© Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
Earl Mitchell’s attempt at retirement was not a success. To call it retirement — or “retirement,” with air quotes, as he did — is maybe not as accurate as calling it a sabbatical. He “retired,” on Nov. 7, having been unable to find a team.
For the first time since he was 15, Mitchell was without football, and mostly content. Back home in Houston, Mitchell took on a new role with the WWE, training to be a recruiter and talent scout, as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch reported.
As Mitchell told KNBR, he was “embracing the afterlife.”
The Patriots called. The hometown Texans called. But Mitchell stayed in his football afterlife. Then John Lynch called. That was all Mitchell needed.
He said it just “clicked” for him, having seen the 49ers’ success (and having had a 2-3 record in his postseason career). It was the only team he would have returned for.
“I wouldn’t have [gone anywhere else],” Mitchell said Wednesday after practice. “I think that was the whole point of me deciding to retire… When I got the call to come here, it only felt right.
“It was kind of a thing that clicked. To miss the entire season is one thing. That was the first time I haven’t played since I was 15, so it’s one of those things where it’s like, this is really it. And then to get the call like from a team that’s in the playoffs, it’s an opportunity you can’t refuse.”
Now Mitchell figures to be the second nose tackle option behind Sheldon Day. It’s not clear how many snaps he’ll take, but he expressed excitement at being used for run downs, which is the Vikings’ tactic du jour: Run the ball and dare you to stop it.
“It’s more fun for me,” Mitchell said. “It’s very basic football. You’re not really dealing with crazy trick plays. You know it’s coming, you just got to stop it and that’s what makes the game fun, when you actually know what’s coming.”
The question, of course, is how effective Mitchell can be. He said he feels “pretty refreshed” from his time off, and at the very least has a greater appreciation for the game than when he left it. “A different type of excitement,” as he put it.
When he sets foot in Levi’s Stadium again, it will be for the first 49ers playoff game in the stadium’s history, and his first since a 2016 loss with the Miami Dolphins to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
For a guy who, along with his family and friends, truly believed his abbreviated retirement was going to stick, it’s safe to expect some sentimentality.
“I think it’d be crazy to not think that it would be emotional,” Mitchell said. “Definitely. I know my entire family’s really excited for me. I know everybody back home is going to be watching because to everybody’s knowledge, they thought I was done playing. So to see me come back is very exciting for them as it is for me.”