From the cactus to the Cardinal

imply put, it was proba- bly the greatest display of running ability this state has ever seen.

It was Nov. 17, 1990 when Phoenix Brophy Prep faced Amphitheater High School in the first round of the Arizona 5A State High School Football playoffs.

But the teams' matchup was secondary to the matchup of the state's premier running backs which featured Amphi's Mario Bates and Brophy's Mike Mitchell.

Bates was a senior and was widely acknowledged as the best runner the state had ever produced. Mitchell was only a sophomore, but he was showing flashes of brillance on the football field.

The score of the game (36-32, Amphi) was secondary to what Bates and Mitchell did on the field. Bates rushed for 256 yards and three touchdowns, including the game winner with under two minutes to play. But it was Mitchell who stole the show.

He rocketed past Amphi for 310 yards and three touchdowns, coming on breathtaking runs of 90, 74 and 74 yards. A 36-yarder was wiped out by a penalty.

"Sitting on the field, I was not even believing what I was doing," said Mitchell, who is now a sophomore running back at Stanford. "(Mario and I) were just going back and forth. You could tell the people in the stands were having a good time."

One of the people in the stands that fall night was an onlooker with a more than passing interest in the game, Arizona coach Dick Tomey.

"I was out there when he and Mario played in that game," Tomey said. "I thought, 'Wow, I've never seen anything like that.' Those two guys were better than anybody else on the field. One 50-yard run, than a 60-yarder, than an 80-yarder. It was unbelievable."

After obliterating most of the Arizona state rushing and scoring records and being named unanimous high school All-American in most national publications his senior year at Brophy, Mitchell is now The Man in the Stanford backfield. He is second in the Pac-10, and sixth in the nation in rushing with a 157.5 yard-per-game average, while also leading the conference and being fifth in the nation in scoring at 12 points per game.

The other member of that November battle, Bates, went on to star for Arizona State and now suits up for the NFL's New Orleans Saints. While Mitchell has yet to make that kind of name for himself, Tomey believes the 6-foot, 210-pounder is on his way.

"He's younger and he has to prove he's in that category," Tomey said. "I think he's very capable."

Capable is what Mitchell has become after a disappointing freshman season with the Cardinal. He came to Palo Alto a prisoner of his hype, and many were disappointed when Mitchell only rushed for 124 yards last year. He bettered that total in his first game this season, in which he ran for 136 yards against Northwestern. Last week he blitzed San Jose State for 179 yards and three touchdowns.

"Mitchell is the classic example of someone improving from his first to second year," Stanford quarterback Steve Stenstrom said. "It took him a while to realize what he needed to be successful."

For Mitchell, all that it took was to get his freshman year behind him.

"It was a big shock," Mitchell said about his freshman campaign. "I was away from home and had a hard time getting things together. I wasn't able to run, I was messing up, and then I see whole articles written about me saying how bad I was."

But Mitchell stayed focused and dedicated himself to bringing his game up to the level he wanted it.

"I just trained harder this summer than I did before," Mitchell said. "I knew coming back that I was going to be a better player. I just want to continue what I'm doing."

What Mitchell is doing is just what Stanford has needed the last few years. Always a powerful passing team, the Cardinal has consistently lacked a dominant runner to take some heat off the air attack.

"A lot of people thought that we wouldn't be able to run the ball, and all of the running backs kind of took that personally," Mitchell said of the running corp that has taken Stanford to the 15th-best rushing team in the nation.

"He's terrific," Cardinal head coach Bill Walsh said of his new star. "Mike's a marvelous young guy, he's got a running back mentality. He takes his hits and gets back up."

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