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Eagles' Mikell has been proving skeptics wrong for years

THE USUAL ITEMS that take up the locker space of an NFL player were in Quintin Mikell's stall late last season.

Quintin Mikell earned second team All-Pro honors in 2008, his first season as the Eagles’ starting strong safety. (Michael S. Wirtsz / Staff Photographer)
Quintin Mikell earned second team All-Pro honors in 2008, his first season as the Eagles’ starting strong safety. (Michael S. Wirtsz / Staff Photographer)Read more

THE USUAL ITEMS that take up the locker space of an NFL player were in Quintin Mikell's stall late last season.

There were a dozen or so pair of shoes on the floor, a couple pieces of fan mail were stuffed in one bin and a picture of his son, Quintin III, was taped to another.

But on the very top shelf sat a scuffed football with a yellow tag on it. Fans of the "CSI" television shows would recognize it as a toetag. It was attached to the ball Mikell picked off Eli Manning in the second-round win over the Giants just the week before for his first playoff interception. It's fitting that Mikell, 28, cherishes the souvenir so dearly. Like most every other accolade, he had to go out and get it himself.

Last season, Mikell shared the defensive backfield with one of the most popular Eagles of all time (Brian Dawkins), one of 2008's top free-agent acquisitions (Asante Samuel) and a pair of cornerbacks (Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown) who, for several years, were as good a tandem as there was in the league. What Mikell does not share in is the spotlight.

"He's humble," said safety Quintin Demps, from the locker next to Mikell. "He could have gotten mad that he didn't get first team [All-Pro] or that he didn't go to the Pro Bowl. But it didn't matter to him. As long as we were winning and he was doing good, he just wants to have fun. You can tell he loves playing football. All that other stuff doesn't matter."

Mikell, in his first season as the Eagles' starting strong safety, earned second- team All-Pro honors in 2008.

This season, the Eagles' secondary will look very different. Dawkins is with the Broncos; Sheppard is with the Jets; Brown asked to have his contract renegotiated; the Birds traded for former Patriots starting cornerback Ellis Hobbs. It is Dawkins, his mentor, who Mikell will miss most.

"Obviously, that's a big hole to fill," Mikell said at last weekend's minicamp. "There's a leadership role and a level of play that needs to be filled in. The way I see it is that [the best way] I can honor him is to take what I learned from him and try to make myself a better player and make all my teammates better the way that he made me better."

The first snub

Before his senior year at Willamette High in Eugene, Ore., Mikell attended a football camp at the University of Oregon where he not only played well, he dominated. Mikell thought his performance would at least spark some recruiting interest from his hometown Ducks, which 3 years earlier had ended a 37-year drought and won the Pac-10.

No dice.

"He was viewed as a step slow or a hair small to be a Pac-10 player," said Dirk Koetter, a former Oregon assistant and now the offensive coordinator with the Jacksonville Jaguars. "It just goes to show you how inexact the recruiting process can be."

Jibri Hodge, a former Ducks receiver who watched the camp, spoke glowingly about Mikell. Hodge was so sure that Mikell was just a player in need of a little refinement that he recommended him to Koetter. When Koetter got the head-coaching job at Boise State in December 1997, Mikell was one of his first recruits. The chain of events that led to Mikell earning such leaguewide acclaim had begun . . . more than a decade ago.

College star

At Boise State, Mikell turned the neat trick of winning league defensive player of the year in two conferences. As a sophomore in 2000, he was tops in the Big West. Two years later, after the Broncos switched leagues, Mikell was the WAC defensive player of the year.

"He was a steal for us when we got him, but that's what a lot of guys are here at Boise State," said Max Corbet, a Broncos football administrator for 22 years. "They are guys, not necessarily underachievers, but who get overlooked. They play with a chip on their shoulder to prove to people they can play here and play at the next level as well."

Draft day after his senior year, though, would bring another punch to the midsection. Forty-seven defensive backs were taken that year, including Samuel by the Patriots in the fourth round, but Mikell was not one of them. Disappointed/dejected/disgusted (take your pick), he picked up a basketball and went outside to quietly shoot some hoops and do some soul-searching. His father joined him.

The same determination that allowed him to rise above the football-camp snub would carry him again. "I can't wait to put the pads on," he told his dad.

"It's been like that my whole life," Mikell said during the Birds' playoff run. "You know, slipping through the cracks and people doubting me. I say 'OK' and I just go to work. I work harder than the next guy and that's been the difference."

The attitude comes from his father, who, he says, was passed over for promotions and opportunities in the corporate world yet kept on persisting.

"I don't want this to be about me," said the elder Mikell, vice president of operations for Zee Medical Inc., a national provider of occupational first-aid and safety products. "But he saw how I handled things professionally, how I kept my composure. I'm most proud of him for what he's become as a man. He's never caused me any problems, never misrepresented our family in any way. He is special beyond being a member of the Philadelphia Eagles."

Getting some TLC

A chance at the NFL for undrafted rookies is equal parts timing, luck and connections. The unlucky players left on the wrong side of the league's door usually cite "politics."

Andy Reid's first coaching job was at Division II San Francisco State, a school that no longer has a football program and is better known for molding actors such as Danny Glover, Annette Bening and Dana Carvey. One of the other assistants on that staff was Koetter, Mikell's college coach.

Timing, luck, connections.

Koetter and Reid later spent time together at UTEP and Missouri, and when Reid's career veered off to the Packers and then the Eagles, Koetter often would tip Reid off to players during offseasons.

"Dirk was a big fan of Quintin, so I had a little bit of an inside scoop on him," Reid said late last season. "He thought he could play at this level . . . and our scouts did a good job of doing the homework on him from there."

Finding his way

The scheme run by defensive mastermind Jim Johnson takes time to learn, particularly for young safeties. Only linebackers have it tougher, Johnson says. Which is why Mikell, who will be starting his seventh season, spent the first 4 years of his career mostly on special teams gaining experience.

"Learning how to get off blocks in special teams really comes into play for safeties because you have to play in the box, fend off linemen and all that kind of stuff," Mikell said. "Plus, with special teams, it's kind of chaotic at times. After you learn how to play special teams, everything slows down [even defense]. Now I got to the point that everything is slowing down for me and I can read stuff."

It wasn't until 2007 that Mikell began playing opposite Dawkins, his idol before coming to the NFL, as the regular strong safety. An interception off Tony Romo in a December win over Dallas only strengthened his confidence that he could be a defensive starter in the NFL.

Although he came into 2008 as an incumbent, not everyone was impressed.

"When I first got here, honestly, I didn't think he was as good as what he is. Now I look up to him," Demps said. "I respect him so much. I see why [I wasn't] playing [regularly]. When I first came in, I thought I was going to take his spot. I respect him so much and I see now why he is the starter."

Mikell looks back at that football he snagged off Manning and knows that he has proven his athletic worth to the one person who matters most: himself. The tattoo on his left pectoral muscle proclaims it all, "Respect all, fear none."

"I feel like coming from where I came from, it took a lot of hard work, but I'm proud," he said. "If I die tomorrow, I can say that I am proud of what I accomplished."