Malcolm Mitchell was drafted by the New England Patriots in the fourth round of the NFL draft last week. But the wide receiver out of Georgia is living another unlikely dream, too, fielding a public invitation to Reese Witherspoon’s book club on Twitter. It wouldn’t be the first ladies’ book club he’s joined.
The path that brought the Valdosta native to the actress’s attention has been marked by chance encounters and second chances. When Mitchell arrived at the University of Georgia his freshman year, he wasn’t reading at a college level. He hadn’t been read to as a child, and never took interest in high school. Frustrated, he set out to improve his skills. Wandering through an Athens, Georgia, Barnes & Noble, he ran into Kathy Rackley, who was carrying a pile of books under her arm.
Mitchell asked her for help finding books that might work for him, and she mentioned her book club.
“He said, ‘Can I join your book club?'” Rackley recalled. “And I said, ‘I don’t know if you want to join mine. We’re all 40-, 50-, and 60-year-old women.’”
Rackley didn’t know anything of Mitchell’s gridiron exploits, and he didn’t tell her. The young football star showed up for a ladies’ book club, and kept going once a month throughout his college career. When a knee injury kept him off the field for most of his 2013 season, he became a voracious reader while he rehabbed.
“Somebody called me a nerd. That’s not a word that I’m used to hearing,” he told CBS in 2014. “I was proud of it… It’s like a badge of honor to me, knowing where I came from.”
He started visiting local schools and reading to kids, trying to instill in them what he’d missed as a child. His “Read With Malcolm” efforts eventually spawned a self-published children’s book in 2015 called “The Magician’s Hat.” Mitchell spent $500-1000 of his own money on it, and the NCAA ruled he could sell the book long as the football program wasn’t promoting the sales. Former Georgia coach Mark Richt supported Mitchell’s efforts, writing the foreword to the book, which is the semi-autobiographical tale of a young man whose magic trick is to reveal the power of books to change lives.
A year later, with Mitchell in the draft spotlight, Oscar winner Witherspoon caught wind of his off-field hobby, and asked him to join her book club. The two traded book recommendations over Twitter.
If first-rounder Laremy Tunsil’s precipitous fall in the picks taught us draft week and social media can combine for serious trouble, Mitchell’s story is the other side of the coin.
“If you pick up and read, you never know what will come from it,” Mitchell told USA Today in 2015. “When it altered my life in such a positive way, that’s when I realized the effect it could have.”
As for his adoptive book club family back in Athens, whom Mitchell points out are all older than his mom and some “older than my grandmother,” they’re pretty pumped about their friend’s new job.
“We’re going to have a field trip” to watch Mitchell play when the season starts, Rackley told the Athens Banner-Herald.