One year later in the same Texas town, “The Gunslinger” is back.
Last January in Frisco, Eastern Washington quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell led the Eagles to their first national championship. This year, he’s one of three finalists for the 2011 Walter Payton Award, given to the outstanding player in the Football Championship Subdivision.
There’s a trophy at stake tonight, but no teammates to share it with, much as he wants to. No playbook, just a piece of paper scrawled with a few words, in case he wins.
“It’s all the excitement without all the stress,” said Mitchell, who along with head coach Beau Baldwin flew Thursday afternoon to Dallas, where Mitchell began his college career in 2008 at Southern Methodist. Two years later he transferred to EWU.
“It’s a lot like last year, being able to go back to my roots and finish everything where it started. It’s a huge deal for me.”
And with national letter of intent day less than a month away, the Payton award would also be huge exposure for the EWU program, Baldwin said.
“Bo has continued to set a high standard,” Baldwin said while en route to Dallas. “Now we’re in a situation where we’re looking for that next player to step up.”
Mitchell did just that in 2011. In the opener at Washington, Mitchell lit up the Huskies for 473 yards, but the Eagles lost 30-27. Three weeks later, EWU was 0-4 and running out of offensive linemen. More than ever, he was “The Gunslinger,” a nickname given by his teammates.
In the 2010 season, which ended with a 20-19 victory over Delaware, Mitchell threw for 300-plus yards in just two games. Last year, he did it eight times; four times, he topped 400 yards. Backups plugged the line and receivers adjusted their routes as Mitchell scrambled.
“I know it sounds like a cliché, but this is a team award,” Mitchell said.
The team responded, and EWU won six of its last seven to finish 6-5.
“He handled it well,” Baldwin said. “In fact, he did a ton of things better this year than last when he won a national title.”
So what are Mitchell’s odds of winning? Probably better than one out of three, considering he led the nation in passing yards and touchdown passes during the regular season. The other finalists are Lehigh quarterback Chris Lum and Indiana State running back Shakir Bell.
Lum finished second in both categories while throwing two more interceptions as the Mountain Hawks enjoyed an 11-2 season that ended in the FCS quarterfinals. Bell is only sophomore who plays for a program that lost 60 of 62 games before his arrival in 2010. The Sycamores were 6-5 this year.
The announcement is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. PST.
Tonight’s award is out of his hands, but not his immediate future. One way or the other, it will involve football. On Jan. 21, he’ll play in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, featuring 100 NFL prospects from around the country.
“I hope to do my best,” said Mitchell, whose backup plan includes Canada and beyond.