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NFL100 – Bobby Mitchell

24 Sep

Bobby Mitchell is a Pro Football Hall of Famer whose story is one of enduring the sting of racism and changing the attitudes of an entire franchise with class and dignity. He was a football and track star at the University of Illinois and was undecided on whether to pursue a pro football career or a chance to compete for the U.S. in the Olympics, when, in 1958, Paul Brown drafted him to the Cleveland Browns and offered him $7,000 to join the team. Mitchell accepted, and went to Cleveland to pair up with the great Jim Brown in the Browns’ backfield. For 4 seasons, the 2 future Hall of Famers formed the NFL’s best rushing duo. Coach Brown and Jim Brown had somewhat of a mercurial relationship, with the coach wanting to run a tight ship and the big fullback not liking to be ordered around. The coach recognized that his star runner carried a bit of clout, and Mitchell has laughingly said that in his days in Cleveland, when Paul Brown needed to make a point with Jim Brown, he would yell at Mitchell to make the point rather than directly confront Brown. Mitchell’s life changed shortly after the 1962 NFL draft. The owner of the Washington Redskins, George Preston Marshall, was an avowed racist who refused to add any black players to his team. At the time, the Redskins’ fan base stretched far into the deep south as their games were regionally televised in many southern states, so besides being a racist himself, Marshall also did not want to upset the team’s “southern audience” by  having black players on his club. The justice department applied extreme pressure on him to integrate the Redskins, even threatening to revoke the team’s right to play in federally owned D.C. Stadium.

Marshall finally caved in to the pressure and reluctantly traded the rights to the top pick of the draft, running back Ernie Davis of Syracuse, to the Browns for Mitchell and the Browns’ top pick. Davis was found to be suffering from leukemia and died before ever playing a down in the NFL, while Mitchell and another African American player, guard John Nisby, joined the Redskins as their first black members. The Washington franchise would now become the last NFL team to integrate their roster, much to Marshall’s chagrin. Mitchell recalled an incident in training camp when the usual rookie hazing was going on. Veteran players would hoot and holler as they forced the newcomers to sing their college fight songs and such. Mitchell, who wasn’t a rookie by the way, was forced to stand up and sing. He remembers a finger jabbing him in his back and saying “sing, Bobby Mitchell, sing!” The finger belonged to the owner, Marshall, and the song was “Dixie”. Marshall actually used to have the Redskins’ band play that song instead of the national anthem at Redskin games at the time also. That was just one example of what Mitchell had to endure during his first season in Washington.

 

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1961 Washington Redskins, the NFL’s last all-white team

Having to put up with all the racist indignities didn’t affect Mitchell’s play on the field. The team’s new coach, Bill McPeak, moved him from halfback to flanker and he responded by leading the league in receptions. He slowly earned his teammates’ respect and at season’s end, he was given a game ball, signed by all his Redskin teammates, congratulating him for his statistical success. The ball is now on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, and is pictured below. It was more than just a congratulatory symbol from those teammates. It was a sign of acceptance from his fellow players, most of whom didn’t share the views of the owner. Mitchell quietly silenced the racism with another 6 years of excellence on the field, culminating in his being enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1983. He spent 34 years in the Redskins’ front office after retiring as a player, but in what amounts to a separate story, was passed over a couple of times for the team’s general manager position.

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Bobby Mitchell ball display at the Hall of Fame in Canton

 

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