Khalif Mitchell is a happy camper.
Mitchell was all smiles as the Toronto Argonauts opened training camp Sunday. Suspended and fined twice last year, the burly defensive tackle was downright charming after practice, shaking hands with and introducing himself personally to the assembled media before answering all questions.
But last month, the six-foot-five, 315-pound Mitchell refused to report to Toronto after the B.C. Lions dealt him to the defending Grey Cup champion. Mitchell, 28, started an herbal drink business in Seattle and wanted to remain in the West Division.
But Mitchell, a very spiritual man, said his faith helped him have a change of heart.
“I had the power to choose any one and so I prayed on it and all of a sudden this is the choice that was here,” Mitchell said. “I talked to Jim (Argos GM Jim Barker) and Jim is a great guy and as everything unfolded it just manifested that I come here and it’s a great thing.
“You have to make a choice based on what you love and so I made a choice for football. To be part of the champs is a beautiful thing and a lot of people would jump on the opportunity.”
Mitchell certainly fills a definite need for Toronto, which opened camp minus defensive linemen Ron Flemons (released), Armondo Armstead (New England Patriots, NFL), Ricky Foley (free agent, Saskatchewan) and Adriano Belli (retired). But also absent Sunday and placed on the suspended list were safety Jordan Younger and cornerbacks Pat Watkins and Pacino Horne, leaving sophomore Jalil Carter as the lone returnee from last year’s starting secondary as defensive back Evan McCollough also signed with Hamilton as a free agent.
Younger, a nine-year veteran, is considering retirement while Horne has a calf injury and Watkins is dealing with a personal matter in Florida. Barker said Horne should resume playing in a week or two and Watkins is expected back although Barker is insure when.
But losing Younger, an Argos team captain, caught Barker off guard.
“I was surprised,” Barker said. “He’s a guy who was a captain last year and somebody else has to pick up the slack.
“The timing of it was difficult but players know (when to retire). We’ll find out pretty quickly who can play or not . . . it’s something we’ll deal with and by the time we kick off we’ll be fine.”
A healthy and motivated Mitchell would certainly provide Toronto’s defence a huge boost. The 28-year-old is a force inside, often commanding a double-team that leaves his defensive linemates in one-on-one situations.
Mitchell had 15 tackles and two sacks in 12 games last season with B.C., and over three years with the Lions registered eight sacks and 54 tackles in 34 career games.
He was a CFL all-star in 2011 and helped B.C. win the Grey Cup that year but made headlines for all the wrong reasons last season.
He was suspended for two games by the CFL for violently hyper-extending the arm of Edmonton offensive lineman Simeon Rottier during a game July 20. On Sept. 25, the league fined Mitchell an unspecified amount for making multiple “throat slashing” gestures during a win over the Eskimos.
The following month, Mitchell was fined and suspended again for violating the CFL’s social media policy.
However, there’s much more to Mitchell than just football. The native of Virginia Beach, Va., is definitely a free spirit and has an ear for music, having taught himself how to play the piano.
But not everyone in B.C. was a fan of Mitchell. Shortly after he was dealt to Toronto, Lions running back Andrew Harris tweeted: “Good riddance!!!!”
However, Milanovich downplayed Mitchell’s past, saying the defensive lineman has a clean slate with him.
“With any player, I evaluate them on the history I have with them,” Milanovich said. “When they get here, we start from scratch and I try to make my own decisions and I try to do that over a period of time.
“We have a special group here and hopefully he feels that way.”
Mitchell said the 2012 season was a clear indication he’s human.
“I think moreso than anything it just made me look more real,” he said. “It made me look more like the average person that goes into a house and when they go in the house they have problems when they go back outside nobody knows those problems.
“It’s just that I’m in a position where everybody gets to see my problems. What I’ve done is take the initiation to just open myself up. I don’t try to go and hide because if you go and hide then people come looking. But if you show them everything, you are what you are.”
And Mitchell said he’s comfortable allowing people to see what he’s all about.
“I am not eager to change anyone’s perception,” he said. “I’m more accepting of giving you a token to let you have any perception you would like of me, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, that’s your free token.
“After that, you are bullying me so therefore after that you’ve characterized yourself into a whole other class that I don’t want to be in. I’m accepting of the faults I have as a man, as a person, as an athlete and I’m accepting of the fact those can change with greater actions. But to dismiss or not want those to be shown, that’s not who I am.”
Mitchell understands the feeling of accomplishment many of his new teammates are experiencing as they prepare to defend their Grey Cup title. He went through the exact same thing last year after B.C. won the 2011 CFL title.
But while the Argos look to repeat in 2013, Mitchell said he’s fuelled by a burning desire to return to the Grey Cup.
“We don’t have the Grey Cup anymore,” he said. “The thing this team doesn’t understand yet is the feeling of knowing when you were supposed to win and you didn’t because they did.
“I’ve already been a champion and lost. I know the empty feeling of wanting to be there. That’s the biggest asset I have.”