Winona State’s football team has a definite St. Louis flavor to it, which has given some spice to the Warriors on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, the program’s all-time leading rusher, Rayon Simmons, is from a St. Louis suburb (University City). Defensively, Winona State added some zest to its backfield this season in the form of Jared Mitchell (Chesterfield, Mo.).
The former high school teammates at Christian Brothers College High School (CBC) have reunited to give Winona State (4-1, 1-0 South Division) some big-time playmakers.
Both will need to be at their best on Saturday as the Warriors host No. 23 University of Sioux Falls (5-0, 1-0) at Maxwell Field.
“I got out of football for a year. I told Rayon I was not going to play football. I was pretty much going to wipe my hands of the sport,” said Mitchell, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound safety.
“He kept saying, ‘You should look at my school. You should look at my school.’”
Finally, Mitchell relented. A talented and versatile athlete who spent three seasons at Ole Miss — yes, the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss. — and one at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, found out he started to miss football.
Mitchell, with one of his seasons at Ole Miss being a redshirt, still had a season of eligibility remaining. He had already graduated from Ole Miss with a degree in broadcast journalism, but didn’t have to sit out when he transferred to Bethune-Cookman because he was taking credits toward a master’s degree.
He wasn’t enamored with his master’s program in transformatic leadership, and left Bethune-Cookman — where he played wide receiver — after one semester.
That’s where Simmons entered the picture.
“I am the one that helped get him up here. I told them (coaching) staff that I had a friend that wanted to come,” Simmons said. “We made it happen, basically.
“Family was big for him, and he came on a visit and that’s all she wrote.”
Winona State coach Tom Sawyer listened to Simmons, watched some film on Mitchell and liked what he saw. What he saw was an athletically gifted player who could close quickly on a receiver, played physical, and was an outstanding on special teams.
In addition, he soon discovered that Mitchell had an infectious personality that made him fun to be around. For the coaches, for his teammates.
“We went all the way back to his high school tape and saw he was a phenomenal athlete coming out of St. Louis,” Sawyer said. “He’s a long, lanky, athletic kid that can run and jump.
“He’s fun, too. He’s been a great addition. He’s a great team guy and his fit in really well. His personality is awesome.
“He’s great on the special teams because again, he runs long, he makes people miss and he is experienced and he is smart. You put all that together and you have a pretty good athlete.”
It shows, too, as as Mitchell is tied for third (with six others) on the team with 21 tackles. Only hard-hitting safety Ryan Williams (36) and linebacker Ryan Gets (22) have more.
In addition, Mitchell came up with one of the two key defensive plays of the game against Upper Iowa last week when he intercepted a tipped ball and took it 52 yards for a touchdown.
“I am just the same as everybody else on the team; we all work hard in practice. I was just in the right place at the right time,” Mitchell said. “Derby (Lunda) is the one who made the really good play.”
Sawyer believed that Mitchell had big plays in him, but knew he had to be patient in order to see them. Mitchell suffered a slightly pulled hamstring in fall practice and missed the majority of fall camp.
On top of that, he had to learn a new system — again.
“He is a very prideful kid and he wanted to make his mark here,” Sawyer said. “He’s only got one year. He’s fit in really well, but he wanted to do something on the field to fit in and now he’s done that.”
Mitchell’s fit in academically, too, as he is enjoying his classes in the sports management program. And he said he certainly enjoys Winona.
“I am really enjoying them (classes). People are extremely helpful here,” said Mitchell, who would like someday to work in the front office of a sports team.
“(Winona?), I was expecting it to be out in the middle of nowhere, or something like that. Like cornfields or something boring.
“The town is extremely beautiful, that is the first thing I noticed. The coaching staff, the team, the people are really friendly.”