Washington: Bobby Mitchell, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who broke the Washington Redskins’ colour barrier as their first African American player and later served as a scout and front-office executive during his more than four decades with the organisation, died on Sunday, according to the Hall of Fame and the team.
Mitchell was 84. No cause of death was disclosed.
“I was extremely saddened to hear the news about the passing of the great Bobby Mitchell,” Redskins owner Daniel Snyder said in a written statement released by the team. “Bobby was a Hall of Fame player and executive and represented the Washington Redskins organisation with integrity for over 50 years. 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, whose playing career spanned from 1958 to 1968, was a four-time Pro Bowl selection in 11 seasons as a halfback with the Cleveland Browns and as a flanker with the Redskins. He said in a 2003 interview, when he retired after 41 seasons in the Redskins organisation, that he wanted to be remembered not only as a historically significant player but as a great player.
“I have to live with people always talking about me as the first black player against all my exploits,” Mitchell said then. “I’ve always been very upset that people always start with that. I don’t want to hear that, and yet I have to hear it constantly and it overshadows everything I’ve done in the game.”
Mitchell was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983. In 2002, he was named one of the 70 greatest Redskins as part of their 70th anniversary celebration. At the time of his retirement from playing for the Redskins, after the 1968 season, he ranked third in NFL history with 14,078 all-purpose yards and fifth in touchdowns with 92, including one on a pass that he threw. He was chosen by the Browns in the seventh round of the 1958 draft and was traded to the Redskins along with Leroy Jackson for Ernie Davis in 1962.
“The entire Pro Football Hall of Fame family mourns the passing of Bobby Mitchell,” David Baker, the Hall of Fame’s president, said in a written statement. “The Game lost a true legend today. 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.”
Mitchell joined the Redskins’ front office in 1969 at the suggestion of Vince Lombardi and eventually held the title of assistant general manager. He said in his 2003 interview that he had aspired to be the NFL’s first black general manager before being passed over by team owner Edward Bennett Williams in favour of Bobby Beathard and by owner Jack Kent Cooke in favour of Charley Casserly.
“Mr. Cooke was the one I was upset with because he never said a word to me, which showed disrespect to me,” Mitchell said then. “He said Charley was ‘pre-eminently qualified.’ This has nothing to do with Charley. He’s a friend. All Mr. Cooke had to say to me was, ‘Charley is going to be the general manager,’ like Mr. Williams said to me with Bobby Beathard. I’ve always been crazy about Mr. Cooke. I still am. I genuinely like the man, but that was a deep hurt.”
Mitchell said he also was hurt when then-Redskins Coach Steve Spurrier temporarily allowed Mitchell’s jersey No. 49 to be worn by tight end Leonard Stephens. Mitchell’s number had not been officially retired by the team but, before that, had been on a list of unofficially retired numbers that a former equipment manager refused to hand out. Spurrier said later that the team made a mistake and that Mitchell’s number wouldn’t be worn. Even so, Mitchell said when he retired that he didn’t leave the Redskins with bitterness.
“You don’t walk away from 40-something years and just laugh about it,” Mitchell said in 2003. “It’s going to be an emotional thing, but I’ve always said I’m not going to walk away from this game bitter. I’ve been close, but I was determined not to let it get to me. I held up.”