Bobby Mitchell, who was the first African American player to sign with the Washington Redskins, died Sunday at 84, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced.
“I was extremely saddened to hear the news about the passing of the great Bobby Mitchell. Bobby was a Hall of Fame player and executive and represented the Washington Redskins organization with integrity for over 50 years,” team owner Daniel Snyder said in a statement. “His passion for the game of football was unmatched by anyone I have ever met. Not only was he one of the most influential individuals in franchise history, but he was also one of the greatest men I have ever known. He was a true class act and will be sorely missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Gwen and the entire Mitchell family during this time.”
Mitchell began his pro career as a halfback for the Cleveland Browns in 1958. A running and receiving threat, he shared the backfield with Jim Brown, giving Cleveland one of the strongest offensive attacks in the league. During his four seasons in Cleveland, Mitchell accounted for 3,759 yards from scrimmage.
In 1962, the Browns traded Mitchell to the Washington Redskins, who moved him from halfback to a flanker. That season, he led the league in receptions (72) and receiving yards (1,384). The following season, Mitchell caught 69 passes for a league-leading 1,436 yards. He also tied an NFL record with a 99-yard touchdown reception against his former team.
During his first six seasons with the Redskins, he never caught fewer than 58 passes. He was a four-time Pro Bowl selection — once as a running back and three times as a wide receiver.
Mitchell, a seventh-round draft pick in 1958, retired in 1969, finishing his 11-year NFL career with 14,078 total yards. He had 91 career touchdowns, including 65 receiving and 18 rushing. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983.
“The entire Pro Football Hall of Fame family mourns the passing of Bobby Mitchell. The Game lost a true legend today,” David Baker, the Hall of Fame’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “Bobby was an incredible player, a talented executive and a real gentleman to everyone with whom he worked or competed against. His wife Gwen and their entire family remain in our thoughts and prayers. The Hall of Fame will forever keep his legacy alive to serve as inspiration to future generations.”
It was his time with the Redskins that Mitchell once called “life-altering.” Mitchell was traded from Cleveland to Washington in December 1961 in exchange for Ernie Davis after Davis said he would not play for the Redskins. Nine months after the swap, Mitchell, Leroy Jackson and John Nisby helped break the NFL’s only remaining color barrier — the Redskins were the final NFL team to integrate — and they did so with little fanfare, as far as the rest of the Redskins’ roster was concerned.
Redskins owner George Preston Marshall had said that many fans preferred watching white players and would reject the Redskins if they had an African American player.
In contrast to other NFL owners, Marshall “did not pretend there were no blacks good enough to make his team,” Andy Piascik wrote in “Gridiron Gauntlet: The Story of the Men Who Integrated Pro Football in Their Own Words.” “Unlike the others, he was honest enough to admit that he simply didn’t want them around.”
Under pressure from then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and the John F. Kennedy administration, however, the Redskins finally integrated their roster. In his first game with the team, Mitchell caught six passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns and had a 92-yard kick return for a touchdown in a 35-35 tie with the Dallas Cowboys. In his first home game at D.C. Stadium, Mitchell recorded seven catches for 147 yards and two scores against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“You’re performing for a group of people, and you’re not sure if they want you, so I had a lot of mixed emotions that game,” Mitchell told the New York Times. “I still don’t believe I performed as well as I did, knowing how I felt all week long getting ready.”
Still, Mitchell became a first-team All-Pro selection in his debut season in Washington. He led the NFL in receiving yards, with 1,384, and led the league again in 1963, with 1,436. In 1964, alongside new Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, Mitchell had an NFL-best 10 receiving touchdowns.
“He was a go-to guy receiver,” Jurgensen, who spent 11 seasons in Washington, including five alongside Mitchell, told FoxSports.com in 2014. “He was exceptional because you just had to get the ball in his hands, and he was capable of going all the way. … He and Charley Taylor gave me two good wideouts, and even if [defenses] tried to take one of them away from you, they weren’t going to keep the other one down.”
However, Mitchell’s first three years in Washington were trying, especially for his wife and two children, he once told the New York Times. Some stores and restaurants refused to serve them, he said, and there were sportswriters who told him that their editors had ordered them not to write feature stories about him or vote for him to be an All-Pro. Even so, the team began to add more African American players and continued to improve. By the mid-1960s, the Redskins were one of the highest-scoring teams in the league.
“The whole tenor changed,” Mitchell told the Times. “As we got more black guys on the team and we began to split out around communities, treatments began to change.”
After his playing career ended, Mitchell joined the Redskins as a scout under then-coach Vince Lombardi. He spent 35 years in the team’s front office, rising to the position of assistant general manager.