This was supposed to be the biggest game of the year for Sanja Mitchell.
It was supposed to be the last time the 43-year-old mother of two would see her son, Trei Mitchell, play football in A.W. Mumford Stadium — the same venue the former Southern Lab Kitten made a name for himself as a hole-opening offensive lineman.
“This was supposed to be her Super Bowl,” said Sanja’s sister, Tonja Myles. “She loved to see Trei play football. She was his biggest fan.”
For the first time in his life, Trei Mitchell is without the woman that molded him into the young man he is today. So, it’s no surprise the past two weeks have been extremely challenging.
Especially Saturday, as the Baton Rouge native returned home for the first time since his mother succumbed to a heart attack on Oct. 24 and helped his team pick up a bittersweet 31-30 win.
“It would have been something special,” Mitchell said, holding back a tear, as he explained the thought of his mom being able to see him play in Mumford one last time. “It would have been special.”
Sanja Mitchell last saw Trei play when ASU lost to Jackson State on Oct. 13. And, like always, Sanja had a lot to say once the game was over.
“She critiqued me after the game like always, just telling me how bad I played,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t have a good game against Jackson.”
It would be the last time Sanja critiqued Trei’s play.
Back on campus and halfway through the team’s open week, Trei Mitchell and his mom talked via phone that Wednesday, mainly discussing their day. Before they said their goodbyes, Sanja Mitchell informed her son she would call him after she returned home from Bible study.
Sanja never made it.
She suffered a heart attack as she entered the doors of Living Faith Christian Center, minutes before Bible study began.
“She had a heart attack going in the door, carrying some things in for a nursing home ministry,” Myles said of her sister, who was a member of Living Faith.
Myles said Sanja had no previous heart trouble and she was healthy.
Since her untimely death, however, the woman that spent much of her life looking after her son passed the torch to the ASU coaching staff and players.
Sanja Mitchell’s funeral service was Oct. 30 in Baton Rouge. And ASU coach Reggie Barlow, who has been a father figure to Trei since he enrolled at ASU, attended to support his 6-foot-3, 321-pound starting center and his sister Jayda, much to Trei’s surprise.
“On the day of the funeral, he drove six hours and attended the funeral and made it back for practice,” Mitchell said of his coach.
“It’s just unbelievable how he’s stepped in and loved me, and my teammates are like my brothers.”
For Barlow and his coaching staff, Mitchell serves as inspiration as they, too, fight through the tragedy. After all, Sanja was well known by the ASU coaches for her tasty homemade pecan candy.
“Trei has become my new hero,” Barlow said after the game. “I had just talked to his mom about two days before it happened, and she just wanted to know how Trei was doing.
“For him to stay around and play in the Magic City Classic — which is one of the bigger games we have — and to play in this game showed true character.
“We knew how important it was for him to come here and play well in front of his family, and he did that.”
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