Super Bowl champion and literacy advocate Malcolm Mitchell on the importance of reading

"Everything I learned from football—whether resilience, accountability, change, or overcoming adversity—has crafted my mentality to reading and bringing it to others."

Malcolm Mitchell: Super Bowl champion and literacy advocate
Malcolm Mitchell

Photograph courtesy of Share the Magic Foundation

Atlantans is a first-person account of the familiar strangers who make the city tick. This month’s is Malcolm Mitchell, Super Bowl champion and literacy advocate, as told to Xavier Stevens.

At a young age, I adopted my mother’s mentality of making no excuses and putting my best foot forward every day. I grew up wanting to be a football player, and in my low-income neighborhood, I never considered that education could create a sustainable future. God blessed me with the athleticism and work ethic to make it to play in college [with the Georgia Bulldogs], professionally, and then as a Super Bowl champion [with the New England Patriots]. But along the way, I realized there are other necessary things outside of football that translate to success.

When I got to the University of Georgia, I was doing well on the football field, but stumbled in the classroom. I was in English 102, and we read “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. The professor wanted us to read the story popcorn-style, which was my worst nightmare. Another student volunteered to read the whole story, and I remember my relief from the fear that I could even potentially be called on to read. That sense of inferiority was my first realization that this was something I needed to address. I could go down a narrow path of only football, or, like my mother, I could try to be the best version of me and improve my reading.

I went to bookstores to read picture books, like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Giving Tree. I struggled at first. But I started to learn new vocabulary, sentence structure, punctuation. It electrified me. I was using more of my brain, and I started to learn a lot more about the world. It dawned on me: What if every one of my high school teammates understood this? Would we have interacted with school differently? How would we value our lives outside of sports? It definitely would have stopped us from making a lot of poor decisions, and given us more outside of football. My attention turned to writing books and inspiring students to find a love for reading.

The first step was writing a book, The Magician’s Hat, when I was in college. I connected with local schools to present my book as a read-aloud with students. I then created a nonprofit to help with fundraising, the Share the Magic Foundation. After I was drafted, my offseasons were for the foundation, and I visited schools across the Southeast and then the country. It just grew. Now we have three in-school programs that I do nationwide to get books in students’ hands, and three virtual reading challenges. My favorite is the Read Bowl, which connects classrooms across 50 states and 14 other countries and makes reading [a competition] like in the NFL. We have conferences and divisions. Each week is one quarter, and we tally the average of [students’] reading minutes.

I think a lot of people don’t realize that literacy requires the right culturally relevant motivation. It’s no different working a job; you work for your own reasons. It might not be every child’s desire to pass the class. Passing the class doesn’t always answer the question of how I can get out of poverty. I decided to answer that by proposing that reading can ensure your mom or dad doesn’t have to work three jobs, that reading can help you get a job or make you financially stable. Reading is also challenging because it’s delayed gratification, and you don’t see the results until later in life.

Everything I learned from football—whether resilience, accountability, change, or overcoming adversity—has crafted my mentality to reading and bringing it to others. Once you walk into a room and say you’re a Super Bowl champion, people tend to listen to you differently. I’m just trying to leverage that to connect with everyone and get my message across. It allows me to say, “Sports or hobbies are important, but also, here’s this other thing that’s even more important.”

This article appears in our May 2024 issue.