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Beating the Odds

Richie Mitchell survives leukemia, fulfills goal to play football again

November 09, 2003|Rob Fernas | Times Staff Writer

Richie Mitchell had some wild ideas while he was fighting for his life against leukemia.

Knowing that spring football was approaching, Mitchell, a standout player for Chino Hills Ayala, asked his doctors whether he could work out in the hospital. At the time, he was vomiting almost daily because of chemotherapy and had a feeding tube stuck in his chest.

"I was thinking crazy," Mitchell recalled. "The doctors would sit back and laugh."

Bolstered by youthful naivete, Mitchell never gave up hope that he would play football again. Few shared his optimism.

"I never thought he'd play again," said Dick Mitchell, Richie's father. "I didn't think he'd be physically able to do it."

More than a year after overcoming leukemia, Mitchell is nearing the end of a remarkable comeback season. He beat the odds in every way, including being granted a rare fifth year of athletic eligibility.

In the process, he has become an inspiration for his Ayala teammates and coaches.

"It's a testimony to Richie's perseverance and his resiliency that he wanted to play one more year," Ayala Coach Bob Mount said. "If nothing else, it was that light at the end of the proverbial tunnel that gave him something to live for."

Mitchell acknowledged as much when, recalling his fight against leukemia, he said, "Football is the only thing I did know. I'm not a cancer expert."

Mitchell is considered a senior, though his class and most of his friends graduated last spring. Mitchell plans to graduate after the current semester ends in December. He turns 19 in January.

The opportunity to play football again after sitting out last season allowed him to fulfill a personal goal. Though Ayala (3-6) isn't as good as it was last season, when the Bulldogs won the Sierra League title, Mitchell has enjoyed his time on the field.

He rarely comes out of games, starting at fullback and linebacker and playing on special teams. Standing a solid 5 feet 10 and 190 pounds, he is considered among the hardest hitters on the team and sports a gash across the bridge of his nose, the result of repeated collisions.

"I figure everything happens for a reason," he said. "So, yeah, I missed out on a great team last year. But football is football. It's just as much fun this year. It's not all about if you win or not."

Returning this year allowed Mitchell to play alongside his younger brother Joey, a senior offensive lineman. Joey was the donor for Richie's bone-marrow transplant.

"It's great playing with my brother," Richie said. "I don't look at [my teammates] as being a year younger than me, or that they're little kids."

Mitchell had distinguished himself as one of Ayala's best players as a junior in 2001, helping the Bulldogs win the league title. But several weeks after the season, he began feeling tired and was spitting up blood.

After getting the results of a blood test, Mitchell's family doctor told him to go to the hospital emergency room. That same day, Feb. 8, 2002, more tests revealed that he had leukemia.

"I was just shocked," Mitchell said. "I thought I had mononucleosis, actually."

He was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, an aggressive form of the disease that usually requires a bone-marrow transplant to survive.

"The doctors didn't pull any punches from the beginning," Dick Mitchell said. "They told me Richie was in for a rough go."

Richie was admitted to Children's Hospital of Orange County in Orange, where he began a long, arduous battle for his life. Chemotherapy robbed him of his stamina and strength, which had been built up through weightlifting. The treatments made him sick and caused his hair to fall out.

"I'd mark off every single day on the calendar," he said. "I'd ask all the time, 'Am I getting out yet? How much longer?' You get used to the sickness, [but] the walls start closing in. There's not much you can do."

Several weeks into that wearying routine, Mitchell contracted a viral infection that, combined with an already weakened immune system, nearly killed him. Pumped full of drugs, he drifted in and out of consciousness.

All the while, his father was there for support. Dick Mitchell slept on a couch bed in his son's hospital room before rising early to return home and get ready for work.

He returned to the hospital whenever he could, cleaning up for his son and helping him take showers when he was strong enough to stand.

"It brought me and my dad closer," Richie said. "He had to do everything for me."

The infection set back the timetable for a bone-marrow transplant.

"They were some bad times," Dick Mitchell recalled. "But looking back, they weren't that bad. There are some kids who never come out. We were one of the fortunate ones.

"The thing that Richie had going for him from the beginning was that he was a strong kid. He was in great shape."

Richie's situation brightened considerably when it was learned that his brother was a perfect match as a bone-marrow donor. The procedure was performed in June 2002.

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