Nate Olson: Mitch Mustain Asks, ‘How Did I Fail?’

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The building that houses the Springdale High School football concession stand is a miniature museum honoring the Bulldogs storied tradition. A big part of the display area is dedicated to 2006 graduate Mitch Mustain. There is a jersey, Army All-American Game helmet and the cover of Parade Magazine with Mustain and former Dallas Cowboys great running back Emmitt Smith pictured.

Last February I toured the building and hung out at Jarrell Williams Bulldogs Stadium with Mustain. Most former players would have waxed nostalgic remembering the individual accolades and the dominance of that 2005 team that was one of the more dominant in Arkansas prep history and one of the tops in the nation that season.

Not Mitch Mustain. He barely cracked a smile. Instead, his main observation about the building was the randomness of the team pictures displayed. When I asked him about how good it felt to be in the midst of the treasure trove of memories, he downplayed it. One wouldn’t blame a player for being at least a little proud, or recounting some of those season’s highlights as he walks on the stadium turf. Maybe he’s still too young (he’s 25) to appreciate it or maybe it’s the fact the trophy case is shared with former teammate Damian Williams. Mustain won’t comment, but the two, who played parts of a season together at Arkansas and were also teammates at USC, don’t communicate.

A bigger part of it may be that while football is a part of Mustain’s life, it doesn’t define him. He didn’t choose football — football chose him. He happened to be an athletic kid with a rocket arm, and maybe even a burning desire to win, but in the end football was a game. A documentary film entitled ‘The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain’, examines Mustain’s reluctant meteoric rise that ended with an unremarkable collegiate career at Arkansas and later at USC.

“I can certainly look back on my childhood now grown up and think certainly there was a path from the time I was four or five years old … I don’t really understand the psychology behind it,” Mustain said in the trailer for the movie that debuts at the Little Rock Film Festival next week. “You could look at it and argue there was a path there that was already beaten a little bit. ”

Mitch Mustain

He goes on to say, “It’s strange when you think about the fact that there was nothing exceptional about my childhood. I wasn’t groomed to be a quarterback. It came easy.It came kind of natural to me. Playing quarterback in college wasn’t my dream. That wasn’t it. It certainly begs the question if I missed something or went the completely wrong direction. The decisions I made, and the direction I took were mine to make.”

The piece I wrote for Vertical Magazine centered on Mustain’s bizarre freshman season at Arkansas where he helped the Hogs to eight straight wins, then was unceremoniously benched to never start again in Fayetteville. There was an angry team meeting, a scathing email sent from Nutt family friend Theresa Prewett, and a power struggle between then-Razorbacks head coach Houston Nutt, and offensive coordinator Gus Mazlahn, who just a year earlier had led Mustain’s Springdale team to an undefeated season.

Mutsain candidly answered all of those questions, and added new insight on a year most Hogs fans won’t forget. While Mustain answered question after question with candor, what stuck out to me is how he dealt with the disappointment so well. Coming out of high school he seemed to be a lock for the NFL, but after his eight games at Arkansas he only started one at USC. Disappointed? Yes. Crushed? Not even close.

“I don’t care what ‘Joe from Searcy’ says. At the end of the day, did I really fail?” Mustain told me that day. “I got my degree. What did I fail at? I learned more about football than 99 percent of the regular fan. I worked as hard as I could. How did I fail? I can walk away or keep playing it. Either way, I feel like I am gaining. I don’t feel like I lost anything. It didn’t turn out the way I wanted, but I still gained a lot of valuable experience. I think it is an ignorant statement to say someone fails.”

Based on the trailer, this seems to be the crux of the film. How a player who never lives up to the hype can move on with life with relative ease. He may have not met expectations, but those weren’t his expectations. Ninety-nine percent of the players in his position would have been driven to meet society norms and play in the NFL. Mustain is that rare player that wasn’t and a big reason why I want to see this movie. The story of players that never realized their potential has been told time and again, but never in this context.

“To be honest, I made this film because it’s a movie I wanted to watch,” Fayetteville filmmaker Matthew Wolfe told the Fayetteville Flyer. “I couldn’t believe no one else was trying to tell his story.”

I saw the first trailer for the film about the time I interviewed Mustain. It was dark and strange and showed the former star QB wearing a flannel shirt and leather gloves firing guns in the woods. I wondered if I needed to pack my bulletproof vest. Wolfe re-worked the film and waited a year to release it.

The new trailer is lighter and features the golden tones of former UA men’s basketball coach Nolan Richardson. A brilliant move if you ask me. I’ve always enjoyed Richardson’s rich voice. He may have the start to another career.

This is a must-see for Hog fans. This film is further proof Mustain didn’t have any choice but to transfer. If you thought Mustain was a conceited baby, you wont after this 90 minutes. His story is a remarkable tale of a star QB who never made it (based on society norms) and is fine with it.

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