ATLANTA -- Jim "Meat" Mitchell could have been the poster boy for toughness as a tight end for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1970s.
He could catch a spiraling pass that was in his face the instant he made a move on a defender.
Now, at age 54, he would have tremendous difficulty even seeing a football coming his way. Glaucoma, a disease marked by increased pressure within the eyeball, is slowly robbing him of his eyesight and a large part of his independence. He also suffers from diabetes.
A man so athletic and tough that he was voted the Falcons' 1970 player of the year now needs help just getting around town.
"It's a humbling experience," he said. "I'm a guy who is used to doing everything for myself."
Three eye surgeries in the past six years have afforded Mitchell little more than periods of hope followed by disappointment.
For the most part, he's confined to his modest house in southwest Atlanta. When he ventures outside occasionally to take a walk along a familiar path, his ears becomes almost as important as his eyes.
"My hearing is keener now," he said. "If I'm out walking, I can sometimes hear a car if I don't see it."
Mitchell gave up driving four years ago after a collision in a parking lot with a woman in a wheelchair. He hasn't had a job since 1995, when Morris Brown ousted its coaching staff. He still hopes to find work.
Paid $175,000 at the height of his 11-year playing career with the Falcons, Mitchell now gets by on a three-figure monthly NFL pension and Social Security.
Picked by the Falcons out of Prairie View A&M in the fourth round of the 1969 draft, Mitchell quickly gained the respect of his coaches and teammates.
"I remember we played the Rams his rookie year. Meat caught a look-in pass over the middle and ran over at least five guys on his way to the end zone," said former Falcons all-pro defensive end Claude Humphrey.
Mitchell led the team in receptions in 1970 and 1973, and his 305 career catches and 4,348 career receiving yards both rank fourth best in Falcons history.
Mitchell is still hanging tough, says Humphrey, who talks to him by phone often.
"He might mention his eyesight problem, but he doesn't dwell on it," Humphrey said.
Even so, it is an ever-present handicap that has altered and restricted the day-to-day life Mitchell once took for granted. Sight in his left eye has deteriorated to the point where he sometimes can barely see objects an arm's length away. Reading a letter or book is nearly impossible because banks of words disappear from his focus.
"Frustration is one of my biggest enemies right now," Mitchell said. "If I get frustrated about anything, my eyes get cloudy and I can't see anything. Everything becomes a blur. So what I try to do is stay in familiar places where I can be calm and relaxed."
The first symptoms arose in the mid-1990s. Ordinary lights began to appear in rainbow colors. Lights on approaching cars at night became blinding.
Mitchell has been fitted with glasses that make recognition of words and numbers easier. He's hoping technological advances in eye surgery will serve him better than in the past.
"I keep telling myself that, as a player, I was in some tough situations and came out of them all right," he said. "All I can do right now is hope and pray that I'll come out of this one, too."
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