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Former Eskimos receiver joins Brady and the Buccaneers

Bryant Mitchell makes a catch during Edmonton Eskimos practice at Commonwealth Stadium in this file photo from July 18, 2017.
Bryant Mitchell makes a catch during Edmonton Eskimos practice at Commonwealth Stadium in this file photo from July 18, 2017.

He might not have been the biggest signing announced by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week.

OK, with the Bucs picking up Tom Brady in a move that would have dominated headlines even in the pre-COVID-19 world of sports, Bryant Mitchell’s name went well under the radar in the National Football League.

And even he found himself caught up in Brady’s big move.

“I’m telling you, man, that’s huge,” said Mitchell, 27. “We would have gotten signed on the same day, I was just a little more overzealous to get it done, you know?”

Not every receiver gets a chance to catch balls from someone who has more Super Bowl rings that can fit on his throwing hand.

“I truly believe it’s going to be an exciting thing, I’ve been a Brady fan my whole life. I always thought he was the best,” said Bryant, a full 15 years the former New England Patriots quarterback’s junior. “For me, it’s huge because coming out of college, I spoke with the Patriots a bit. I had labrum surgery, and this is a story my chaplain from my school tells me, and also the doctor: I guess I woke up and told him he better have done the surgery right because I was going to be catching balls from Tom Brady. You see full-circle how God works.”

Fans of the Edmonton Eskimos had reason to take notice of Tampa Bay’s ‘other’ signing.

After all, Bryant was part of what can only be described as an American Air Force of receivers who came through their Canadian club, using their short but impressive time here to springboard into NFL opportunities.

“There’s a lot of guys who are in the CFL that I do believe could definitely play in the NFL,” said Mitchell, who was part of four Eskimos receivers in a four-year span to prove it.

Derel Walker, Brandon Zylstra and Duke Williams all finished atop the league’s receiving list while sharing the roster with Mitchell before turning their talents to southbound opportunities. And as much as it was a blessing to both learn from them and push them from behind on the depth chart, earning playing time of his own was a curse that followed Mitchell throughout his time in Edmonton.

While he played just 19 games over his three seasons with the Eskimos, Mitchell caught 97 passes for 1,418 yards and six touchdowns. Lumped into one 18-game season, his 1,343-yard average would have seen him finish top-five overall any of those years.

His big chance finally came in 2018, after Walker — who returned to the Eskimos halfway through the previous season — was done for the year with a knee injury in the Labour Day series. And from Week 12 on, there wasn’t a more productive receiver in the CFL. The Northwestern State product earned 721 receiving yards in seven games. Parlaying that into in a 2019 off-season that began with the Arizona Cardinals shortly before initially signing with Tampa Bay, Bryant’s long-awaited moment was instantly cut short by an Achilles injury in their opening preseason game.

“At the blink of an eye, you just think, ‘Wow, it’s over,’A ” Bryant recalled. “But it was one of the weirdest things, I was sitting there and our trainer, Bobby Slater, walks up to me and says, ‘Hey, kid. I got you, everything’s going to be alright.’ It was almost like an out-of-body experience, like God speaking to me through him. It was like a light shined.”

Last week, that beacon of hope that carried him through months of physical rehabilitation manifested itself in Mitchell’s re-signing.

“I had that time to grieve when I was sitting on the ground, now it was time to work,” said Mitchell, whose social media was filled with his own positive posts at each turn. “That was my mentality going into it.”

Nothing has changed coming off the injury, either.

“Being uncomfortable and that adversity, I feel like that builds character and that’s what really grows you,” said Mitchell, who continues to pull lessons he has learned from his time in Edmonton.

“Being on that practice roster the first year (2016), when I felt I could help the team to play, and even in my second year, I was actually offered a practice-roster role and I turned it down. And they ended up putting me on the one-game injured list and I played those seven games that year.

“I thought, for sure: ‘Hey, I’ve proved myself, I was going to be a consistent starter.’ I got benched again.”

And again in 2018, despite marking his season debut with 100 receiving yards, until getting back in for good in place of Walker.

“It really just taught me patience, and perseverance most of all, because through everything, you’re going to have ups and downs in life and it’s all about how you respond,” said Mitchell, whose journey with the Eskimos began by getting cut in 2015 at training camp. “I feel like I control what I can control, and everything else will work itself out.

“When the opportunity presented itself, I was very thankful.”

E-mail: gmoddejonge@postmedia.com

On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge

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