Darla Dunning is a senior at Valdosta State University majoring in English with a journalism track. She has been an editor for the school newspaper, The Spectator, serving as assistant opinions editor in the spring of 2017 and content editor this fall. She is also the editor-in-chief of her school magazine, On Tap. Darla works for Valdosta State’s Student Success Center, tutoring students in their writing and English courses. She has spent the past six months interning for the City of Valdosta’s Public Information Office as a journalist. She also interns for Snake Nation Press, an independent publishing company in Valdosta.

Darla is the president of Sigma Alpha Chi, the oldest honor society at VSU, and a member of the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society. Recently, she was the recipient of the 2016-2017 Georgia Press Educational Foundation Scholarship and earned a certificate in Multimedia Basics from the Poynter Institute. Darla grew up in Valdosta, Georgia and is the daughter of Paul and Laura Dunning.
“Darla Dunning’s entry is a great example of a writer finding a rough gem of an idea for a story, and then polishing it over and over until it shines. She wanted to write about Valdosta High School (and now New England Patriot) star Malcolm Mitchell, and her diligence in reporting and writing the story really paid off. The journalism program at Valdosta State University and her colleagues at The Spectator, VSU’s student newspaper, are extremely proud of Darla, as am I.” 

-Dr. Ted Geltner, Dunning’s sports journalism professor at VSU

Malcolm Mitchell’s Playbook: Starting a New Chapter

Across the nation, more than 100 million fans anxiously stared at their screens, glued to the waning moments of Super Bowl 51. The New England Patriots came from 25 points behind to tie the game with the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth quarter.
With two minutes and 34 seconds left, Patriot wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, a name unknown to most of those 100 million fans, rose high in the air and caught Tom Brady’s pass.
“Here’s Malcolm Mitchell with another first down,” exclaimed announcer Kevin Harlan. “Mitchell was a fourth-round pick and grew up in Valdosta, Georgia. What a play!”
To most fans, Valdosta was just another small town. But to Valdostans, it brought immense pride, knowing that one of their own was about to become a Super Bowl champion.
At 23 years old, Mitchell has achieved accomplishments beyond the wildest dreams of most his age. To do so, he had to overcome not just competition, but a lifelong struggle with literacy as well.
His football career started in high school, when he put on his No. 26 jersey and stepped onto the turf for the Valdosta Wildcats.
At first, Mitchell was a defensive back, but his coaches, Rance Gillespie and Alan Rodemaker, moved him to wide receiver once they saw he needed to have the football in his hands. The decision to make Mitchell a wide receiver helped turn around the Valdosta Wildcats, and Mitchell led them to a highly successful season.
He received the Under Armour All-American, Region 1-AAAAAA Player of the Year and set a Valdosta High single season receptions record in 2010 with 77 catches for 1,419 yards and seven touchdowns.
But Mitchell’s contributions went beyond the field.
“We are always pushing our kids to be more like Malcolm Mitchell,” Rodemaker said. “When someone asks me about Malcolm Mitchell, I don’t talk about the wide receiver or the athlete. I talk about the man.”
After graduating high school in 2011, Mitchell took his football talent to Athens and the University of Georgia, where he would wear his No. 26 jersey as a Bulldog from 2011-2015.
Once on campus, however, Mitchell realized his reading was subpar. In fact, due to reading struggles at an early age, he read at a junior high level.
Mitchell’s reading journey began in an aisle at a Barnes & Noble when he met Kathy Rackley. Mitchell asked Rackley to recommend a book, and she suggested the love story “Me Before You.”
During their conversation, Mitchell found out that Rackley was a book club member. He asked her if he could join to improve on his reading skills. Rackley said yes.
This is where his journey began.
At the time, Rackley was unaware that Mitchell played football, but she felt anyone who was excited to read should join her club.
The book club was full of middle-aged women, so nobody expected Mitchell to actually show up. But show up he did, and he had already read the book she had recommended.
The Silverleaf Book Club changed Mitchell’s life.
Mitchell shared his feelings about different pieces of literature he wanted to read, such as novels and fiction. It opened his mind to reading books that he would not have picked up on his own.
When Mitchell was not throwing a football or reading a playbook, he had a novel in his hands. His teammates were accustomed to seeing Mitchell reading in the Bulldog locker room.
His enthusiasm to read inspired him to write a children’s book titled “The Magician’s Hat.” The book encourages youth to take the magic of reading with them in their lives.
This has become Mitchell’s motto.
“Pushing the message that reading is important and will help you become the person that you want to be is something that I will forever do,” Mitchell said. “I approach this with the same mentality as I approach football.”
“The Magician’s Hat” won the Children’s Author of the Year award by the Georgia Writers Association in 2016. Through his book, Mitchell impacted the students in his hometown by starting a foundation called Read With Malcolm. Through the foundation, Mitchell reads his book at area schools, delivering his message to the children of Valdosta.
“Last year in Valdosta, over 650 first graders took home a copy of ‘The Magician’s Hat’ to help jumpstart their love for reading,” said Dr. Todd Cason, superintendent for Valdosta City Schools. “We are looking forward to Mitchell visiting our schools again, so our students can read with a Super Bowl champion.”
Dr. Cason said he will have Mitchell’s No. 26 Valdosta jersey and No. 19 New England Patriots jersey hung in the new Valdosta High School, opening in August 2018, so students may be inspired to strive for greatness.
In March 2017, Valdosta Mayor John Gayle awarded Mitchell a key to the city and declared March 6, 2017 as Malcolm Mitchell Day.
Through his successes, Mitchell said there is no better feeling than sharing his triumphs and victories with people who were there for him in the beginning. Mitchell said he wants to be the best that he can be in every aspect of life.
“As I look at my life now, I’m only 23-years-old,” Mitchell said. “I’m an author and a Super Bowl champion, but if I don’t achieve anything more in my life, I will be a failure. This means that I got too complacent, and I got too comfortable, because I let the victory stop me from going even further.”
Mitchell’s words of inspiration, his athletic accomplishments, his children’s book and his outlook on life make him a prominent sports figure in Valdosta. He said there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.
“So if I had to send a message today, it would be to encourage everybody to dig deep within them and ask yourselves, ‘are you doing the best that you can,’ because in life that is all you can be,” Mitchell said.