Stump Mitchell rushed for 1,647 yards his senior season at The Citadel, second in the nation to South Carolina’s George Rogers who was rewarded with the Heisman Trophy and selected as the first overall pick in the 1981 NFL draft.
Meanwhile, Stump waited patiently for the telephone to ring while running backs were coming off the board left and right.
“I was waiting and praying,” the 5-foot-8 190 pound Georgia native told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in a 1981 interview..
Late in the second day of the draft, Stump picked up the ringing phone and heard St. Louis director of pro personnel Larry Wilson telling him, “Congratulations, you’ve been selected by the St. Louis Cardinals.” In response, Stump couldn’t contain his mood.
“He was mad,’ Wilson remembered. “He told Jim Hanifan (then Cardinals head coach) and me, both of us, that he was going to make our ball club, that he was better than a ninth-round choice, that he was going to make us forget about Ottis Anderson.”
Mitchell not only made the Cardinals, but he was named to the NFL All-Rookie team after becoming the most prolific kick returner in Big Red history and one of the best in league history. He also averaged 5.6 yards per carry backing up O.J. Anderson when called upon.
In 1982, Mitchell had only carried the ball six times through the first four weeks of the season and had been waiting almost two years to start a game at running back. He would finally get his chance on December 5 in Philadelphia.
The Cardinals were coming off a 23-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in a game which the Big Red rushed for over 200 yards against the league’s top run defense. Anderson had his best performance of the season rushing for 122 yards, but fell ill after the game. Chest pains sent O.J. to an Atlanta hospital. Tests came back negative, but Coach Hanifan held the star running back out of practice making him unavailable for the Eagles game.
“Stump’s a good football player,” Hanifan said, not appearing concerned at the loss of Anderson.
“It’s something I’ve been waiting for,” Mitchell said of his chance to start. “I wish we had O.J., but we don’t, so now I’ve got to shine. I’m not looking to fill his shoes because nobody can do it. I’m the starter—for one game—but I’m not O.J.”
The Cardinals decided to stick with the same game plan that worked so well against the Falcons. The only difference would be the man carrying the ball.
“I don’t think this is as much a challenge for me as it is for the offensive line,” Mitchell told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “They’ve got to try to top their performance of last week, and if they do, I’m going to have a good game. The pressure is not on me.”
“I’m psyched and I’m ready. This is an opportunity for me and I don’t know when I’ll get another one.”
Saying that Stump made the most of his opportunity would be an understatement. He slashed his way through the Eagles defense for 145 yards, ran untouched into the end zone for a 32 yard touchdown, and gained the crucial first down on a third-and-seven play that clinched the Cards 23-20 victory.
“Now you want us to have a tailback controversy,” a laughing Hanifan said after the game.
“I was just trying to read my blocks and dip in and out and pick up some yardage,” Stump said. “It was easy.”
“I did not expect St. Louis to run on us,” Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil claimed.
Anderson played cheerleader from the sideline throughout the game, urging on Michell and the offensive line. Rookie tackles Luis Sharpe and Tootie Robbins, guards Joe Bostic and Terry Stieve, and old man Dan Dierdorf at center paved the way for 231 rushing yards in the game.
“The offensive line gave me holes big enough to drive a truck through,” Mitchell said. “I was a little nervous going into the game, but then it got easy.”
Coach Hanifan claimed that he wasn’t surprised at Stump’s performance.
“I didn’t think he’d get 145 yards, but I knew he had it in here,” said Hanifan, thumping his chest. “Nobody has more heart than Stump.”
After the game, Anderson was one of the first to congratulate Stump. Anderson was later asked if he wasn’t a bit concerned about losing his staring job.
“You think he’ll give me my job back?” Anderson said. “I think I’m going to have to work for it.”