Father's illness inspires LB Mike Mitchell's new start at Texas Tech

LUBBOCK, Texas -- Mike Mitchell sped down the dark West Texas highway knowing he had forgotten to set his DVR. He would make it back to Lubbock in time to catch the second half of Ohio State’s national championship romp against Oregon, and made sure to text a few Buckeyes -- Ezekiel Elliott and his old roommates -- when it was over.

"I know how hard they worked," Mitchell said. "They deserved it."

He could have made a much shorter drive to Arlington to see his former teammates win it all at AT&T Stadium that Monday night. He had spent a year facing off against Cardale Jones on the practice squad, a year building toward this grand moment. But Mitchell had better plans. He spent the day with family in Plano.

They are why he left the eventual national champs to start over at Texas Tech. The sophomore linebacker came home to be closer to his father, former NFL linebacker Ken Mitchell, during his continued bout with a debilitating neurological disorder.

"We tried to talk him into staying at Ohio State," Ken said, "because he’d have a starting role. I said, 'Mike, c'mon, we can get through this.' But he said this was something he had to do. He said, 'This is more important to me.'"

Ken, 66, suffers from cluster headaches, a rare syndrome that affects an estimated 0.2 percent of the population. He’s tortured three to nine times daily by the condition. Each one feels like a knife to the left side of his brain. Some hit for 30 minutes, some for eight hours. He thought he might die during the worst episode, a 19-hour headache.

"I can be talking to you right here and be fine," he said, "and then five seconds from now, I’m writhing on the floor."

The headaches started in 2012, when Mike was a senior at Prestonwood Christian Academy. Though he endured concussions during his four-year NFL stint, Ken doesn’t believe football caused his condition. He still remembers the first headaches. His arms went numb, his head besieged by pain so agonizing he was screaming into a pillow while crying uncontrollably. He’s been learning to endure ever since.

Ken keeps a log now. In one four-month span, he experienced 736 headaches. There is no known cure.

"It feels like having brain surgery without anesthesia," he said.

The man feels worse for his wife and kids. For the months he can’t leave the house, and the times when everyone else had to. For the holes he’s left in walls from banging his head. For everything he’s missed.

Ken tries not burden his nine children with his condition. When he traveled to Mike’s first Ohio State game in 2013, he snuck away to a hospital twice in three days. He didn’t want to ruin the weekend.

"He hasn’t told me much about it," Mike Mitchell said. "He keeps to himself and doesn’t like to worry me. He keeps stuff to himself. He’s a real tough guy."

Mike wasn’t oblivious. He was frustrated that he wasn’t playing -- a lower-back injury late in fall camp resulted in a redshirt year -- but more bothered by what he was missing back in Texas. He left Ohio State in February 2014 determined to reboot his career in Texas, even if that meant sitting out another season. He chose Texas Tech because the coaches and players felt like a family.

"I think I made the right decision," Mike said. "I’ve kind of found my niche. I’m in a good situation."

He went home to Plano for spring break and makes Friday-to-Sunday visits whenever he can. He proudly says he’s got the 330-mile drive down to four and half hours.

"That’s a very close family," Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "He’s a good kid and works his tail off. 'Yes sir or no sir,' you never hear a word out of him otherwise. I know he’s happy he can see his family on the weekends. That’s really made a big difference in his quality of life."

Dad still hasn’t lost his gift for gab. He tells tales of young Mike racking up 27 tackles at defensive end in a high school game, pumping out pull-ups on the limb of a tree before winning gold in shot put, baffling everyone at The Opening with a laser 4.38 in the 40 that officials assumed was a malfunction.

Ken brags that Mike had eight-pack abs since age 3 and is at 4 percent body fat -- "he’s bone, two brain cells and the rest is muscle." He jokes that Mike picked the No. 52 jersey at Tech to honor his father’s IQ. He still has his wit. He still loves to laugh.

He’s proud both of his son's patience and his priorities. Mike walked away from a good thing at Ohio State to do the right thing back home. When he finally makes his debut this fall after two seasons of waiting, his inspiration won't be so far away.

And by then, Mike hopes, maybe his father will feel well enough to make that drive out to West Texas.