MILES KENNEDY/Associated Press
If you’re ever rolling through Philadelphia’s City Center along the Market-Frankford SEPTA line, hop off and hit up Freddie “4th-and-26” Mitchell. He just might buy you a beer. But don’t expect the co-author of one of the most memorable playoff moments in Eagles history to wax poetic about his former team or his rocky four-year tenure with Philly’s beloved NFL football franchise.
“You can see me in Fishtown at a dive bar having a beer with people,” Mitchell, 40, told Bleacher Report. “You won’t see no other former players like that. Because I love people.”
Mitchell does indeed love people. Philadelphia people in particular. And Eagles fans, of course. Why else would the Lakeland, Florida, native and UCLA product remain in the city 14 years after his time with the Eagles abruptly ended?
Editor’s note: This is the first installment in B/R’s “Where Are They Now?” series, which profiles some former NFL postseason greats, their historic moments and what they’re doing now.
Part 1: Freddie Mitchell
Parts 2-6: Still to come
His loyalty has nothing to do with the organization. Because while Mitchell loves those who love the Eagles, he has no love for the franchise itself, its owner and several of his most notable former co-workers.
So if you ever have that beer with Mitchell, I promise he’ll be happy to talk your ear off about 4th-and-26—the play that explains almost entirely why the former wide receiver continues to own real estate both in Pennsylvania and in the hearts of many Eagles fans who otherwise might have long forgotten the No. 25 overall pick of the 2001 draft.
Just don’t ask him about his former quarterback, Donovan McNabb, his former head coach, Andy Reid, or longtime Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie—not if you’re hoping for a jubilant trip down memory lane, anyway.
Mitchell says McNabb “wanted me to fail,” and he at least partly blames the six-time Pro Bowler for the fact that he never landed a second NFL contract.
He holds bitter feelings for Reid, noting that while “he was a father figure to me in the beginning, I was just [neglected], and Donovan was the guy.”
And he’s still dismayed at Lurie, who Mitchell says won’t give him the time of day, he believes, because of his checkered post-NFL past, which contains several brushes with the law and a 37-month stint in federal prison as a result of a tax-fraud conviction.
Mitchell is convinced his circumstances would be vastly different if he had more early-career support in Philadelphia and/or if he didn’t suffer so many head injuries while playing football. He considers himself disabled, noting that his wife, Patty, has basically become his caretaker. He says he has early-onset dementia and “serious depression,” and says he has seizures, insomnia and memory loss. He believes there’s a link between his history with concussions and the naivety and myopia that may have contributed to his legal problems.
“I’m not going to say concussions made me [commit] fraud or whatever else,” he said. “I’m saying the concussions and everything made me naive to getting taken advantage of and to seeing something like that. I had trust issues—I trusted everybody. And I live with [the repercussions of] that every day.”
But before Mitchell started feeling this way, before he went to prison, before he endured (and eventually won) a tumultuous custody battle over his now-15-year-old daughter, before his relationship with the Eagles turned sour and before he was held to a single 11-yard catch on four targets in Super Bowl XXXIX (which would turn out to be the last game of his NFL career), there was 4th-and-26.
It came at about 7:45 p.m. ET on Jan. 11, 2004—15 years ago Friday. At Pro Football Reference, it’s just another line among the play-by-play, no wider or taller than the others.
“Donovan McNabb pass complete to Freddie Mitchell for 28 yards (tackle by Marques Anderson).”
Those unfamiliar with the play can probably deduce that Mitchell caught a 28-yard pass from McNabb and that it happened on a fourth-down snap in which Philadelphia needed to travel a distance of more than a quarter of the field.
What you also must know is said throw and catch took place on the Eagles’ final gasp of a divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers.
Richard Kimball @rkimball10
Never forget! One of my favorite memories as an @Eagles fan! #4thAnd26 #FlyEaglesFly https://t.co/S2Crb0L1yp
Trailing by three points with one timeout left and 1:12 remaining in the fourth quarter, on the final play of a set of downs that at that point contained two incomplete passes and a 16-yard sack of McNabb, Mitchell—who was wrapping up his third pro season at age 25—ran a deep slant route from the right slot into a Green Bay secondary that was playing Cover 2.
He found a soft spot just short of the line to gain, leaped above Packers defensive back Bhawoh Jue, caught a well-placed but wobbling football, juggled said football and then secured the reception as he came down and took immediate hits from Anderson and Darren Sharper.
Officially, his forward progress and a generous spot resulted in a 28-yard gain for a first down.
“Before that, I saw that the defensive coordinator was going into a prevent defense and leaving holes,” said Mitchell, who at that point had yet to catch a pass in the game. “So I let Andy Reid know.”
Why not point that out to the quarterback?
“Oh,” Mitchell said of McNabb, “he wouldn’t listen to me at all.”
