Bobby Mitchell: A tribute to the most important Redskin

Halfback Bobby Mitchell (49) of the Washington Redskins does a spin move in the open field during a 14-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns on September 15, 1963, at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Nate Fine/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
Halfback Bobby Mitchell (49) of the Washington Redskins does a spin move in the open field during a 14-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns on September 15, 1963, at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Nate Fine/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** /

Bobby Mitchell meant a lot to the Washington Redskins. Here’s a look at his legacy following his death at the age of 84.

Bobby Mitchell entered Washington Redskins’ history in the offseason of 1962. I had entered the world about six months earlier, and as such, most of my earliest impressions of Mitchell came from my older brothers. In time, I would come to know a great deal more about Mitchell’s impact as both a player and a man. I recently learned about Mitchell’s early Redskin days from Andrew O’Toole’s fascinating study, “Fight for Old DC: George Preston Marshall, the Integration of the Washington Redskins, and the Rise of a New NFL,” published in 2016.

Bobby Mitchell is often cited as the Redskins’ first black player. George Preston Marshall had steadfastly refused to integrate the team, and the on-field result showed it. By 1960, the Redskins were the punch line of the league. Venerated local sportswriter Shirley Povich made a career out of firing barbs at the team’s performance, often directly linked to its overt racism.

By 1961, though still drawing strong fan support, public pressure began to rise. John Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, began a campaign to force Marshall into integrating, and Marshall acquiesced. He made Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis the No. 1 overall pick in the 1962 draft.

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But Davis’ salary demands (bolstered by competition from the fledgling AFL, whose Buffalo Bills had also drafted Davis No. 1) led Marshall to trade the star rookie to Cleveland for the Brown’s top pick that year, Leroy Jackson, and their starting running back/flanker, Bobby Mitchell. In one of the sadder stories in NFL history, Ernie Davis developed leukemia and passed away before ever playing a down for Cleveland.

Technically Bobby Mitchell was not the first African American to play for the Redskins. That honor either goes to Ron Hatcher, chosen later in the ’62 draft, who was the first to sign a contract, or to Jackson, who actually took the field on the opening kick-off in Washington’s first game of the 1962 season, on September 16 in Dallas’ Cotton Bowl.

But we all know that by any measure that matters, Bobby Mitchell was the first. That opening day game, a 35-35 tie, ended with Mitchell having scored three times (a fourth TD was overturned by penalty). Of those three scores, the 81-yard touchdown reception was only his second-longest of the day. Thus began a career Redskins career that would last more than forty years, on the field and in the front office. And it is arguably the most significant career a Redskin has ever had.

Within a few years of Mitchell’s arrival, the Redskins added quarterback Sonny Jurgensen and fellow tailback/receiver hybrid Charley Taylor, and that trio formed one of the most entertaining and productive passing attacks of the 1960s.

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Mitchell, and this is one of those things I learned from my brother, virtually invented the “shake and bake” or flanker screen. He would line up by himself far to the side, isolated on a defensive back. Norm Snead, or Sonny, would get the ball to him immediately after the snap, and Bobby Mitchell would do the rest. He was elusive and he was powerful. It was very difficult for a cornerback to corral him, and once he broke free, it was hard for anyone to catch him.

Taylor had the long strides to get downfield for the deep ball. Mitchell ran the shorter routes. If YAC was a stat back then, Mitchell would have dominated the category.  The team itself ranged from mediocre to downright bad, but they were always fun to watch. Mitchell retired in 1969 in the No. 2 spot on the NFL all-time list of total yards. He was an extraordinary kick returner – very much the original B. Mitch.

Mitchell moved into management, first as a scout, and eventually working his way up to Assistant General Manager. The fact that he was never given a crack at the top job irked him and eventually led to a rather messy retirement in 2004. The way Mitchell was treated is a clear sign of the racial prejudice that was going strong twenty years ago in the NFL, and despite progress, which continues to this day.

But I’ll leave that for another discussion. For now, just few memories of Bobby Mitchell – the man, and not the player.

One of my favorite stories that O’Toole recounts in his book concerns a speech Mitchell gave to the Pro Quarterback’s Club in October, 1962. The Redskins had just played the Giants, and Mitchell remained in New York an extra day to make his address. The comedian Buddy Hackett served as a warm-up act for the main speaker, and during his remarks, Hackett took a none-too-subtle shot at football players’ intelligence. After hearing Mitchell’s speech, Hackett raced back to the microphone to add “I just want to say – Bobby, football players used to be stupid.”

Mitchell impressed everyone who took the time to listen to him with his breadth of knowledge. O’Toole points out that he was largely in a no-win situation when it came to positioning himself as a symbol of black empowerment. Many wanted him to take a more active stand on social issues.

But Mitchell felt that by simply being an excellent football player and by being an upstanding member of the community, he was doing a great deal for equality. That approach did not stop him from supporting Muhammed Ali’s refusal to honor the military draft in 1966. As his Cleveland teammate Jim Brown (no stranger to racial injustice) pointed out, “He had to suffer for being black more than any person I know, during the time I played. With that kind of ability, if he were white, everybody on this earth would know who he was.”

When his playing days were done, Mitchell turned his attention to community activism with the same success he had enjoyed on the field. He became involved with a charity golf tournament in 1990, and by calling on many of his friends from the world of sports, turned the Bobby Mitchell Hall of Fame Golf Classic into a major annual event that raised millions of dollars for cancer research.

Twenty years ago, his tireless work on behalf of the youth of Washington, DC resulted in the Bobby  Mitchell Football Field in Congress Heights. The list of charitable boards on which he served is as long as his list of on-field achievements. And both are too long to list here.

Next. Why the Redskins should draft Chase Young. dark

The Washington Redskins were lucky to have such a gifted football player and executive. Washington, D.C. was even luckier to have such a man call it home.