INDIANAPOLIS---George Mitchell, former United States Senator, author and chairman of DLA Piper, a worldwide law firm, has been named recipient of the 2010 Theodore Roosevelt Award, the highest honor the NCAA bestows.
The award, known as the “Teddy,” will be presented January 15 at the NCAA Honors Celebration during the NCAA Convention in Atlanta. The Teddy is presented annually to a former NCAA student-athlete for whom competitive athletics in college and attention to physical well-being after graduation have been important factors in a distinguished career of national significance and achievement.
The award is named after President Theodore Roosevelt, whose concern for the conduct of intercollegiate athletics led to the formation of the NCAA in 1906. Past recipients of the Teddy have included a variety of public- and private-sector leaders including Byron R. White (1969); Omar Bradley (1973); Althea Gibson (1991); Bill Richardson (1999); William S. Cohen (2001); Eunice Kennedy Shriver (2002); Sally K. Ride (2005); Paul Tagliabue (2007); John Glenn (2008) and former presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower (1967); Gerald R. Ford (1975); George H.W. Bush (1986) and Ronald Reagan (1990). Last year’s award recipient was Madeleine K. Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State.
The author of four books, Mitchell is the recipient of multiple honors including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the German Peace Prize and the United Nations Peace Prize. He is the second Bowdoin graduate to earn the Teddy. In 2001, the NCAA presented former United States Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen with the award.
The product of a large, tight-knit family, Mitchell grew up in a small town in Maine. One of five children, his father was the orphan of Irish immigrants and had only a fourth-grade education and his mother was a Lebanese immigrant who couldn’t read, write or speak English.
After graduating from Bowdoin, where he was a four-year member of the men’s basketball team, in 1954, Mitchell completed a two-year stint in the military then went on to earn a law degree from Georgetown with the intention of returning to his native Maine to practice law. When he couldn’t find a law firm to hire him in his home state, he accepted a job with the United States Justice Department, where he practiced for a couple years, until the office of the then-Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine came calling.
Mitchell had no interest in politics or plans to pursue a career in that arena and told Muskie as much. Even so, the veteran lawmaker offered Mitchell a position and requested that he stay through the senator’s next election. After Senator Muskie was appointed Secretary of State in 1980, Mitchell was a surprise pick by the governor of Maine to finish Muskie’s term. He had returned to Maine to practice law and was serving as a federal judge at the time. No one, he said, believed he could win an election once the shortened term was completed. Still, he took the risk and was rewarded, ultimately serving as a senator from 1980 to 1995.
Mitchell advises current NCAA student-athletes to be prepared for opportunities they hadn’t considered or planned for and to be willing to take risks.
His other advice: aim high and don’t fear failure. Falling short is inevitable, Mitchell said, but it is also one of sport’s greatest lessons.
“Nobody wins every game. Very early in life, you come to terms that you’re going to lose sometimes. You’re going to win sometimes,” said Mitchell. “You have to bounce back from the defeats.”
Mitchell admits he wasn’t the strongest basketball player, saying his three older brothers were the stand-out athletes. But he admittedly enjoyed his four years as a student-athlete.
“It meant a lot to me not just for the benefit you get from participating in sport – teamwork and a sense of being a part of a group of people dedicated to winning and to an objective – but also to be able to satisfy myself that I could compete, albeit not on the level that my brothers did, but still at the college level,” he said.
In addition to a stint as a federal judge and his 14-year tenure in the Senate, where he spent six years as Senate Majority Leader, Mitchell has been heavily involved in peace negotiations in Northern Ireland and between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Current United States President Barack Obama has appointed Mitchell as a special envoy to the Middle East.
He also has been part of the senior leadership of several high profile corporations and organizations such as Walt Disney Company, Federal Express, Xerox and Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox.
As a senator, he traveled extensively through Maine and took time to speak at all 130 high schools in the state. Along the way, he met a lot of youngsters who reminded him of himself at the same age – uncertain, insecure, lacking a sense of worth, self-esteem or direction. Moreover, the graduation rate in the state was low.
That experience led him to establish the Mitchell Institute in 1995. The institute awards one scholarship to a graduating senior at every high school in Maine. So far, more than 1,600 students have received over $7 million in aid. The institute also administers leadership, mentoring and public service programs.
“Now a lot of the youngsters who have gone through the programs are doctors, lawyers, teachers and really playing an important role in the life of the communities in our state,” said Mitchell. “I did a lot of important things when I was in the Senate – working on peace and other things – but, to me, that’s the most meaningful.”
Before he accepted President Obama’s request to serve as Special Envoy, Mitchell was chairman of DLA Piper, a worldwide law firm. The author of four books, he is the recipient of multiple honors including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Hesse German Peace Prize and the UNESCO United Nations Peace Prize.