So while on the sideline earlier on that drive, Mitchell says he called wide receivers coach David Culley in the press box.
“This is what you need to run, and it’s wide open,” Mitchell recalls saying. “Just let me find the hole.”
Apparently, the coaching staff did exactly that.
“Andy is sometimes receptive of what you’re seeing,” he said, “because sometimes on the field you’re seeing more than anybody, and you know what’s going on. So he was receptive to that, and he called a play where I could work my magic. And FredEx delivered.”
Fox game analyst Cris Collinsworth was instantly critical of Green Bay’s defensive approach, which left too much space in the middle of the field and included unnecessary coverage underneath. Mitchell was barely disturbed by an early-route bump and then had far more room than you’d expect 15-plus yards into his route.
Screenshot from Fox broadcast
“I was like, Man, I know I can beat this guy and reach this hole,” he recalled. “I was reading the defense, and I really knew what was going on.”
Mitchell caught a nine-yard pass from McNabb on the next play, and about a minute later, David Akers kicked the game-tying field goal. A baffling Brett Favre overtime interception and a short Philly scoring drive later, and the Eagles had improbably defeated a bitter rival and moved one step closer to the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory.
Following the March 2004 addition of Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens, the Eagles and Mitchell would get to the Super Bowl in February 2005. It was during that run that he famously thanked his own hands “for being so great.” But with Owens on board, Mitchell’s numbers declined. And after insulting and possibly inspiring Philly’s impending Super Bowl opponent, the New England Patriots, by pretending not to know the names of any of the team’s defensive backs, he struggled in a Super Bowl loss to New England.
RUSTY KENNEDY/Associated Press
“I felt used,” he said of his Super Bowl XXXIX experience. “I felt like at times when Donovan didn’t perform, I was a scapegoat from the receiver group.”
That spring, as Mitchell held out and asked to be traded during organized team activities, the Eagles used an early-second-round pick on wide receiver Reggie Brown. They released Mitchell two weeks later, with one season remaining on a five-year, $5.5 million rookie contract. He’d work out for more than half a dozen pro teams over the next three years, but he never played in another game. And half a decade after his last workout, he was behind bars.
“It was a very humbling experience,” Mitchell said of his time in prison. “It had its great moments, and it had its bad moments. Being away from family is horrible, but it just sucks because you would think, Hey, if he would have been treated the way he should have been treated and utilized the way he should have been utilized, would he have ever done that? Would he have ever been in prison?“
It’s a fair hypothetical question for Mitchell to ask, but it’s also fair to wonder if he’s taking enough responsibility.
After all, Mitchell pleaded guilty to playing a role in a serious tax-fraud scheme in which he and two accomplices conspired to file a false tax return in the name of former NBA player Drew Gooden.
But he said in our conversation he was “wrongly sentenced.”
When asked to clarify that in a follow-up email, Mitchell said he “was railroaded into taking a plea deal I didn’t deserve for a crime which I was far less responsible for than the government alleged.”
“The federal government has a great record at getting convictions,” he added, “because they make going to trial nearly impossible. Threatening huge sentences and massive court costs to scare people into accepting the terrible deals they offer is a strategy they use to great effect, and it worked on me. I felt forced into taking their deal, even though I didn’t feel I was guilty of the crime they accused me of, because I couldn’t afford to drain my savings from the NFL and have my family live in poverty while I sat in jail.”
That’s a common occurrence in the American judicial system. Less common is a defendant arguing at a sentencing hearing that head injuries caused mental disabilities that led him to defraud the government. But it’s no coincidence that Mitchell’s new life is dedicated to those fields.
Mitchell wants to write a book detailing his many ups and downs, but he’s deeply interested in prison reform and wants to pursue endeavors that would allow him to advocate in that area. Meanwhile, his primary goal is to establish a mental-health clinic and foundation.
“My perception of the NFL is that it was an education,” he said, “and I learned from it. I learned not everyone is looking out for you, and you have to basically look out for yourself. I forgot that lesson, and going to prison really reinforced it. But it’s made me realize how important it is to be there for others.”
Mitchell’s mental health issues provide his motivation to help others with theirs, but those same issues are also holding him up.
“It’s not good,” he said point-blank when asked about his quality of life. “I’m raising a child, and I get extreme migraines, so I deal with my disability every day.”
He says his bad days outweigh his good days, and that he spends much of those days seeking and practicing holistic methods to alleviate his symptoms.
It hasn’t been easy on Patty or his daughter, either.
“She’s very young, and she would love to live her life,” he said of his wife, “but we can’t because of my disability. So it’s sad, but we just try to maintain a stable, quality life while we can.”
Knowing all of this in hindsight, does he regret playing football?
“I don’t regret anything,” he said, “because I understand that I had to make that sacrifice to get out of where I was at [financially]. To try to better my family and the next generation of Mitchells, I was willing to take that sacrifice.”
