By Michael Casagrande
Decatur Daily Sports Writer

A young Jimmy Mitchell can't tell you what his buddies were up to on Saturday afternoons in the fall. He wasn't with them. The 12-year-old hovered around his radio. This was the mid-1950s and there were no televisions in his Tanner house. So, Mitchell listened to Notre Dame football games and painted his own picture in the theater of his mind. A seed was planted. Nothing could stop his trajectory straight to the top of the football world.

Mitchell went on to earn All-America honors as a quarterback at Decatur High before playing two years at Alabama. But it was his second love, golf, where Mitchell discovered a lifelong passion. His football and golf honors have landed the Decatur resident in this year's Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame induction class. "I'm very humbled by the whole thing," Mitchell said. "It's a great honor, and I really appreciated it especially when you think back about your family — your mother and dad and the time they spent with you."

He won several club tournaments at Decatur and Burningtree country clubs, but he'd never touched a golf club until his senior year at Decatur High. Team sports were his first love. He played the big three in high school —football, basketball and baseball — with the greatest success coming on the gridiron. Transferring from Tanner to Decatur along with friend (and 2011 Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame inductee) Don Lewis, Mitchell stepped into a prominent role with the Red Raiders. The quarterback on the 1961 team, Mitchell played in a backfield full of Division I talent that carried an undefeated record into an Oct. 13 showdown with unbeaten Cullman."When we came up from the cafeteria, they were unloading chairs onto the track," Mitchell said. "I asked 'What are they doing?' And Lewis said you'll see in a little bit. When we came out on the field, it took five minutes just to get through the fans."Mitchell remembers trailing 13-7 in the final minutes, then leading an 85-yard march to the end zone that included two fourth-down conversions. He scored the tying touchdown in the closing moments, and Lewis booted the winning extra point."We beat those boys from Cullman," Mitchell said. "And over the years, probably more people asked me about that game than anything. That was a highlight."

The Red Raiders finished 9-1, losing only to Deshler 19-7 in the second-to-last game of the year. Mitchell still has his framed All-America certificate he earned that fall. The big season also caught the eye of a young Alabama assistant coach named Gene Stallings. He enrolled in the fall of 1962 alongside more than 60 freshmen in the days before scholarship limits. One of his classmates was fellow quarterback, Steve Sloan.

One practice, it turns out, could've determined the fate of Mitchell and Alabama football history. The two freshmen quarterbacks were pulled aside one day by graduate assistant Tootie Hill. "I finally realized Coach (Bear) Bryant sent Tootie out there to decide which one of us was going to play quarterback," Mitchell said. "And I guess Sloan won the battle."Sloan went on to succeed Joe Namath and quarterbacked the Crimson Tide to the 1965 national championship before being drafted by the Falcons. Mitchell played some at defensive back, where he tackled his good buddy Lewis in the 1962 Alabama-Auburn freshmen game. "Welcome to Denny Stadium," Mitchell remembers telling him.

But health became an issue. Three serious knee injuries led to a reappraisal of priorities. Mitchell gave up football after sitting the bench as the fourth-string quarterback. That only served to motivate his next venture.

Golf went from hobby to obsession as Mitchell joined the Alabama team. Saturday afternoons, first reserved for radio broadcasts before his playing days, became practice time for his new sport. The neatly mowed grassland that's now home to Coleman Coliseum was his refuge. Just blocks from Denny Stadium, Mitchell hit golf ball after golf ball."The crowd would roar, you know the game was going, and the louder the crowd got, the more balls I'd hit," Mitchell said. "If you've got lemons in your life and you can turn them to lemonade, it's a great feeling."

The No. 4 player in the Tide's six-man rotation, Mitchell was a contributor but not necessarily the star. His big moment came in his final meet, fittingly against Auburn. The other golfers successfully lobbied for Mitchell to play in the No. 1 position to face the Tigers' star. Mitchell ultimately halved the match by sinking a 45- to 50-foot winding putt he called "the luckiest of my life."That Titleist golf ball is still displayed next to the pool table in Mitchell's Decatur home. But it wasn't his last big golfing moment, or the final memento he would acquire.

Mitchell won five men's championships at Burningtree and two at Decatur Country Club. His crown jewel, however, came about an hour west of Decatur. Mitchell won the 1979 Turtle Point Invitational in Killen in a field that included a few pros and top amateurs. He finished second the next year."To me, it was like the Masters for an amateur," Mitchell said.

He still plays golf when he can. Mitchell and his wife of 12 years, Katie Mitchell, were friends for decades before getting married. She played tennis at Decatur Country Club, while he golfed."He used to ask me if I'd won, tell me 'Go get 'em,' " Katie Mitchell said. "He would encourage me with my matches, and we were just sports friends."

After marriage, she took up his sport. But golf, she learned, took longer to perfect than tennis. Katie Mitchell got there, though."She beat me the other day," Jimmy Mitchell said sheepishly. But he'll keep on playing. That lemonade hasn't soured yet.

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