HOUSTON – One day during his time as a star receiver at the University of Georgia, Malcolm Mitchell and a friend went to the local Barnes & Noble in Athens. They were working through the stacks, searching for a good book to read when they stumbled upon Kathy Rackley, a local mother of five and grandmother of eight who was shopping herself.
“Can I ask you something,” Mitchell said to Rackley. “Can you recommend a book?”
Rackley was there to purchase Jojo Moyes’ “Me Before You,” a novel about a brief and unexpected love affair. It isn’t generally the kind of thing college-aged men might read. Rackley explained she was reading it for the reading group she was in, the Silverleaf Book Club.
“When she said that, I kind of just lit up,” Mitchell said. “I knew nothing about book clubs. The most I knew was Oprah’s book club. But I was looking for an opportunity to expand and grow.”
So Mitchell asked about it. Rackley offered some details – a little more than a dozen women, all between the ages of 40 and 60 read a book and then there’s a meeting, the second Tuesday of the month, at one of their homes to discuss it.
“I want to join a book club, can I join yours?” Mitchell said.
Rackley figured he could, but needed to check with the others – a college kid wants to join this book club? “We are all 40-, 50- and 60-year-old women,” Rackley said with a laugh. He was smart and sincere though.
She was only a casual football fan, so she didn’t know who he was. They exchanged email addresses and Mitchell’s began with “mitch26.” She asked what the 26 stood for and he said that was his uniform number.
“Are you like a big deal football player?” Rackley asked. Mitchell was humble and deflected the question. “But the friend he had with him started nodding in her head,” Rackley said.
Mitchell was a big deal football player, although he was coming off a knee injury. He would return though and become a team captain and reliable offensive threat for Georgia. The New England Patriots drafted him last spring. As a rookie he caught 33 passes and four touchdowns, playoffs included. Sunday he’ll play in Super Bowl LI against Atlanta.
Back in the Silverleaf neighborhood of Athens though, he’s just Malcolm, the unlikeliest member of the book club. He’s a guy who still gets the monthly reading assignments via text message and tries to keep up with the gang back in Georgia.
After the bookstore meeting, Rackley went home and asked a couple of the book club leaders, Gail Johnson and Jill Langford, about adding this kid she’d met. They were all for it and soon realized who he was – a big celebrity in an SEC town. Their husbands were dumbfounded. Malcolm Mitchell is coming to your book club? No one was sure he’d show up to the first meeting.
“Everyone was saying, ‘He’s pulling your leg, he’s not going to come,'” Rackley said. “I kept saying, ‘I really think he will.'”
Indeed he would, driving out to the neighborhood at the designated time and sending Rackley a text from the driveway. None of it seemed unusual to Mitchell, who grew up in the small city of Valdosta, Ga., located near the Florida line. His goal at UGA was to not merely play football, but to embrace everything the university and the community had to offer.
He took on a motto: The only boundaries are those we create for ourselves. He didn’t just become comfortable putting himself in an unusual setting, he became oblivious to it. Everything was different.
Mitchell acknowledges he wasn’t always a highly motivated student and rarely read as a kid. He grew up with a single mother and not a lot of resources. Reading wasn’t a priority.
“When I got to college I saw the effect of that,” Mitchell said. “I guess I was just always outside. Sports dominated the culture I was in. Education was something you had to do to play a sport, as dumb as that sounds.”
So here was something new. Mitchell said he walked into the house, met all the women and then sat down for the discussion. It was clear to the others he’d come prepared. He was enthusiastic and vocal. Book clubs often have a reputation for more wine drinking than story reading, but this one is actually serious, which is how Mitchell wanted it.
“They do drink wine,” Mitchell said. “They didn’t allow me to have any though.”
One meeting led to the next. One book to another. For nearly two years Mitchell was a regular.
“It’s fine, it’s fun,” Mitchell said. “It’s just casual conversation. Sometimes we talk about books and they need a male perspective. So they’ll single me out.”
Mitchell, after all, had a completely different life experience and perspective – young, male, athlete, African American and so on.
“I think we got so much from each other,” Rackley said.
Word began to spread in the neighborhood, where Georgia Bulldog football is everything. The story was too funny. “Who’d have thought, right?” Rackley said. But the book club ladies were protective of their wide receiver. This was strictly about reading.
“The husbands tried to come around once they learned I was in,” Mitchell said. “And the ladies would not let them. I’ve probably only met two of the husbands. When I come the husbands will try to come downstairs, but they don’t let them in.”
The book club helped inspire Mitchell to take the next step. He became more and more of a voracious reader, no longer struggling to keep up with his fellow students. He would go on to create his own foundation – Read With Malcolm – and write his own children’s book, “The Magician’s Hat.”
“I realized there were a ton of kids like me,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to inspire them to read and the best way to do that was to write my own book.”
He hasn’t been to a meeting since joining the Patriots, although he promises to change that soon. His foundation is doing some work back in Georgia in February and he hopes to make at least one meeting over the next couple of months. He’s done pretty well keeping up with the reading.
“The last one I did with them was ‘City of Thieves,'” he said of the adventure tale set during the Nazis’ siege of Leningrad.
Actually, Rackley said, the most recent book came because the NFL proposed filming a commercial with the group (it didn’t get done due to scheduling issues). In preparation, the league sent a box full of books down to Athens. So Silverleaf made that this month’s unofficial assignment. The books were written by Boston-based best-selling author and radio host Michael Holley.
The subject: Bill Belichick.