SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. - The pain radiating down Stephon Mitchell's left leg told him all he needed to know.
"I knew I was hurt pretty bad because I passed out from the pain for a few seconds, and when I woke up the pain was worse, maybe about a 9.5 out of 10," Mitchell said. "I heard our team doctor yell to the sideline that it was bad and we needed an ambulance. I didn't want to look, but when I did I saw my left foot pointing backward and my kneecap was laying over on the side of my leg.
"I laid there for about 30 minutes waiting for the ambulance to come and load me up, and all I could think about was whether I would ever play football again."
A collision with a South Pittsburg High School teammate had shredded three of the four ligaments in Mitchell's knee -- ACL, PCL, LCL -- and had torn his meniscus and calf muscle. After seven hours of surgery, in which it was also discovered that the junior lineman had suffered damage to the peroneal nerve, which has left him with numbness from his knee to his toes, Mitchell began to realize the severity of his injury.
"When the doctors told me and my family that there were similar cases where patients had their leg amputated, it finally sank in just how scary it was," Mitchell said. "The doctors told us that I might come back and play some other sport, but that I would never play football again.
"But I refused to listen or believe that."
Even after a second surgery, the nerve damage left Mitchell's foot to droop so severely that when he doesn't wear the brace to lift and support it, he requires crutches just to hobble around. But with the help of braces on his knee and his ankle, and several months of rehabilitation, he was cleared to return to the team last summer, less than eight months after the injury.
"When I got here and the other coaches told me what had happened, I didn't think there was any way Stephon would get back on the field," said Pirates first-year coach Tim Moore. "But he kept working at it and getting a little better every week, and he's been a vital part of our success.
"I have tremendous respect for him to be back out there helping his senior teammates try to achieve a goal they set a long time ago."
Coaches moved him from right guard to left tackle, sliding his damaged leg outside the line to minimize the chances of getting it rolled by the pile of bodies blocking on the inside. The 6-foot, 225-pounder has started every game this season, helping the top-ranked Pirates rush for more than 3,500 yards heading into tonight's Class 1A semifinal at sixth-ranked Coalfield.
While his teammates fidget with their pads and uniforms to make last-minute adjustments before taking the field, Mitchell undergoes a 20-minute process to stabilize his left ankle and knee with braces and so much tape his leg looks mummified. It's a necessary ordeal just to allow him to practice or play.
"I had to learn to walk again with my ankle and knee brace, but all I could think about was doing the work I needed to do to get back out there with my friends," Mitchell said. "I was nervous that first time back on the field because I didn't want to get hurt again. My legs were pretty weak at first and I had to adjust my stance, but after a while I just put it out of my mind and started playing as hard as I could again.
"Now we're just one more game away from getting back to playing for a state championship again. That's what we've all worked hard for, and it feels great getting to be a part of that again."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.