BROOKSVILLE — Long before Willie Mitchell was a football star, Super Bowl champion and successful businessman, he was a fun-loving teenage boy just like the ones sitting before him Wednesday afternoon.
Mitchell conceded that he did some of the same things that sent these teens through the juvenile justice system and ultimately into the Eckerd Youth Challenge Program.
But with one important difference.
"I didn't get caught," Mitchell told the teens. "And when you get caught, you have to pay the consequences for your actions."
Mitchell, 68, talked to about 60 teens in the program, telling them about the importance of making better decisions, warning them to stay away from drugs and alcohol and even managing to fit in colorful tales from his career with the Kansas City Chiefs in the late '60s and early '70s.
Peppered with questions about his playing days near the end of his hourlong speech, Mitchell held out his right hand for the teens to give them a glimpse of the prodigious Super Bowl ring on his finger.
"If you only knew what this ring has done for me," said Mitchell, who was a cornerback on the Chiefs team that won the NFL championship in 1970 and played in the first Super Bowl in 1967. "But I'm not here to talk about how great I am."
Mitchell's visit to the program, located south of Brooksville and only a few miles from the Pasco County line, was arranged through the Drug Coalition of Citrus County as part of an effort to emphasize the dangers of drug use.
Mitchell runs his own nonprofit organization that warns children about the consequences of drug use and he has served on a number of community boards, including the United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County in Texas.
Eckerd is a nonprofit provider of a residential therapeutic program for boys ages 13 through 18 who have been deemed low- to moderate-risk through the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. The teens attend school and live at the site for up to nine months before their release.
"Some of these kids are just prone to making bad decisions," said program director Robert Patterson. "A lot of them just don't have the right information. We think of this as an opportunity for them to turn things around."
Mitchell told the teens that improving their decisionmaking skills would be paramount upon their release from the program.
"Each and every one of you can be what you want," Mitchell said. "Don't use this as an excuse for failure."
While the teenagers seemed mostly interested in Mitchell's NFL stories, at least a few took home a message that had nothing to do with football.
"He told us how to be man and to take responsibility for our problems," said Jermaine, an 18-year-old from Tallahassee. "He really opened my heart with what he said."
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6120.