SANTA CLARA -- Defensive tackle Earl Mitchell wore No. 90 during his two seasons with the 49ers.
That number now belongs to rookie Kevin Givens, whom the 49ers last week promoted to the 53-man roster and has appeared in just one NFL regular-season game.
Mitchell, 32, a 10th-year NFL player, could have easily pulled rank. But he did not even consider the possibility of getting his old number back upon re-signing this week to provide depth on the 49ers’ defensive line for the playoffs.
“I didn’t want to come in and mess up anything these guys have going on,” Mitchell said. “I was not going to strip Givens of his opportunity. I talked to Givens about it, I told him, ‘I’m not here to ruffle feathers. You earned your spot on this team, and I’m just here for the time being.'”
Instead, Mitchell will wear the number of the player he helped mentor -- the same player he, in essence, replaces on the 49ers' roster.
Upon Mitchell's return to the 49ers, team equipment manager Jay Brunetti issued him No. 93, which nose tackle D.J. Jones wore before he sustained a season-ending ankle injury. It is fitting that Jones' number, though he is unable to play in the postseason, will be worn by a veteran player who provided him a great example during his first two NFL seasons.
“D.J. saw me with it on,” Mitchell said of No. 93, “and he said, ‘Go rock that thing.’ He was happy for me.”
After the 49ers declined to pick up the option on Mitchell's contract in the offseason, he signed with the Seattle Seahawks. He was cut before the start of the regular season. Mitchell had in-season workouts with the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs before determining his career was over. In November, he announced his retirement on social media.
After a period of time, Mitchell took down the Instagram post that included news of his retirement because he did not want to be constantly reminded that such a wonderful period of his life was over.
Then, last week, 49ers general manager John Lynch gave him a call. Lynch wanted to inform Mitchell the 49ers might need some depth on the defensive line and he wanted to gauge Mitchell’s interest in a comeback.
“I’m telling you, I was pretty content,” said Mitchell, who makes his home in Houston, where he grew up and played the first four seasons of his NFL career with the Texans.
“I was on the last step of acceptance. But to get that call, it was just an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. That’s something you’d look back on forever and be like, ‘I wish I would’ve gone back.’”
It was the perfect opportunity for Mitchell, who signed with the 49ers in 2017 and experienced only 10 victories over two seasons. Mitchell was on the ground floor of the 49ers’ building with Lynch, coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
He enjoyed the 49ers’ success this season from afar. He said he is proud of what he saw from the 49ers, not only as a whole, but from the defensive line, in particular.
“I was here when we were really working our way up, so it’s nice to really see the hard work these guys have been putting in and be part of something special,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell meant something special to the organization, too. When the coaching staff felt it was time to give Jones a chance to show what he could do, Mitchell was nudged to the side. He did not play in the final four games of the 2018 season and was inactive for the final two.
Mitchell realizes how he handled himself during that difficult time likely is the reason he received a call from Lynch. The 49ers knew exactly what they are getting with Mitchell. The club hopes he can see action as a run-stuffer and help the 49ers gear up for a run deep into the playoffs and, potentially, the Super Bowl.
“Had I responded in a way that some think, I probably wouldn’t be here right now,” Mitchell said. “I could’ve thrown my helmet and gotten mad. That’s not my style and I don’t see the point in being negative."
“I knew if I had an opportunity to play again, me being upset would’ve gotten around and that would’ve ruined everything I’d done my entire career. That’s all people would’ve remembered. I’d rather have a ring than negativity.”