Mitchell Loewen thought a bomb had gone off. Maybe a building had collapsed. Or a stick of dynamite had exploded?
Loewen and his family were having brunch at Willa Jean, an urban-chic restaurant with high ceilings and tall windows in New Orleans’ central business district when he heard this loud, sudden, terrible booming noise. It was July 15, 2018, and Loewen, a defensive end who’s having a good training camp with the Detroit Lions, was having a good training camp with the Saints.
Loewen (pronounced LAY-ven) had never been to Willa Jean but decided to give it a try after church that day. He was feeding his 1-year-old son, Luke, when the booming sound came from outside the restaurant. Inside the restaurant, people began screaming. They saw dust coming from everywhere across O’Keefe Avenue.
Loewen handed Luke to his wife, Jena, and raced across the street. He ran through the dust and into the chaos. He couldn’t have imagined what he found. It was an upside down SUV.
A valet driver was in the SUV when it fell off the fourth story of a parking garage. Loewen still has no idea how or why the accident happened.
“I don’t know if he backed it out or pulled it out,” he said, “but all I know is the car fell upside down and we went over there and rushed to help him out.”
Loewen was the first person to arrive and feared the worst when he looked inside the car. Incredibly, the man was alive. But his leg was crushed. He was screaming and couldn’t move. By then, several people had huddled around the accident. Loewen and several men flipped the SUV on its side, then again onto its wheels.
Loewen, who is a devout Christian, called it an act of God that the man survived.
“We ended up connecting,” he said. “I had lunch with him. That was a whole miracle how that guy survived and essentially almost walked away from it. He was a valet driver and then he got to go back to work three weeks later.”
Incredibly, Loewen said he couldn’t remember the man’s name. Then again, maybe it’s not so incredible. Loewen shows very little interest in occupying the spotlight. You won’t find selfies of him and the valet or any humble-bragging on social media. He also declined to share a picture of his family or have an interview with his father, former San Diego Chargers offensive lineman Chuck Loewen, included in this article.
What Loewen, 26, really wants, what he’s always wanted, is just a place on a football team. Unrecruited out of high school and undrafted out of college, he’s been on a nearly decade-long search for his place in the game.
The funny thing is he’s proved that he has a place just about anywhere in the game. He grew up in Maui, Hawaii, and played at Lahainaluna High, a small school on a small island. He put together his own highlight film and burned his own DVDs, but his emails and phone calls to Pac-12 and WAC schools went unreturned.
Eventually, a friend helped him get his foot in the door as a walk-on at Arkansas. In high school, Loewen was a 6-foot-5, 250-pound middle linebacker. In college, he just wanted a chance anywhere.
“Our fullback had broken his foot and I just asked to get on the field,” said Loewen, who now checks in at 285 pounds. “I was like, ‘Hey, I can hit. Throw me in there.’ So they put me in at fullback.
“Next year I played tight end. And junior and senior year they put me at defensive end.”
Besides acquiring experience, Loewen also picked up something equally as valuable.
“It’s just an instant respect level,” said Lions center Frank Ragnow, a Razorbacks teammate of Loewen’s, along with Lions defensive end Trey Flowers. “You can tell you don’t have to worry about him loving ball. You don’t have to worry about him giving it all every single play. It’s an instant respect level. I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
There was one more position Loewen played. And he could have charged his teammates admission to watch him play it.
“He was the gunner on kickoff,” Ragnow said. “Everybody on the team used to watch him on kickoff and watch him go destroy people. So he was definitely kind of known as the enforcer at Arkansas.”
By the time Loewen settled in as a defensive lineman his final two seasons, he earned his teammates’ respect and lofty comparison.
“He was a beast,” Ragnow said. “At Arkansas we compared him to J.J. Watt because he was just jacked. He’s not much body fat. He’s a pretty big man.”
What Ragnow didn’t know was that on July 3, 2014, just before Loewen’s junior year at Arkansas, Chuck Loewen was sentenced in federal court to 37 months in prison for a tax scheme that claimed the Internal Revenue Service owed him more than $2.3 million. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States and filing a false claim for a tax refund.
“It was hard on our family,” Loewen said. “It was really hard on my mom. My dad, he had to go to prison for almost three years. Any time I think I’m having a hard time, I look back on that and just think of what he went through and what my parents went through and how they stuck it out for us, me and my brother.
“That takes some mental strength right there, some mental toughness to be able to make it through that. I mean, he made his decision and he had to pay for it. But at the end, he got everything right and we’re a nice, happy family once again.”
In 2016, the Saints signed Loewen as an undrafted free agent. But by June a lingering Lisfranc injury from his senior year that required surgery hadn’t healed properly and his rookie season came to a quick end when he was placed on reserve/non-football injury list.
In 2017, everything looked much better for Loewen. His father was released from prison in February and he was shining in camp. He made the initial roster to open the season. But in Week 2 against the New England Patriots, he suffered a high-ankle sprain that ended his season.
“I mean,” Loewen said, exhaling slowly as he searched his thoughts. “That was a really tough season.
“Every year you want to — camp just kind of builds you for the season and if you have a good camp you feel like you’re going to have a good season. And I felt like I was going to have a good season. Then you go out and you get injured early in the season. It’s just — it’s not the best.”
In 2018, Loewen again made the Saints’ opening roster. But he was mostly inactive and played in only one game, Sept. 16. Chuck Loewen, who played for the Chargers in the early 1980s, was in New Orleans that day. He finally got to see his son play in the NFL.
“Huge,” Loewen said about his father’s impact. “He’s probably the biggest influence in my life, as far as being a man and Christianity and seeking the Lord and football and bouncing everything off of him. Because he’s been where I’m at. So to have that on a personal level, it helps out a ton.”
On Dec. 27, the Saints waived him and he was awarded to the Lions. Loewen was inactive for the season finale against Green Bay, but he has spent the offseason getting to know the team and building relationships with players and coaches.
Coach Matt Patricia has told Loewen and everyone else on his team that opportunities exist, no matter what your name is or where you were or weren’t drafted.
“He does a great job with the things we value from in a technique standpoint,” Patricia recently said. “We always look at that fundamentally, especially with the defensive line, there might be, call it two or three different main philosophies in football of how to play at the defensive front. We always look toward guys that tend to have similar philosophies and techniques that we use, and we know that those guys will progress a lot faster.
“Certainly, with a guy like Mitch, he kind of has some of that background. So it was an easy transformation from that standpoint. Really tough, really hard-working guy. Just blue-collar, grind-it-out, type of player.”
About the highest praise Patricia can bestow on a player is to call him a grinder. And that’s where Loewen is again, grinding away.
“I just like to go hard, really. That’s just about it,” Loewen said. “I definitely need to polish up my technique. I feel like I’m a big guy who’s got a good motor.
“I definitely have to study the playbook more and get the technique down for this defense because it’s different than what I’m used to. But I have faith that the coaches will get me right and I’m going to get right. Everything’s going to be good.”