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From his wheelchair, Larry Mitchell guides Patterson football team

Since Larry Mitchell's days as a lineman at Patterson, he has dreamed of only one job — coaching the Clippers' football team.

Over the past 17 years, as Mitchell coached Pop Warner youth football teams and assisted with a couple other Baltimore City high school football programs, he held onto that goal — even after a gunman nearly shattered it with one paralyzing bullet 11 years ago.

That shooting left Mitchell, who had inadvertently walked into an armed robbery, in a wheelchair, but it never kept him off the football field. Shot in January and out of the hospital by April, he had full use of his upper body and was back on the Pop Warner field that August.

"That's my medicine," Mitchell said.

And it kept him going all the way to his dream job.

This fall, Mitchell, 38, takes over the Clippers in his first stint as a varsity head coach after leading his age 11-14 division Pop Warner team to a national title in 2010 and to the runner-up spot last year.

"I could have been anywhere, coaching anywhere and if this coaching job were to open, I'd apply for it. I could have been coaching at a big college," Mitchell said. "Some people kind of take it weird when I tell them, but this is my dream job. I'm definitely loving being at the place where I want to coach."

Last year, Mitchell interviewed for a couple head coaching jobs outside the city and when he didn't get them, he couldn't help but wonder if his wheelchair made a difference.

However, with Mitchell's experience, football knowledge, concern for his players and passion for his alma mater, Patterson athletic director William Buckless said he was the best qualified person for the job. He had no qualms about his wheelchair.

Neither did former Clippers coach Roger Wrenn, Mitchell's coaching mentor and a member of the search committee.

"I told him when he got the job, 'Now be prepared. This is going to be noteworthy,'" Wrenn said, "because people are going to say, 'Here's this guy in a wheelchair coaching football,' but he's a football coach first. He was a football coach before he was ever in wheelchair and a good one."

Mitchell said he has never met any resistance to his wheelchair on the football field. No one has ever left his team because of it. With only one losing season in his Pop Warner coaching career, players from around the area flocked to his team.

The Clippers weren't resistant either, although senior team captains Taqile Muhammad and Tamar Bennerman admitted to being a bit puzzled at first.

"I wondered a little," Muhammad said, "because he can't get up and move around, but I don't really have any reservations about him. You just have to work with him. He's a good man and everything is working."

Only briefly did Mitchell ever think he might not become a high school coach, during those moments in the hospital in 2001 when he thought he might not live.

He was shot Jan. 18 and he remembers every detail.

Around 5 p.m., Mitchell drove to pick up one of his high school-bound Pop Warner players for a meeting at his house with a coach and a financial aid officer from Archbishop Curley. The boy lived in an East Baltimore housing project and Mitchell wasn't sure of the exact address. When he arrived, he headed for the first open door to ask for directions.

"As I was getting ready to walk up on the step, a guy walked behind me. I had my work uniform on, shirt and tie. I had my little league football team hoodie on. The guy walked behind me. 'What the hell you doing down here?' So I turned around. He had a gun."

The gunman was herding people into the center of the complex and robbing them. Mitchell said it was a "heavily-drugged area" and that the gunman soon grabbed a boy off a bicycle.

"The kid … must have been the actual kid used to sell drugs in the area. So once he rolled up on the bike, [the gunman] hit the jackpot, because he grabbed the little boy off the bike and took all his stuff. Once he got him, he told everybody to run. Once everybody started running, he shot the gun in the air.

"Then you could hear the bullets pop, popping off the dumpster and like the last shot, that's the one that hit me in my back and I just felt myself being paralyzed instantly."

That night, members of Mitchell's extended family went to see him in the hospital. Several who coached with him and his cousin Charmon Vaughan, now a Clippers assistant, said Mitchell tried to prepare them to take over the Pop Warner team.

"He was letting us know what we had to do, because he felt that he wasn't going to live," Vaughan said. "Our older cousin [Alfred Cotton] was like, 'Well, no. You're going to be coaching. You're going to survive this and you're going to be right out there coaching with us.'"

Seven months later, he was.

"This is what he thrives on, this is what keeps him going every day," Vaughan said.

Mitchell said coaching on the high school level is all about teaching, a lesson he learned early from Wrenn, and he can do that as easily from his wheelchair as he could on his feet. He has always relied on his hands more than his feet to demonstrate, something he picked up at a coaches' clinic in the mid-1990s.

"Other than that," he said, "I've just been blessed with being able to say something to a child and him getting halfway to what I'm talking about, so I can say, 'Move your feet back a little bit, sit down a little bit, move over a little bit' until they get it right. Instead of me just sitting there trying to explain it, we just do it over and over again until we get it right."

One lesson Mitchell has instilled in his players is that he doesn't want to hear the words, "I can't." Mitchell has high hopes for the Clippers who, with a 6-4 record, just missed the playoffs last fall.

Muhammad said seeing Mitchell on the field every day motivates the players to work harder.

"When I look at him, I can't say, 'I can't,' so I'm going to do it. Even if it's the hardest thing in the world, I'm going to do it," Muhammad said.

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

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