By Fares Marzouk and Darita Higareda
Legendary Chicago sportswriter Fred Mitchell visited the Medill Media Teens on Feb. 8 to share his experiences as an African-American journalist. He discussed his passion for writing and storytelling, and retold encounters he had with some of Chicago’s most celebrated athletes.
The teens were captivated by his relationships and stories with celebrities such as Walter Payton, a Chicago Bears running back, and Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest boxers of all time. Mitchell went behind the scenes with some of the most well-known athletes, generously sharing those stories with the teens.
After introducing himself to the teens, Mitchell hooked the audience by retelling an incident with Walter Payton. Mitchell shocked the audience when he revealed that Payton had graciously lent his Super Bowl XX ring to one of young boys on a basketball team he coached after retirement.
“He [Payton] was talking to the boys about the importance of trust, and to exemplify that he gave his Super Bowl ring to one of the guys over the weekend,” said Mitchell, a 41-year veteran of the Chicago Tribune. “He told them to bring it back because he trusted him.”
Mitchell said when the boy return to the basement with his friends, the ring came up missing.
“Now all of a sudden, the ring is missing, said Mitchell, who now serves as the community correspondent for the Chicago Blackhawks. “The incident caused a lot of hard feelings. The ring was missing even after the day Walter died in 1999. Then in 2001, I got a phone call from a college student at Purdue University.
“They said that they found Walter Payton’s ring. Long story short, these high school kids went to the basement, and the ring fell between the couch cushions. And this college student a few years later needed a coach, so as he was bringing it up from the basement, the ring fell through the cushions. The young man ended up giving the ring to Payton’s family.”
Mitchell said he had the opportunity to interview Ali on more than one occasion, adding that one of these interviews was for an event to raise money for a children’s charity.
The sportswriter’s story took a quick turn when he shared a funny experience during one of these interviews.
“In 1998, Ali pranked me by pretending to fall asleep during the interview,” Mitchell said, describing the unseen comical side of the legendary boxer. “He was a jokester till the end. Funny guy and certainly an icon too.”
Outside of the personal relationships and funny stories with these larger-than-life individuals, Mitchell shared a valuable piece of wisdom with the teens.
“After traveling with these athletes and getting to know them on a personal level, I can tell you that they are just like everybody else. People,” he said. “They have the same concerns about their families and marriages and careers. It just so happens that they can play basketball, baseball or football at a higher level.”
He said with as many accolades that athletes receive, it is important that young people remember that they are “just normal people with extraordinary abilities.”
“We are all ordinary people with extraordinary abilities or talents,” he added, “and so we should turn to these athletes for inspiration to hone our crafts -athletic or not- and be larger than life in our own way.