During his 15 seasons as Georgia's football coach, Mark Richt always talked about doing things "the Georgia Way."
Malcolm Mitchell wound up being his final example.
Mitchell entered Athens in 2011 as a coveted but admittedly self-centered prospect who quickly produced for the Bulldogs before experiencing a rash of injuries, including a torn ACL that shelved his 2013 season. Extensive time away from the field could have led to frustration, but the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder from Valdosta used the opportunity to become a voracious reader and a role model for youth.
"Coming into college, the thought process was to become the best football player that I could become," Mitchell said. "Throughout the different challenges, something else inside me elevated, which is something I didn't foresee coming. UGA definitely helped me become a better individual."
Entering Saturday afternoon's TaxSlayer Bowl against Penn State, Mitchell leads the Bulldogs with 53 receptions for 751 yards and four touchdowns. He has as many catches as Georgia's next three receivers — Terry Godwin (31), Reggie Davis (12) and Isaiah McKenzie (10) — combined, but those numbers seem secondary at this point.
Mitchell, who struggled to read as a child, authored a children's book in August titled "A Magician's Hat," which included a foreword by Richt. He became passionate about improving literacy among underprivileged children and was named in September to the Allstate American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team.
Earlier this month, Mitchell was named captain of that 22-member team.
"You can't help but be really proud of what he's done on and off the field," Richt said. "The injuries have certainly slowed down his athletic career. If he had stayed healthy and played three great years, he might have been gone for two years.
"Now here he is in his fifth year, and he's learned a lot about life along the way."
Richt, of course, was fired by athletic director Greg McGarity late last month and was quickly named the new coach at Miami. Richt returned to Athens earlier this month as an invitee to the annual Senior Awards Gala.
When the time came for a player to deliver the required speech, which this year packed more emotion given the circumstances, Mitchell was the choice of his teammates.
Mitchell was an SEC All-Freshman selection in 2011 and made headlines in 2012 by playing both cornerback and receiver. The torn ACL two years ago in the opener at Clemson, which occurred during a celebration of a Todd Gurley touchdown, not only scratched that season but the first four games of 2014.
He considered leaving after last season for a shot at the NFL.
"I told him in front of his mom, 'The good thing about you, Malcolm, is whether there's the NFL or not, you're going to make it in life,'" Richt said. "I told him, 'You're a very smart young man. You're a very polite young man. You have people skills. You have a lot to offer. You're more than just a one-dimensional human being that football is your only identity and that's all there is in your life.'
"I was trying to tell him the NFL is going to be there either way and that getting your degree is important."
Mitchell graduated in communications this month but wants to go back to school eventually to get a master's degree in creative writing.
When asked about Richt's comments from last winter, Mitchell said, "He saw something in me that I didn't see in myself, and that was encouraging. The goal is to play football as long as I'm granted the opportunity."
Mitchell and his teammates are scheduled to report in Jacksonville today, but his final college appearance will be at the prestigious Senior Bowl in Mobile on Jan. 30. He is projected by CBS as the No. 34 receiver in the 2016 NFL draft, which has him on the border of the seventh round and free agency.
A torn ACL may have damaged Mitchell's chances of becoming a high NFL draft pick, but it helped lead to another avenue even more admirable.
"To write the book and to want to help young kids learn how to read — he just realized later in his academic career how much fun it is to read and how much benefit there is to reading," Richt said. "He just started to devour it. He wanted the other kids to have confidence earlier in their lives and have a lifetime of reading and academic success."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.