George Preston Marshall made two great personnel decisions during his nearly four decades as owner of the Washington Redskins. He made SMU quarterback star Sammy Baugh the No. 1 pick when the Redskins moved to D.C. from Boston in 1937. And he traded his 1962 No. 1 draft choice, Ernie Davis, in 1962 to the Cleveland Browns for star receiver and kick returner Bobby Mitchell.
One was a no-brainer. The other Marshall was forced to do.
Both moves, in their own ways, were game-changers for football in Washington.
Baugh would lead the Redskins to the NFL championship in his rookie season and win one more league title, putting NFL football on the map in the nation’s capital. Mitchell would lead Washington and its racist owner out of the darkness of the franchise’s hateful commitment to whiteness.
Mitchell was, in every way, Washington’s Jackie Robinson.
Like Robinson, Mitchell set a standard for excellence on and off the field — brushing off intolerance and exceeding expectations in a way few could have imagined. He was great when he faced those who rooted for his failure, and he was human he faced those who reveled in inhumanity.
On Sunday, Mitchell passed away at the age of 84. His legacy is assured by his accomplishments on the field as well as his humanitarian works and deeds in life. He was a champion fund-raiser with the golf tournament bearing his name that raised millions of dollars for people with blood cancers and particularly young people with leukemia — an event that attracted the elite in American sports.
The Arkansas native became an integral part of the Washington community, a representative that the city sometimes didn’t deserve.
The Redskins were white America’s team until the federal government forced Marshall to integrate.
The owner’s refusal to hire black players made the franchise a joke on the field — they went 2-21-3 from 1960 to 1961 — and an embarrassment to the nation’s capital during the civil rights era.
So Marshall, with the top pick in 1962, drafted Syracuse Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis and then traded him to the Browns for Mitchell, who had been a standout receiver and kick returner in Cleveland from 1958 through 1961, named to the Pro Bowl in 1960. Davis tragically fell victim to leukemia — the disease Mitchell would commit his life to fighting — and died, never playing a down for Cleveland.
Mitchell would be one of four black players to break the color barrier for the Redskins in 1962 — the others were guard John Nisby, halfback Leroy Jackson and defensive back Ron Hatcher — but all eyes were on Mitchell, the high-profile offensive star.
In an interview for “Hail Victory — an Oral History of the Washington Redskins,” Mitchell told me about the chill of those eyes.
“When I went to a kickoff luncheon there, everybody stood up and I thought they (the Redskins band) were going to play the national anthem,” Mitchell said. “Then I heard, ‘I wish I was in the land of cotton (‘Dixie’).
“But in the black community I was a shining light, the player they had waited for all those years,” he said. I couldn’t make any mistakes on the field. I had to be perfect every game. I had upset the apple cart, you see, when all I wanted to be was a great football player.
“I wasn’t accepted by a lot of the white guys on the team,” Mitchell said. “The fans would yell, ‘Run, nigger, run’ … A lot of bad things happened to me. But as long as the black kids saw me stay within myself and not lash out, they would stay within themselves and not lash out. I wish I could’ve played one day without any problems. I went to the stadium with a trunk on my back. It never ended. When you’ve got played like that and still make All Pro, I’m proud of that.”
He had much to be proud of.
On the field, Mitchell would carry the Redskins to five wins in 1962 — most for the team since 1957. Two years later, with the arrival of quarterback Sonny Jurgensen from the Philadelphia Eagles, Mitchell became part of an explosive offense that brought fans back to the team, starting the franchise’s legendary sellout streak — a streak that was real, not PR hype.
Mitchell would retire after the 1968 season having caught 393 passes for 6,492 yards and 49 touchdowns in seven seasons with Washington — a total of 521 catches for 7.954 yards and 65 touchdowns over his 11-year career. He would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983 — the same year as his quarterback, Jurgensen.
Mitchell continued to work in the front office for the Redskins, but never truly given the respect he deserved — the respect Mitchell thought he had finally achieved the day he was enshrined in Canton.
He retired from the organization in 2003, when coach Steve Spurrier gave out Mitchell’s No. 49 uniform to a tight end named Leonard Stephens. Spurrier was oblivious to the impact of Bobby Mitchell on the franchise. A generation of dwindling Redskins fans likely are as well.
His memory should not suffer the same indignity. The first thing people see when they enter FedEx Field — and whatever the future home of the Redskins is — is a statue of Bobby Mitchell, a monument to excellence and tolerance.
Hear Thom Loverro on the Kevin Sheehan podcast Tuesdays and Thursdays.