But he realizes there might have been alternatives.
“I went to UCLA,” he added after reconsidering the question about regrets. “I easily could have become a businessman or entrepreneur somewhere else. But not even five years after I was done with football, my brain started slowing down. A lot of things are altered when you just bang your head in since the age of five.”
Looking back, Mitchell doesn’t like to use the word “bitter,” but he still spends time stewing about the Eagles and life as an NFL player in general. He says he still won’t cheer for Reid in his current role with the Kansas City Chiefs, pointing to the way things ended in the spring of ’05.
“It just sucks because we’re expendable as athletes,” he said. “Coaches have to learn by going through players, but the players still have a life. It’s very depressing, and it just hurts. Because I had a relationship with his son, who passed away, better than anybody around. And it just hurts that after I chose T.O. over McNabb as far as who was right in a situation, he had to go with McNabb. You live and die by your quarterback, and I was expendable—I didn’t have a $100 million contract to deal with.”
It isn’t hard to pick up on the narrative Mitchell has established regarding his NFL demise. The infamous rift between Owens and McNabb was brewing just as the Eagles released Mitchell, and he and Owens were allies. It’s possible Reid and the front office considered those politics when they cut Mitchell, but there’s little doubt that Owens also rendered Mitchell more expendable on the field in 2004.
GEORGE WIDMAN/Associated Press
Still, he holds McNabb at least somewhat responsible for the fact that his career stalled at the four-year mark.
“I’m a forgiving person, but if somebody can cost you about $40 million for a second contract, I don’t know how forgiving you can be,” Mitchell said. “I feel like I sacrificed so much to get that big second contract, and he screwed me. It just sucks. And that’s how the game goes. And that’s my livelihood. This only lasts so long. So the only thing I ended up with is the concussions and the migraines and the disabilities I have now. That’s all I have to show for it. That’s it.”
But Mitchell’s broader frustration—and particularly his resentment for Reid—appears to regard the system itself, which is evident when he touches on that expendable nature of being a non-star player. Mitchell views the NFL as “basically legalized prostitution.”
“Any time it’s a third-down situation or fourth-down situation, then they needed me,” he said. “Now they want me. So it’s just humorous to me because I had to self-promote myself because I was just not getting any love, only because Donovan McNabb wanted all the attention.”
“I felt used pretty much the whole time,” he concluded, “because my talents weren’t utilized the way I thought they should have been.”
Through representatives, both McNabb and Reid declined to comment for this story.
In Mitchell’s mind, the Eagles—who also opted not to comment—had an opportunity to redeem their relationship with the star of one of their most memorable plays after Mitchell was released from prison in 2017. It’s at that point that a former prisoner returned to his former home and went to his former employer in search of support.
He says he showed up at the team facility on his first day back in Philly, figuring he could lay the foundation for a new chapter in his life. He had a story to tell, having gone from a humble upbringing to 4th-and-26 to the Super Bowl to being “in the hole,” as he calls it, and having dealt with the debilitating symptoms of concussions along the way.
“There’s no better spokesperson than me,” he said. “I learned how to lose. That’s what made me so strong.”
And that might have made him a firm presence in the community, but he says the team wasn’t interested.
Why do you hate me like this? he remembers thinking. What did I do to you?
Mitchell says he told the team he’d make appearances for free “to let people know I’m in the community,” but he says he still hasn’t received a call from the organization.
“All they care about is who can make them money and who can win them ballgames,” he added. “Which it’s a business; I get that. But it still hurts to see somebody that you sacrificed for—you go and try to get help from them, and there’s just no movement. It’s nothing to them to find me a position so I can get back on my feet. It’s nothing. But, no. None of that happened.”
While behind bars, Mitchell says he assumed he’d be embraced by a team that in 2009 signed Michael Vick three weeks after the quarterback was released from home confinement following a prison stint. He was wrong, and he was further perturbed when, in September, Lurie hosted popular local hip-hop artist Meek Mill—who was out on bail from a sentence related to a parole violation—at the team’s home opener.
Altogether, Mitchell says it caused him to fall “back into a deep depression.”
“It’s funny that Jeffrey Lurie was out there with Meek Mill, paying him hundreds of thousands of dollars [to appear or perform at team events], and he’s in the owner’s box and he’s balling and stuff after he got out of prison,” he said. “Jeffrey Lurie and the organization loved him. And yet a player that sacrificed his well-being, his life, his everything for them—they never gave me any opportunities. I couldn’t even get invited to make a $500 appearance.”
According to a source with knowledge of Mill’s dealings with the team, the Eagles compensated Mill for at least one performance at a team-related event, but there’s no indication of how much they paid the rapper. Regardless, Mitchell doesn’t hold ill will toward Mill for any compensation he may have received from the organization.
