such a high level has been mind-blowing to me,” he said. “To see what he’s done his senior year, by far his best year as a Trojan, has been special.”
For Mitchell, who was third on the team with 41 catches for 644 yards and four touchdowns — all career highs — it was part of the learning experience.
“After my first injury, I was kind of down. That’s the first time it ever happened to me, a real big injury,” he said of the ligaments he tore in his right knee during summer drills before his freshman season.
But after a ligament in his left knee ripped when he attempted to field a punt in the second quarter of a win over Arizona, ending his 2016 season after just seven games, the path ahead was a familiar one.
“My head was more above the water,” he said, “just because I went through it the first time and I knew what to expect.”
The journey that lies ahead of Mitchell following Friday’s Cotton Bowl game against No. 5 Ohio State is an uncertain one, though. The Trojans arrived in Dallas on Saturday afternoon to finish preparations for Mitchell’s final game as a Trojan, a milestone he both dreads and embraces.
Because while the NFL beckons, with two surgically repaired knees, there’s no guarantee his pro career will be either long or prosperous.
“You try not to think about it,” said Mitchell, 23, who answers many questions with a polite “yes, sir.”
“My time here, unfortunately, it’s up. But I feel like I’ve grown a lot. So I’m for sure ready for the next level. I just hope I get the chance to show the world what I can do. I’m really excited to see how much better my body can be.”
He made several All-Star teams while at Bishop Alemany High in Mission Hills, where he caught 62 passes for 1,100 yards as a skinny senior. And his growth at USC has been as much physical as mental, with Mitchell packing on nearly 20 pounds of muscle without losing a step of his game-breaking speed.
“He’s so versatile, so quick, so fast. And he can really jitterbug around you,” said teammate Chris Hawkins, a safety who has tried to cover Mitchell in practice the last four years. “If you try to press or anything like that, he’s a real deep threat.”
In this fall’s conference opener with Stanford, Mitchell set a career high with 94 receiving yards and matched another with two touchdowns. And in a loss to Notre Dame — one of two blemishes in the Trojans’ 11-2 season — he equaled his single-game best for receptions with seven.
Those performances helped get him an honorable mention on the Pac-12 all-conference team while his second successful return from knee surgery in three years won him a share of the team’s courage award.
“Honestly, I hope it shows the next level that players that overcome adversity, we have that drive and that push to keep going,” said Mitchell, who will start training for USC’s pro day immediately after the Cotton Bowl. “A lot of people don’t have that. It’s good that we went through that.”
Yet his best work may have come in the classroom. Because after finishing his bachelor’s degree — and earning the patch on his uniform — Mitchell completed work on a master’s at the prestigious Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism earlier this month, giving him as many degrees as he has bowl wins in his four seasons at USC.
“He’s amazing,” Helton gushed. “Graduated in three years and went on to get a master’s.”
And those are honors Mitchell can take with him no matter what happens with the NFL.
“I couldn’t ask for a better experience,” he said. “I know I have a job waiting for me.