Bobby Mitchell passed away on April 5, 2020. Mitchell played halfback and flanker for the Cleveland Browns and the Washington Redskins. Mitchell became the first African-American to star for the Washington Redskins in 1962. The Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate. However, the 7th round pick from Illinois in 1958 was much more than that. The four-time Pro Bowler was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983, cementing his legacy and importance to the Washington Redskins, the game of football, and the culture of the United States.
The owner of the Washington Redskins, George Preston Marshall, was under pressure from the U.S. Federal government to integrate the team. With the number one pick in the 1962 NFL Draft, Washington selected Ernie Davis. Because of the potential of a high salary demand, Marshall traded the rights to Davis to the Cleveland Browns for Bobby Mitchell and first-round pick Leroy Jackson.
Mitchell, along with John Nisby and Ron Hatcher, was one of the three African-Americans on the 1962 Redskins. First-year head coach, Bill McPeak, moved Mitchell to flanker. In his first game in Washington, Mitchell ran back a 92-yard kickoff return against the rival Dallas Cowboys. Mitchell led the league with 72 catches and 1,384 yards, ranking third with 11 touchdowns. Washington enjoyed its best record in five seasons. Also, Mitchell was selected to the first of three consecutive Pro Bowls.
Mitchell hauled in 69 catches in 1963. He accumulated 1,436 yards, including a 99-yard pass play. During the next four years, Mitchell caught 238 passes. However, in 1967, new head coach Otto Graham moved Mitchell back to halfback. Graham made the decision to move the team’s best running back, Charley Taylor, to wide receiver. Mitchell wasn’t as successful running the ball but did catch 60 passes for 866 yards and six touchdowns.
Vince Lombardi, in 1969, promised to move Mitchell back to flanker, as he became head coach. However, Mitchell realized, during training camp, he was not the same player he once was. Mitchell decided to retire. Mitchell retired with 14,078 combined net yards. This was the second-highest total in NFL history at the time. His 91 total touchdowns are still amazing in this day and age.
Mitchell remained with the Redskins after his retirement as a pro scout. Mitchell moved up the ranks to assistant general manager. With aspirations of becoming the NFL’s first African-American general manager, Mitchell was disappointed in 1978 when owner Edward Bennett Williams chose Bobby Beathard instead of Mitchell for general manager. Mitchell remained with the team until he retired in 2003. Voicing his frustration, Mitchell stated that he was ‘deeply hurt” by owner Jack Kent Cooke in 1998 when Cooke appointed Charley Casserly the team’s general manager. Also, like a slap in the face, coach Steve Spurrier decided to issue Mitchell’s number 49 jersey to Leonard Stephens. As a player and front office executive, Mitchell spent 41 years with the Washington Redskins.
Bobby Mitchell: Off The Field
Some players just transcend the game. Mitchell was a Hall of Famer on the field and a Hall of Famer in life. Mr. Mitchell devoted his time to many efforts and organizations. These organizations included the United Negro College Fund, the Howard University Cancer Research Advisory Committee. Also, the American Lung Association of D.C., the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission. Mitchell was also involved in the Boys Club of Washington, and the National Urban League, the NAACP, and the Junior Chamber of Commerce. Mitchell also worked with the University of Illinois Presidents Council and the University of Illinois Foundation. Truly a man of the people and for the people.
Mitchell is also the founder of the Bobby Mitchell Hall of Fame Classic, which is an annual golf fund raiser that benefits the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Mitchell packed as much life into his 84 years as possible. He is survived by his wife Gwen and their two children, Robert Jr. and Terri.
In a year that is unlike any most of have ever seen, 2020 has taken one of the best. He was a winner on and off the field. My heart goes out to his family and friends. The Redskins are a family, and we all feel the loss. However, we will celebrate Mitchell’s legacy for years to come. I’m proud to have him as part of Redskin lore and 49 will hold a special place in all our hearts. HTTR!
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