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Lions' Khalif Mitchell's piano helps him forget football's violence

BC Lions defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell has turned to the piano in a effort to find some peace from the physical world of CFL football. FILE PHOTO: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards

Liam Richards/CP

His hands are huge, not surprising for someone with an enormous body who plays a violent game.

On the field B.C. Lions defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell uses those hands to help make body-bruising tackles or throw a quarterback to the ground.

Away from the game, those same hands help the six-foot-five, 309-pound Mitchell relax by playing the piano. The large fingers that grab like a steel trap can lightly touch the keys, producing soothing music.

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"I think what it really does is allow myself to go out and express myself," Mitchell, a CFL West Division all-star, said Friday after the Lions practised at BC Place Stadium. "You can only play football and be violent for so long.

"(Piano) is another tool that sedates any anger, any emotional problems, any problems I have spiritually. It's a blessed gift I have in my life, man, and I'm thankful to have it."

No one taught Mitchell how to play the piano. He never took a lesson. He started while playing football at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

"I was frustrated with a lot of things in life," said the 26-year-old from Virginia Beach, Va.

"I didn't play my last six games in college. I didn't have the best relationship with (coach) Skip Holtz and company. I was going through a lot of things about how the NFL works, and life works, and how everybody else's opinion can mean so much on your life."

Mitchell didn't get into specifics but it wasn't a good time in his life. He discovered a piano in the lobby of his dorm and began teaching himself to play.

"The piano was somebody who accepted me and was somebody who took me for what I was," he said. "All the stigma that was around me didn't mean anything when I played the piano."

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Mitchell's favourite music is classical. He enjoys playing Beethoven and Chopin.

"I stir in a little hip-hop tempo," Mitchell said with a grin.

He doesn't own a piano but a couple of local hotels allow him to play in their lobby. The sight of a huge, bearded man hunched over the keyboards has raised a few eyebrows from travellers.

"When they find out I play football they are really blown away," Mitchell laughed.

On a trip to Regina to play the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Mitchell passed time on the piano in the team hotel. A chef liked his music so much he prepared Mitchell a special meal.

B.C. linebacker Anton McKenzie has heard Mitchell play and said he's quite good.

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Wally Buono, the Lions coach and general manager, said people shouldn't be surprised Mitchell finds relief in music.

"We forget sometimes that players are people," said Buono, who has spent 22 years coaching in the CFL. "They are not numbers.

"It's too easy to look at a player and make him an object. They are human beings. Once they take those uniforms off they have the same emotions everybody else does. They go through the same ups and downs."

Mitchell started 13 games for the Lions this season and had six quarterback sacks. He was part of a B.C. defence that allowed a CFL-low 385 points this season and was second in sacks with 54.

Mitchell joined B.C. in September 2010 after being released by the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. When Mitchell first arrived he weight 330 pounds.

During the winter he lost 21 pounds, which he believes made him more effective this year.

"It made a lot of difference as far as how fast I could play, how long I could play," said Mitchell. "What it really did was show my dedication and determination to my team.

"It showed my teammates that I was serious about this year."

Buono said Mitchell has well adapted to the CFL.

"He understands the game better," he said. "He understands his role better.

"The other big thing I think is he's in better shape. His weight is not as much an issue. He's in better football shape and can carry that weight and be productive with it."

After a horrible 0-5 start B.C. finished first in the West with an 11-7 record. The Lions will play the winner of Sunday's game between the Edmonton Eskimos and the Calgary Stampeders in next week's West Final at BC Place.

The Grey Cup will be Nov. 27 in Vancouver.

The Lions had most of this week off. Quarterback Travis Lulay said the rest helped heal a deep thigh bruise he suffered in B.C.'s 43-1 whipping of the Montreal Alouettes in the final regular season game

"It felt great today," said Lulay, who didn't show any affects during practice. "It will be great by game time."

Most players said they didn't care who they face next week. The Lions had a 3-1 record against Edmonton and was 2-1 against Calgary.

"I don't have a preference," said Lulay. "It's going to be a tough test regardless.

"They are both teams we have had success against. The focus is on us and what we have to do to win the game."

Buono said his coaching staff has already started working on a game plan to reach the Grey Cup.

"You know you are going to play one of the two teams," he said. "You start developing your file on them.

"When (Sunday's) game is over you get down to specifics."

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