By Donna Williamson
D. Mark Mitchell grew up knowing that he wanted to be a sports’ announcer. That dream was realized, when at the age of 15, he became the “Voice of the Opelika Bulldogs,” a title he has proudly maintained for 35 years.
Mitchell first ventured into “the other side of sports,” when he was hired by Bill Harrelson, former Opelika Parks and Recreation Director. “Bill hired me when I was 12. One of my jobs was keeping the books for the parks and recreation baseball teams,” Mitchell explained.
“When Mark was keeping the books, he would sit there calling the game like he was on the radio,” Harrelson remembers. “Mark was a very unusual kid, dedicated and responsible. I feel like I helped raise him, and I am proud of how hard he has worked and what he has accomplished.”
At the age of 15, Mitchell was working for Jack Smollen at WJHO (now WANI) when he did his first radio broadcast of an Opelika High School football game.
“I called Jack Smollen, did a demo for him and he hired me at the age of 14 to do sideline reports and stats, which then led to the broadcasting of OHS football games,” Mitchell explained.
When Mayor Gary Fuller bought Fuller Broadcasting (now i-HEART Media) and acquired the rights to broadcast the OHS football games, Mitchell’s destiny was set. He started broadcasting the games on KICKER and has been doing so for 31 years. His radio show “On the Mark” can also be heard weekdays from 7-9 a.m. on 1520 AM.
Mitchell and Fuller go way back. “I started a grass cutting business when I was 11. Gary gave me my first job. Mitchell said. “He also gave me Bear, my first dog. Bear walked every yard with me. We were inseparable.” Mitchell also remembers when life-threatening health issues prevented him from working at the radio station. “I was unable to work for two years, and Gary paid me even though I never worked. He is like a second father to me,” Mitchell said.
In 1992 what was supposed to have been routine out-patient hip surgery almost ended his life. “The doctor told me the surgery was successful, but I woke up screaming in pain. I had two blood clots, ended up in ICU and almost died,” Mitchell said. “They had to evacuate the blood clots, which damaged my sciatic nerve. I developed Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, a rare nerve disorder disease.”
Mitchell explained that this disease is like turning the nerve inside out. “Nothing can touch the leg, which is why I can’t wear long pants,” he said. “This completely stopped my life.”
Since that time Mitchell has had 38 surgeries. The final attempt to relieve some of the pain, to at least make it bearable, was the implantation of an electronic computer chip in his back and inside his leg. “Placing the computer chip in the leg had only been done on monkeys. I was the first human to try the procedure,” Mitchell said. “The chip doesn’t stop the pain, but it does impede it.”
Mitchell is ever the optimist. He said, “When I was out of work, I got to spend time with my girls Mallory and Madison. I would choose pain and suffering to be with them. They are my world.”
“My health is a battle every day. But I am still able to walk and move around,” Mitchell said. “There is only one reason I am here and that is God, His mercy, His way.”
He has also battled a non-alcoholic liver disease as a result of medications for the nerve disease. He was on the list for a transplant; however, doctors didn’t think he could endure the surgery. “I am here today. My liver is still functioning,” he said.
However, nothing seems to slow Mitchell down. In 1995 he started the corporate sponsor program at OHS. “Our original goal was to raise $25,000 and now we are raising $100,000,” he explained.
Mitchell is the co-chairman of the Auburn/Opelika Sports Council, which was formed eight years ago to move the high school football playoffs from Legion Field in Birmingham to alternate between Auburn and Tuscaloosa. “It took us three years to get approval from the AHSAA,” Mitchell said. “The playoffs have generated millions into the local economy.”
Larry Gore and Jeff Sasser work with Mitchell in the broadcast booth. Gore, who has worked with Mitchell for approximately 30 years, said, “Mark is completely and totally a Bulldog. He loves Opelika sports. He bleeds red and black.”
Sasser, who has been friends with Mitchell since junior high, says that Mitchell was instrumental in getting the renovations at OHS and the stadium. “D. Mark got the school board and city council together. He was one of the key figures to pave the way by putting people together who could put the wheels in motion.”
Mitchell is thankful for the love and support he has received from his parents John and Bettye, his daughters Mallory and Madison, and his brothers Keith and Lance.
“Courageous” is the word Bettye Mitchell uses to describe her son. “He has this drive. He fought against all odds and here he is today. And no one loves Opelika like he does.”