The Super Bowl Champ, and the Dying Author Who Changed His Life

March 9, 2017
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You’ve likely seen the story. Last week in The New York Times’ “Modern Love” column, children’s book author Amy Krouse Rosenthal published an essay entitled, “You May Want to Marry My Husband.” The 51-year-old Rosenthal is fighting ovarian cancer and may not have long to live. In the essay, framed as a dating profile should her husband, Jason, soon become widowed, she describes their 26-year romance and the attributes—caring, supportive, thoughtful, adventurous, handsome, a great father—of the man with whom she has shared her life. “The most genuine … gift I can hope for,” she writes, “is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins.”

Rosenthal’s story went viral. The Associated Press synopsized the essay, as did People magazine, the Daily Mail and numerous other outlets. “Good Morning America” and the “Today” show did segments. The story has been shared tens of thousands of times on social media.

Through her more than three dozen books, Rosenthal has touched and inspired countless readers. One whom she impacted profoundly: Patriots wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell. As noted by SI.com during Super Bowl week, Mitchell came across Rosenthal’s best-seller “!” (“Exclamation Mark”) while a junior at Georgia. He was struck by the story, a little parable about a punctuation mark in search of its identity. He devoured the book in the store, bought it, took it home and decided that he, too, would become a writer. Mitchell self-published “The Magician’s Hat” during his senior year at Georgia. “Amy’s writing,” he says, “encouraged me that I could go write my own.”

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So when the 23-year-old heard earlier this year that Rosenthal was sick—the message was relayed through Patriots owner Robert Kraft by a friend of the author—Mitchell was crushed. The day after the Super Bowl, in which Mitchell caught six passes for 70 yards, he sat down, placed his iPhone on a tripod and pressed play.

“Hey Amy, this is Malcolm Mitchell of the world champion New England Patriots,” he says in the video. “I just wanted to spend some time and tell you… thank you.”

Mitchell says his passion for reading only really began in college. In 2013 he tore his ACL celebrating teammate Todd Gurley’s touchdown and underwent surgery, missing a total of 16 games over two seasons. As he rehabbed, he made a local Barnes & Noble his haunt. There, he was invited to join a monthly book club—the only male in the group, and the youngest member by at least 20 years. In the ensuing years, reading became an increasingly important part of his life.

A fourth-round pick of the Patriots in 2016, Mitchell was the only no-show among the rookies invited by the NFLPA to a marketing symposium in Los Angeles. He said he didn’t want to take time away from learning the Patriots playbook. He did have time to lead his foundation, Read With Malcolm, which promotes the power of reading to underprivileged children. And then he became a protagonist in one of the most elaborate sports tales of all time.

“Everything kind of exploded after the Super Bowl,” Mitchell says. “People fell in love, not only with the story, but with the message I was trying to send, that reading is a way to reach your goals.”

Last week Mitchell was handed the keys to his hometown of Valdosta, Ga. The city of 54,000 declared March 6 “Malcolm Mitchell Day.” He has spoken to dozens of schools and boasts about an elementary-school student he met last year who raised his reading speed from 10 words per minute to 80. The boy made such strides that he co-emceed a literacy luncheon with Mitchell in February. “He’s even learning French!” Mitchell says. “I don’t even know French.”

In late March, Mitchell will host 11 events over seven days at bookstores and libraries in New England. He was invited to join former First Lady Barbara Bush for a reading event this spring but had to decline—he’d already committed to another reading event on that day.

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And he has always circled back to Rosenthal, whom he has never met. Mitchell was raised by a single mom, Pratina Woods. In 2000, Woods was diagnosed with breast cancer. Mitchell remembers his mom often being tired, and always wearing bandanas because she was losing her hair from her treatment, which ultimately sent her cancer into remission. Mitchell and his siblings surrounded their mother with support during her battle, so he knows what Rosenthal and her family are going through.

Friends of Rosenthal, now in hospice care, report that she has been overwhelmed by the reaction to her Times piece. And she has been touched by the gesture of one professional football player.

Mitchell concluded his video message with these words: “Your book ‘Exclamation Mark’ … changed my outlook on life. It taught me that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from—there is a place in this world for you. You just have to stay strong and keep moving forward. So I just wanted to credit you for having an impact on my life. I wanted to spend some time to say thank you. I want to thank you again for pulling for us, and I want you to know I’m definitely pulling for you.”

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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