In fact, Mitchell is a big supporter of Mill’s. “His music motivated me while I was in prison,” he said. “And his poetry gets me through life every single day, but to see the Eagles sticking up for his injustices but not mine, it hurt.”
He’s under the impression this is a common occurrence, and that professional sports teams frequently leave former players in the dust when they feel they don’t have anything positive to offer the organization. But by all accounts the Eagles have strong relationships with the vast majority of their alumni, many of whom are omnipresent at games, practices, camps and team-run events.
“I‘ve had nothing but positive experiences going back,” said former Eagles linebacker and active alumnus Garry Cobb. “I don’t show up for like every practice or anything, but I do feel very welcome.”
Former Eagles offensive tackle Jon Runyan, who serves as vice president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Football League Alumni Association, notes that alumni involvement is a two-way street that requires frequent communication from both team and former player. And the reality is that middle-aged retired players like Mitchell are less likely to consistently engage, at least compared to older retirees like the 61-year-old Cobb.
“If you actually look at the guys that come to the events, they’re the older guys,” said Runyan, who was teammates with Mitchell throughout the wide receiver’s pro career. “They’re the guys that are old enough to be my dad.”
“Everybody feels like they’re an outcast,” Runyan said of his experiences with generally younger retired players, “and yet they don’t want to invest the time to be a part of the process.”
Additionally, most former players, regardless of age, left the team on better terms than Mitchell did—Reid said in April 2005 that Mitchell was absent from a minicamp practice because the head coach “did not want him here.” Others also maintained strong relationships with the franchise and community, while Mitchell makes no secret of his resentment toward a franchise he feels betrayed by.
Could that lack of relationship explain why Mitchell believes the team hasn’t properly celebrated 4th-and-26?
It’s not as though the Eagles pretend the play didn’t happen. The team’s official Twitter account did post video of 4th-and-26 on last year’s anniversary of that game, and it is included as part of a video montage of great moments in Eagles history that airs on the Lincoln Financial Field video boards at home games—but “on their social media,” Mitchell notes, “you wouldn’t even know that Freddie Mitchell existed.”
The franchise’s Twitter account has sent over 47,900 tweets since 2010, but only one of those posts has mentioned Mitchell by name. For what it’s worth, only three tweets from the Eagles have mentioned Owens. But a lot of players from that era who put up numbers similar to Mitchell’s—James Thrash, Todd Pinkston and L.J. Smith, to name a few—have also hardly been mentioned.
Mitchell’s lack of social media love wouldn’t be out of the ordinary if not for the fact that none of those other guys were involved in such a historic play. A 2017 NBC Sports Philadelphia poll indicated 4th-and-26 was the second-best play in team history, behind only 2010’s Miracle at the Meadowlands. And it is routinely ranked highly on lists of memorable NFL moments.
That’s why Mitchell considers the lack of attention odd, but for many, the play remains indelible.
Courtesy of Freddie Mitchell
“As much as the big machine wants to pump up all the other plays or every other thing that’s happened in Philadelphia history,” he says, “people know about 4th-and-26.”
He says strangers recognize him and give him kudos for the play on almost a daily basis, and that was also the case when he was incarcerated. He moved penitentiaries on several occasions during his sentence, and he says being the guy behind 4th-and-26 always earned him attention and respect. He’s seen 4th-and-26 tattoos, which he’s been sure to share on his uber-active social media accounts, and he frequently catches praise from Packers fans.
“The organization [contributed to] my depression by trying to suppress 4th-and-26 and my existence in the community,” he said, “but Eagles fans helped [ease] my depression with their appreciation of 4th-and-26.”
Google Trends indicates the term “4th-and-26” continues to be searched consistently, usually spiking every year around playoff time. And just last month, Mitchell received a large reception at a Philadelphia 76ers game.
“That play has really just kept me—I hate to say relevant because in my mind I know I’m relevant—but it just really, really has a special place in Philadelphia fans’ hearts, even though they just won a Super Bowl.”
Dov Kleiman @NFL_DovKleiman
Former #Eagles WR turned substitute teacher Freddie Mitchell was loving himself some Justin Timberlake
He played in the last #Eagles-#Patriots Superbowl in 2004. He had 1 catch.
The Philly Special is more in vogue than 4th-and-26, and Mitchell said he wondered for a while whether last year’s hoopla would cause his play to “get buried.” But that didn’t stop him from joining the fans to cheer on the team he often detests during its Super Bowl pursuit. He was on the field with the fans, jamming to Justin Timberlake during the Super Bowl LII halftime show, and he immersed himself in the crowds at the team’s victory parade that week.
Even if 4th-and-26 has been slightly obscured by those events, the face of one of the most improbable plays in NFL history insists that those fans continue to approach him on the street to thank him for that memory.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.