READING THE DEFENSE

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo

Patriots Super Bowl Champ Malcolm Mitchell tackles the Nantucket Book Festival.

Before he was a Super Bowl champion, Patriots wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell had a secret. While attending the University of Georgia, where he captained the football team, Mitchell quietly got into his car after practice and drove to a suburban neighborhood off campus to meet with a group of women. The ladies were in their forties, fifties and sixties and had no real interest in football. In fact, half of them had no idea who this handsome young man was when he first started showing up. All they knew was Malcolm Mitchell loved to read, and he wanted to join their book club.

For nearly two years, Mitchell attended the Silverleaf Book Club in Athens, Georgia. Between playbooks and textbooks, he devoured novels to prepare for their bimonthly meeting. “It was one of the most random things that I’ve ever done,” Mitchell says, “but joining that book club changed my life and inspired what I’m doing today.”

And Mitchell doesn’t mean playing football. During his senior year in college, emboldened by his book club, Mitchell penned and self-published his first children’s book titled The Magician’s Hat. It went on to become the biggest selling book in the history of the University of Georgia’s bookstore and earned Mitchell the distinction of Children’s Author of the Year by the Georgia Writer’s Association. He then inked a deal with Scholastic Books and went pro with his work as a writer, which brings him to Nantucket this June as a featured author at the Nantucket Book Festival.

When it comes to football, Mitchell’s story reads like a fairytale. He was drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round in 2015. During his rookie season, he caught thirty-three passes, including a number of critical firstdown receptions in the Patriots’ historic comeback against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. At the age of just twenty-two, Mitchell had a Super Bowl ring and a multi-million-dollar contract in the NFL. And yet, when asked about his greatest accomplishments, Mitchell is quick to point to his unlikely pursuits off the field.

“The transformation that reading has had on me is more powerful than becoming an athlete,” he says. “I grew up in a rough neighborhood and played football since I was in the fourth grade. I got to the NFL—yes, it’s magical, yes, it’s a special moment, and rarely do people get the opportunity to get here— but which is more surprising: that I’m playing in the NFL or that I’m a children’s book author?”

Interestingly enough, the Patriots have two other children’s book authors in their ranks with Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett. Still Mitchell considers his passion for reading and writing as more improbable than his Super Bowl appearances. As he says, “If you go back to my neighborhood, I promise you that you won’t look around and say that somebody is going to become a children’s book author out of there.”

Mitchell grew up in Valdosta, Georgia with a single mother and two siblings. He struggled with reading throughout high school and into college. Then he picked up a copy of The Giving Tree and his interest in reading exploded. While perusing the stacks at Barnes and Noble, he asked a fellow shopper for a book recommendation, which led to an invitation to the book club. “I wanted to surround myself by readers,” he says. The book club helped Mitchell go from reading at a middle-school level to tearing through complex narratives and works of historical fiction.

“Right before I graduated from the University of Georgia, I became an avid reader and I saw how it impacted my life,” he says. “I reflected on all the people I grew up with that did not have this tool, and it became important for me to reach back, especially to children.”

During his senior year in college, Mitchell started Read with Malcolm, a nation-wide initiative to promote literacy in young students. He has since read with thousands of students in their schools. “I understand the challenges that come along with reading,” Mitchell says. “The same challenges some of these students face, I guarantee I dealt with it.” In 2017, Mitchell took his initiative a leap further by starting Share the Magic Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting long-term benefits of reading and book ownership in underserved communities and schools.

“When I’m at the school, the most impactful moment is when I see all the kids walk away with their own copies of a book,” he says. “Because I understand the percentage of kids who don’t have age appropriate books—I was one of them.”

Beyond his work as an author, Mitchell credits reading for his speedy integration into Bill Belichick’s intricate offensive schemes. “Reading helped me understand the complexity of the system I was placed in,” he says. “Because now I was trained to understand information and retain it in a way that allowed me to go out and perform and execute at a different level than I would have if I wasn’t reading.”

Coming off a heartbreaking defeat in this year’s Super Bowl, during which Mitchell was sidelined by a season-long injury, the Patriots have been the subject of much speculation about the inner workings of their locker room. Reports have surfaced about schisms between coaches and players, with much finger-pointing surrounding the shortcomings in the final game. Not surprisingly, Mitchell doesn’t give much insight when asked about what’s happening behind the scenes at Gillette Stadium. “A lot of hard work” is all he offers.

Instead of the last Super Bowl, Mitchell is more interested in discussing his Read Bowl, which challenged students nationwide to record the number of minutes they spend reading. One group to sign on for the competition was Becky Hickman’s sixth-grade English class on Nantucket. Just before the Super Bowl kicked off this past February, Hickman learned that her classroom had won Mitchell’s Read Bowl with a total of 12,273 minutes of reading.

So after he finishes with his appearances for the Nantucket Book Festival, Mitchell will be reporting to Hickman’s classroom Monday morning to congratulate her students and meet with the rest of Cyrus Peirce Middle School. After that, he’ll be reporting back to practice at Patriots Place where his love or reading remains one of his strongest weapons on the field.

Malcolm Mitchell will be interviewed by N Magazine’s editor Robert Cocuzzo on Sunday, June 17 at 6PM. Tickets are available here.

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