Bo Levi Mitchell had just finished his December workout in Denver when he found himself standing face to face with one of his boyhood idols.
John Elway, the pro football Hall of Famer and current Broncos team president, was praising Mitchell’s workout and career in Canada when the Canadian Football League’s reigning Most Outstanding Player asked if he could interrupt.
“I said, ‘John, listen, everywhere I’ve been my entire life in football – high school, college, professional – I’ve won a championship. And I’ve done it within the first two years that I’ve been there. I know you. You’re a championship guy and you want to hold the Lombardi Trophy over your head. So if you want to do that, sign me and I’ll get it done in the next two to three years.‘ ”
Elway responded immediately. “Okay. We’re signing you today.”
Elway was serious, but rules prevented the Broncos from signing Mitchell until January and he couldn’t have participated in team activities until the new NFL year in the spring.
But the impression stuck, and the Broncos were one of three NFL teams – along with Indianapolis and Minnesota – that wound up offering Mitchell a contract during the winter.
The exchange with Elway allowed Mitchell to continue on his NFL workout tour, confident he had impressed someone who knew a thing or two about playing quarterback in the NFL – even if some other teams didn’t seem that impressed or interested.
While his Denver visit was one of the highlights of his tour, there were other stops that were underwhelming, places where he encountered staff who didn’t know his name or which position he played.
It was a mind-numbing month of emotions, trying to read faces and body language and balancing all of that in the back of his mind against what he’d built in Canada during a spectacular first seven years in the CFL.
“I would call my agent [Dan Vertlieb] and say, ‘Dan, they’re telling me how much they love me and they want to sign me. They’re going to call on Jan 1,’ ” Mitchell said. “And he’d say, ‘Bo, temper your expectations. Make sure you understand this is what they’re telling everybody. They want you to feel wanted; that’s what they’re going to tell you.’
“I was kind of in a whirlwind of thoughts, words, emotions, is how everything went down. Hearing different things from different people the whole time…”
As he contemplated potential NFL opportunities, Mitchell couldn’t ignore the importance of the legacy he’s been building in Canada. He’s on pace to put together one of the most spectacular careers in CFL history – one that would place him among the all-time greats like Anthony Calvillo, Doug Flutie and Warren Moon.
“I wrote the number 79,000 [yards] down when Calvillo retired … I knew that was the number I had to hit,” Mitchell said. “I knew that six championships is where I wanted to get to. Six MOPs…that’s very hard to overcome. I absolutely want to be on top of every one of those lists when it’s all said and done.
“Legacy is something you talk about for a reason – because you do want to make a difference and the only way to do that is to be on top.”
On top is exactly where Mitchell has been since he arrived in the CFL back in 2012 and boldly told Dave Dickenson, who was the team’s offensive coordinator at the time, that he needed to make room for his new No. 1 quarterback.
He made good on that promise, seizing the No. 1 job during his third season in 2014 and flourishing in a way few CFL quarterbacks have so early in their careers.
In his first five seasons as a starter, he won two CFL Most Outstanding Player Awards and played in four Grey Cups, winning two and losing two, while twice being named the game's MVP.
By the end of last season, he'd thrown for nearly 25,000 yards, already ranking 21st on the CFL’s all-time list and second among all-time Stampeders. He’s already at 150 touchdowns, including the league’s second-best touchdown-to-interception ratio, behind only Dickenson.
His .814 winning percentage as starter at 69-15-2 is hands-down the best in league history, significantly better than even Doug Flutie’s .746.
He’s also developed a close professional and personal relationship with Dickenson, who knew first-hand the frustration of leaving behind a flourishing CFL career for a backup role in the NFL.
If he needed a reminder of what he’d be leaving behind in Canada, it came from an unlikely source in Vikings general manager Rick Spielman.
“Why would you leave Canada?” Spielman asked during the first stop of Mitchell’s eight-team NFL tour in December. “You’re a legend up there. You can make more money there the next four years than you can make here. I don’t see why you’re leaving a known commodity for a chance.”
“I thought it was kind of funny for the first time hearing that,” Mitchell said. “…I told him, ‘Honestly man, I didn’t grow up watching the CFL. I grew up watching the NFL. There’s only one trophy in my case I haven’t won and that’s why I want to come to the NFL, to win a Super Bowl.”
But Mitchell was aware there were going to be situations in the NFL beyond his control, like being stuck behind a starter who’d been paid big dollars up front, or behind a high draft pick who would get his opportunity to succeed or fail before Mitchell would.
And he knew the answer to whether he’d be able to handle being forced to watch the game from the NFL sidelines while time he could be spending building on his CFL legacy was ticking away.
“I couldn’t handle it. I’m a player, I play football," Mitchell said. “I don’t know how to sit on the sideline and I’ll be honest, I’m not a great teammate as a No. 2 or No. 3 quarterback. Even now, I don’t give away my secrets to a younger quarterback…there are things I have that have made me successful and I keep those things to myself.”
It was a feeling he didn’t hide in interviews with teams south of the border, even when they might have wanted to hear him say he would do whatever it took to be in the NFL and help his team succeed.
“I don’t know that I could wake up and enjoy my job if I’m going there to help prepare another guy to be the starter,” Mitchell said. “That was one of the things that bothered me in one of the interviews. The team said, ‘We have a starter. We love him. But we like you a lot. We want you to come in and be his backup, but we want to have a good quarterback room.’ I responded, ‘Of course you want to have a good quarterback room and I’ll try to help the kid out as much as I can…but at the end of the day I’m going to take his job.’ ”
Some of those answers may have put off an NFL team or two, but Mitchell wasn’t trying to be liked.
“The guy’s response was, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no … we can’t have that kind of thing; that riff and emotion in the locker room every day. It’s gotta be that we’re all here for the same reason and this guy, it’s his job and his team.’ I don’t personally understand that mindset and I can’t accept that and that’s where some things came down to me saying no to the NFL. [It] was me not understanding how to adopt that. I just don’t know how to do it.”
What Mitchell had to determine was whether he saw a team that would give him a shot to legitimately compete for a No. 2 job.
The Colts have an established starter in Andrew Luck and a promising backup in Jacoby Brissett, so Mitchell would have been in camp battling for the No. 3 job. The Vikings have megabucks committed to starter Kirk Cousins and still had Trevor Siemian, whom new assistant head coach Gary Kubiak knew from his days in Denver (Siemian signed a free-agent contract with the New York Jets in March).
The Broncos were looking to acquire a veteran quarterback, someone who could hold the job while they drafted and developed a player who would be groomed as a future starter, a plan they executed by trading for Baltimore’s Joe Flacco in February and then drafting Drew Lock during April's NFL Draft.
A big part of finding success in sports is figuring out what you are and what you aren’t. Mitchell had absolute clarity.
“I wasn’t going to go anywhere to be a No.3…That just wasn’t an option in my books…I have a certain respect for myself where I wasn’t going to take a job that I didn’t think was worthy of my time and effort if it wasn’t going to be reciprocated the other way.
“It was about having the football in my hands and not somebody else’s. As a guy who wants to leave a legacy, it was going to be hard to leave Calgary. It’s something I’ve thought about the entire time I’ve played here, leaving that legacy.”