By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For the Birmingham Times
Cameron “CJ” Young has been looking forward to the Magic City Classic since playing in his first one in 2019. Back then, he was a bit player, an Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University (AAMU) freshman wide receiver who managed just one catch for six yards.
“This year, I’m going to be more vital,” he said. “I’m starting.”
The 79th McDonald’s Magic City Classic presented by Coca-Cola will be held on Saturday, April 17, at Birmingham’s Legion Field; kickoff is at 6:30 p.m.
The former standout from Daphne (Alabama) High School is looking forward to putting on a show for the fans, even though his favorite fan will be absent. His grandmother, 59-year-old Carolyn Denise Mitchell, contracted and succumbed to COVID-19 last August.
Because of the ongoing pandemic, the 2020–21 Magic City Classic is much different from years past. No bands. No tailgating. No fans beyond the 17,500 permitted at Legion Field to allow for social distancing at an event that normally draws 40,000 to 60,000.
For Young, those differences pale in comparison to playing without his grandmother, who never missed any of his games dating back to youth sports.
Even though Mrs. Mitchell will not be in the stands, perhaps the cameras of ESPNU, which will televise the game, will zoom in on the sophomore’s Nike cleats to show where he has written “# LL [Long Live] Granma Nise” and “8-2-2020,” the date of her death.
Mitchell had worked in nuclear medicine at Providence Hospital in Mobile, Alabama. She shifted to checking temperatures as the hospital sought to increase monitoring for persons infected with COVID-19 coming into the facility. Ironically, Mitchell contracted the novel coronavirus and, on Aug. 2, 2020, passed due to that infection. Even more ironic, it was she who most fervently urged her grandson and others to guard themselves against the virus.
“We already didn’t go anywhere,” Young said. “She took COVID-19 way more seriously than anybody in the family. She was telling us not to go anywhere, that we shouldn’t be doing this or shouldn’t be doing that. And we [listened], out of respect for her. … She didn’t want us doing anything [to put ourselves at risk].
“[My grandmother] saw COVID-19 patients every day,” the wide receiver recalled. “She was telling us they were dying like crazy. She came into contact with one of the [infected] patients in hospital, and she got sick.”
Kelly White, Young’s mother and Mitchell’s daughter, said her mother had been fairly healthy except for bouts with bronchitis.
“She went down real quick,” she said.
“It was unexpected,” Young chimed in. “It wasn’t anything we could have seen coming at all. She was just fine like three days before she passed. It was just weird.”
Young is the oldest of White’s five children, and he had a special bond with his grandmother, with whom he lived while White served two years of active duty in the U.S. Army.
AAMU coach Connell Maynor has Mitchell to thank for Young’s decision to join his Bulldogs program. As Maynor and offensive coordinator Duane Taylor recruited Young, it was clear that he had a supportive family—and no one was more supportive than his grandmother.
“[Young] and his grandmother had a really tight bond,” said Taylor, who also coaches wide receivers. “He grew up with her. That’s where he lived. When he went home for the summer, that’s where he stayed. We knew when we got him here that we wanted to make sure she knew he was in good hands. She’s very important to him, and she’s very important us, as well.”
Mitchell, a Tuskegee University alum, traveled with her grandson for his official visit to Huntsville, Alabama, and she settled on AAMU before Young did.
White recalled, “We all went up, but she just kept pushing and pushing, [saying], ‘This is the place for you, Cameron. You have to go here.’ She loved [AAMU].”
White remembers her son saying, “Let’s just wait”—but his grandmother had her mind made up.
“She was like, ‘No, this is it,’” White recalled. “When he decided to sign after that first visit, she was so happy.”
Said Young: “She was right there with me when I signed my papers, my letter of intent. She was right there when I got the offer. When I told [AAMU] I was going to commit, she was right there through it all.”
Taylor added, “That was her baby and she loved him. She entrusted him with us, so we all became part of a big family. Whenever there was a problem and something needed to get handled, she wouldn’t hesitate to be on her way to get it done. She was just a great lady.”
At Every Game
Mitchell was easily Young’s most loyal fan.
“When he was growing up and playing park ball, she was at every game, every event,” White said. “If she had to travel, she would travel. It would just be her and him.”
AAMU’s 31-7 victory over South Carolina State on March 7 was the first at which Young didn’t have his favorite cheerleader in the stands.
“She’s been there. She was my mom,” he said of his grandmother. “My mom, [White], went to the military, and I stayed with my grandma. She took me to all of my games and all that. She was basically my mom. She never missed a game. She came to all my games, home and away.”
“She [became] a fan of [AAMU] when I signed,” Young added.
Offensive coordinator Taylor expects Young to be a key player in the Magic City Classic. His limited role in last year’s Classic was less about him and more the depth chart.
“[Young] did not have an opportunity to get a lot of catches last year because those guys [ahead of him] were super-talented,” he said. “This year, he’s doing much better. Hopefully, he’ll have some double duty, playing running back and wide receiver, but he’s built for it.”
White and Young lived with her mother when she got out of the military and remained there until 2015, when she moved into her own apartment. But Young wanted to stay put with his grandmother.
“Even when we moved out, he would still stay with her,” she said. “When we moved to Daphne, he stayed with her in Mobile and went to Baker [High School]. I was like, ‘You have to come to Daphne. You’ve gotta come live here.’ I had to beg him to come move in with me. He was like, ‘I’m staying. I’m staying with Grandma and Grandpa.’”
She Would Do Anything
White, a customer service representative with an automobile financing company, said her mother was always available for her oldest grandson.
“Anything that he needed or forgot, she would get on the road and be right there and just give it to him,” White said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how you just drive five hours. Mama, you don’t have to do that.’”
White recalled a time when her son’s car needed service. The family took his car, left another vehicle with him in Huntsville, and thought someone would meet him in Birmingham to swap cars after his was repaired. Grandmother had other ideas and, instead, chose to drive all the way to Huntsville to swap cars and visit. In another instance, Young left his book bag in Mobile and Mitchell, who had a previously scheduled business trip to Birmingham, continued on to Huntsville to deliver the bag to her grandson.
“She went to Huntsville just to give him a book bag, just to give him a book bag,” White said. “She gave him his book bag, turned around, and drove back to Mobile. Who does that?”
“She would do anything,” Young’s mother continued. “It didn’t even matter. She would do it. [Their relationship] was special.”
These days, Cameron Young takes the field for the Bulldogs without having Carolyn Mitchell in the stands. But she is still in his heart, and on his footwear.
The 79th McDonald’s Magic City Classic presented by Coca-Cola will be held on Saturday, April 17, at Birmingham’s Legion Field. The game kicks off at 6:30 p.m. and can be seen live nationally on ESPNU.