By Ryan Draghi
In 2016, 72,788 NCAA athletes participated in college football, but only an estimated 1.6 percent of these players moved on to compete at the professional level.
Indiana wide receiver Mitchell Paige hopes to join this minority group in the 2017 NFL Draft next April. Although he is projected to go undrafted next spring by Drafttrek.com and other several mock drafts, Paige is not ready to give up his dream just yet. Paige said, “After I graduate, I will do everything I can and everything in my power to get onto an NFL roster.”
If anyone knows the process of overcoming odds, it is Paige. At first glance, he may resemble an average high school football player. The senior from Carmel, Indiana is listed at just 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds, but Paige’s coaches and teammates compare his work ethic to that of a veteran NFL player. Being called “too small” and “too short” his entire life, Paige has defied the odds time and time again. Although he was a two sport all-state athlete in both basketball and football in high school, Paige did not receive any division I scholarships. Paige calls his journey, “nothing but a wild roller coaster ride.”
The scrappy slot receiver proved the doubters wrong once more as he led the Hoosiers in receptions in 2016 and second on the team in 2015. He also received All-Big Ten honors in respective years. Despite these accolades, the transition to becoming one of the best players on IU was not ordinary or easy. Paige got his opportunity as a result of an injured teammate before the 2015 season. The former walk-on seized the chance by impressing coaches, teammates, and fans with his resiliency and dedication to the team. Fellow teammate Nick Westbrook told the Indystar last month, “He [Paige] is always one of the first people in the building … in order to get that extra work in.” Paige’s commitment to improve paid off as he became one of the top targets for a high powered offense that ranked second in the Big Ten in 2015 and third in 2016. The undersized wideout was second only to Nick Westbrook in total touchdowns (6) in 2016, while totaling over 1300 yards in two years for the Hoosiers. Paige has been a consistent target and shifty slot weapon for both quarterbacks Richard Lagow and Nate Sudfeld in consecutive seasons. This, all while returning punts and often switching field position for the offense with a 11.1 average in 2015, the fifth best in the Big Ten.
But, Paige’s plight to become a student athlete is even more impressive considering his busy academic schedule. Paige starts weekdays during the season by waking up at 5:30 a.m. to arrive for 8 a.m. practice extra early for treatment and meetings. After practice ends three hours later, Paige gets lunch in the stadium and heads into campus for class. His classes include a focus on telecommunication and several different business courses. After class ends at 4 p.m., Paige attends the team dinner. After, he watches extra film by himself and attends more meetings until 8 p.m. Finally, he ends his day with either doing homework, studying or spending time with his roommates. Although Paige calls his schedule during the football season, “cumbersome at times” he does not take his life as an athlete for granted. He said, “Being a student athlete is not for everyone for certain, but it is worth every second to me.” Unlike some athletes, Paige puts academics over sports first.
Although Paige has starred in his final two years of eligibility at IU, the “little big man”, his nickname amongst his teammates, values a degree tremendously. An education from Indiana private school Guerin Catholic prepared him well for IU. “We are offered tutors through our Academic Center,” he said. With daily practices, meetings,workouts and film sessions classes and schoolwork could easily fall through the cracks. Paige emphasized the importance of the resources athletes, not just on the football team, are offered at IU. If he struggles with a certain course or assignment, Paige does not hesitate to reach out for help at the Academic Center. Given the football team’s demanding schedule, Paige and his teammates are given a few more advantages. He said, “We get our own advisors too, which is nice. The biggest benefit we get with that is priority class registration.”
When Paige showed up for fall camp in 2012 he admitted to being quite intimidated. In an ESPN article last October, former head coach Kevin Wilson said, “I thought he was like a frat guy playing in the intramural league.” As he looked at giant offensive lineman nearly twice his size, Paige thought he may have made a wrong decision. Thankfully, he stuck with it. A few years later, Paige was offered a scholarship by IU. Speaking on behalf of both academics and football, Paige said, “There have been great days but also days when I was not sure how I was going to keep going and not give up.” Completing 15 hour days filled with a demanding workload of practice and schoolwork, especially without a scholarship, takes incredible perseverance. As Paige looks back on his time at Indiana, he does not regret anything, “It [failure] has taught me that there is no price that can be paid for putting your head down everyday and going to work, because it may not be the first day, or the 10th day, or even the 100th day, but eventually that work will have an incredible reward.” After this gratifying learning experience, Paige told kids while volunteering at local Bloomington elementary schools, “You really can do anything you want to do, I’m living proof of that.” This type of demeanor is certainly required if Paige wants to fulfill his ultimate goal, making an NFL roster.
Stats courtesy of: ESPN.com, IndyStar.com, Drafttrek.com, Draftwire.com, Draftsite.com