The receiver was open. His feet were set. The throw was perfect. The pass fell incomplete. (Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE)

Mitch Mustain Seizes Control


The sound in the stadium resonates as loud as your ears can take. But to the quarterback, it’s all silence. It has to be. He gets the signal from the coach on the sidelines, relays the play to the team in the huddle, and then breaks the huddle and gets the team set up at the line of scrimmage. That is where everything really happens, where plays and even games are won and lost. Whether for a pass play or a run play, he quarterback has to read the defense and make changes in blocking assignments for the offensive lineman if necessary. He has to look at the defensive alignment and determine where the holes in the defense will be and adjust receiver routes accordingly, maybe even set a player in motion from one of the field to another. It’s a chess game, and it’s the quarterback’s move. But then the play begins, and suddenly the quarterback can only do so much. The quarterback needs a good snap from the center. On a running play, the quarterback has to hand the ball to the running back, and the running back has to grab it cleanly. On running plays to a running back, the quarterback is only a facilitator, not the playmaker. But even on passing plays, there is only so much the quarterback can do. He needs a good snap from the center and good blocking from his linemen. He needs his receivers to run good routes, get open, and then catch the ball. The quarterback has to set his feet, move in the pocket, look off the defenders, survey his option, and make a strong, accurate throw. But the quarterback can do everything right and the play could still turn into an incomplete pass or even an interception if his teammates don’t do their jobs. The sense of control before the play disappears. Football goes from an individual mind game into a team game where everyone has to do their share or it all will fall apart.

That’s simply the game with a game. But then there is the variability of circumstance. The quarterback has to get he right opportunity with the right organization. He has to work his way to the top of the depth chart. He has to avoid injury. The quarterback is the field general and so much depends on him in every single game. But so much of his performance depends on his teammates and the situation he is placed in. Mitch Mustain is a victim of circumstance.

There was no doubting that Mitch Mustain was a great quarterback prospect. Coming out of Springdale High School, Mustain was rated the 2005-2006 National Player of the Year by USA Today and Gatorade and was also Mr. Football in Arkansas. He committed to the University of Arkansas and the Razorbacks hired his high school coach, Gus Malzahn, as offensive coordinator afterwards. He had the arm strength and the accuracy, the fluidity and the toughness, the swagger and the leadership. It seemed like only a matter of time, three years to be exact, until Mustain was going to be a first round draft pick in the NFL Draft.

In his first ever high school game as a true freshman in 2006, Mustain replaced Arkansas quarterback Robert Johnson in the fourth quarter of what would turn out to be a blowout loss to USC and led the Razorbacks on an 80-yard touchdown drive. Over the course of the season, Mustain would go 8-0 as a starter. His best game was on September 16th versus Vanderbilt when he went 13 for 20 for 224 yards and 3 touchdowns versus 1 interception. But Mustain was replaced by sophomore Casey Dick in the Razorbacks’ 10th game and played just sparingly the rest of the year, including the Razorbacks’ bowl game, the Capital One Bowl against Wisconsin. Following the season, Malzahn left to join the University of Tulsa, prompting Mustain to move on as well. A year to the day after he committed to Arkansas, Mustain announced his intention to transfer to USC.

Per NCAA transfer rules, Mustain sat out the entire 2007 season. Then in 2008, he looked to have a chance to start for the Trojans when starter Mark Sanchez suffered a dislocated left kneecap. But Sanchez returned for the start of the season and Mustain threw just 16 passes all year. The following year, Mustain competed with Aaron Corp and true freshman Mark Barkley for the starting job, but Corp won the competition, and after he was a disaster as a starter, Barkley was chosen to replace him. Mustain was desperate enough to help the team that he tried out at punter at one point, but also to no avail. Corp transferred following the season, but Barkley remained the starter for 2010. With Barkley injured on November 27th against Notre Dame, Mustain received his first start since 2006 and played pretty well, going 21 for 38 with 183 yards and an interception- but he threw a pass to a wide open Ronald Johnsonthat looked to be the game-winning touchdown, but Johnson bobbled and then dropped it as the Trojans lost the game. It was a perfect microcosm of Mustain’s career- he did everything right, an opportunity seemed to be right there, and then somehow everything slipped away.

Mustain went undrafted in the 2011 NFL Draft and subsequently tried out for two different Arena Football League teams but could not make either.

Mitch Mustain’s life as a professional athlete looked to be over. He had once had promise in football, but it all seemed to be gone. Then came shocking news in February of 2012: the Chicago White Sox had signed the 24 year Mustain to a baseball contract. Mustain once had some promise in baseball, back in high school, but everyone knew that his focus was squarely on football. However, the White Sox gave Mustain a chance to prove himself, and Mustain hit 90 MPH off the mound in a tryout, prompting the White Sox to give him a chance. Mustain has pitched for a Bristol White Sox team with some players that are nearly 6 years younger than him. But despite not playing baseball in 6 years, Mustain has pitched relatively well, going 1-1 with a 3.75 ERA, 8 strikeouts, 4 walks, and 1 save in 9 relief appearances and 12 innings pitched. Mustain is the longest of long-shots in baseball. He’s the oldest pitcher in the Appalachian League who has thrown at least 10 innings. But at least his fate is in his own hands now. If he can continue improving and pitching well, you never know.

Pitching is very different from playing quarterback. Instead of being with your team in the huddle and then at the line of scrimmage, you’re isolated on the mound. Instead of throwing to receivers who have to run routes to get open, you have a catcher staying in one place who is exponentially more likely to catch the ball than a receiver. The pitcher is in control. He dictates the pace of the game, not a play clock, taking as much time as he is comfortable with between pitches. He winds up and delivers not worrying about a defender charging at him. It’s him versus the hitter, and whether he succeeds or fails in the long term is going to depend on how good his pitches are in terms of velocity, movement, deception, control, and command. Once the ball is put into play, there is most of the time nothing he can do. Maybe an outfielder drops an easy flyball to lose the game. Baseball isn’t an entirely individual game no matter how you slice it. But there is so much that the pitcher can control. Whether he strikes out batters or walks them or whether he allows groundballs or flyballs all depends on how well he pitches. If Mustain keeps improving as he continues to pitch, the White Sox and other major league teams will notice. And one other thing: NFL teams have just one starting quarterback who plays in basically every game and is only removed because of injury or disastrous performance. There are at least 10 pitchers on every single Major League Baseball team right now. That means that there are plenty more opportunities.

After missing out on football, something he seemed so likely to succeed in coming out of high school, Mustain is on the opposite edge of the spectrum, looking to beat the odds and become a Major League pitcher. The ball is in his hands as he gazes at the catcher and comes set in his delivery. All he hears is silence.

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