Fifty years ago this season, a player who would vastly improve the Redskins’ image debuted in the nation’s capital.
A key player for the Browns in his first four seasons, Bobby Mitchell immediately dazzled onlookers in D.C. The speedy, slippery receiver posted league-highs of 72 catches and 1,384 receiving yards in 1962, both franchise records, plus 11 touchdown catches. He also scored a team-high 72 points.
In the process, he almost single-handedly transformed a squad that finished 1-12-1 in 1961, the worst winning percentage to date in Redskins history (.107), to one that gained some respectability with a 5-7-2 mark. It was their most single-season wins since 1957.
Color barriers began toppling in the league after World War II. But unlike the rest of the teams, Redskins owner George Preston Marshall refused to integrate his roster.
The owner’s reluctance to do so seemed rooted in his concern that he’d alienate his large southern fan base. The Redskins, the southernmost NFL team for many years, carried the moniker of the “Team of the South.” Their games aired on a vast broadcast network that spread through the region, and many people from southern states rooted for the Redskins as their home team. Essentially, Marshall was playing to stereotypes.
But he buckled under pressure. In 1961, the U.S. government threatened to revoke his lease at brand-new D.C. Stadium (now RFK), which was on federal property, if he failed to sign a black player.
The Redskins thus used the draft’s No. 1 pick to select Ernie Davis, Syracuse University’s Heisman Trophy-winning running back, and traded the rights to Davis to Cleveland for Mitchell and another black running back, Leroy Jackson. The trade was tinged with irony. Davis never played a down in the NFL and died from leukemia in 1963.
In addition to Mitchell and Jackson, the Redskins traded for Steelers guard John Nisby and drafted Michigan State running back Ron Hatcher, two other African American players.
Mitchell posted excellent statistics during his stint in Cleveland. He averaged 574 yards rushing and 366 receiving, and returned three punts and three kickoffs for touchdowns.
Although he was dwarfed in popularity by his much more celebrated teammate, legendary NFL running back Jim Brown, he managed to torment the Redskins. He once rushed for three scores and 232 yards, five short of the NFL record held by Brown, in a 31-17 win over the Redskins in 1959.
Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich singled out Mitchell’s ability to embarrass the Redskins.
“The Redskins fascination for Mitchell, to the point of giving up the most publicized number one draft choice of the decade, is understandable,” Povich wrote after Mitchell was traded to the Redskins. “In the period since Mitchell abandoned his Olympic sprint ambitions and came into the league from (the) U. of Illinois, he has wrecked the Washington team. The Redskins have scouted him mostly from the rear.”
Soon after the trade, Redskins coach Bill McPeak converted Mitchell to flanker, a move that accelerated his rise to stardom.
“When I got here, we didn’t have a good running attack, a good offensive line,” Mitchell said. “But we did have a pretty good quarterback in Norm Snead, and (McPeak) brought this out to me, and we talked about it on my first day of training camp. I kind of pushed it a little bit, too. He asked me if I wanted to switch to outside, and I said yeah, although I didn’t know if I could play it. I’d never played outside. After several weeks, Snead and I began to click and play real well together.”
In his first game as a Redskin, Mitchell weaved through Cowboys defenders on a 92-yard kickoff return. The next week, he showed his old buddies in Cleveland what they were missing. With the Browns ahead by six points and less than a minute to play, Snead hit him over the middle around midfield. Mitchell cut toward the sidelines, faked two defenders out of their shoes with a breathtaking stop-and-go move, and raced into the end zone. The Redskins won, 17-16.
“I’m running right at Paul Brown,” Mitchell told NFL Films of the play. “It couldn’t have been a better situation in life. I get to the sideline and to this day when I see that film I say, ‘God did that (fake) because I couldn’t have done that.’ It is the most amazing move I’ve ever seen anyone do.”
“He had all kinds of moves,” said Don Bosseler, a great Redskins fullback and teammate of Mitchell. “He could do all kinds of things out there, catch the ball, he was a good blocker, smart, had excellent speed. He was on top of me before I could get out of my stance, that’s how quick he was.”
In 1963, Mitchell led the league in receiving yards with 1,436, breaking the Redskins record he set the year before. (
In the coming years, he continued posting huge numbers in D.C. as part of one of the most lethal offensive attacks in NFL history. In one season, 1967, receiver Charley Taylor finished first in receptions, tight end Jerry Smith second and Mitchell fourth in the league by year’s end.
Mitchell’s numbers were staggering by the time he retired after the 1968 season, his 11th in the NFL. He gained 7,954 receiving and 2,735 rushing yards, plus 2,690 on kickoff returns and 699 on punt returns. His 14,078 combined yards were the third-most in NFL history at the time, and his 91 touchdowns ranked fifth.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983.
“Bobby Mitchell was one of the greatest all-around ball players,” said Baltimore Colts Hall of Famer Lenny Moore, who also switched from running back to receiver in the same era as Mitchell. “Anybody who can transition himself and be one of the best in the business at both positions, that’s saying something, man.”
After his playing days ended, Mitchell remained with the Redskins in a front-office capacity for more than three decades, a period when the team played in five Super Bowls, winning three times. His titles included director of pro scouting and assistant general manager, a slot he accepted in 1981 and held until his retirement in 2003.
He also was associated with many civic and charity organizations in Washington. In 2000, a state-of-the-art football field in a disadvantaged D.C. neighborhood was named “Bobby Mitchell Field” in recognition of his contributions to football and youth in the city.
“I’m very, very fortunate to have stayed with the same team for so many years,” Mitchell said. “It’s something that just doesn’t happen. I consider it sort of my reward for staying and handling the tests and being the good guy, the whole works.”
Mike Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. He was on the blue-ribbon panel that played a key role in selecting the 10 new names who are part of the Redskins’ 80 Greatest team unveiled this season, also known as the “10 for 80.” His web site is www.redskinshistorian.com and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.