Bobby Mitchell Hall of Fame, who helped integrate Redskins, dies at 84

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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 said.

“I was extremely saddened to hear the news of the death of the great Bobby Mitchell. Bobby was a Hall of Fame player and executive and has represented the Washington Redskins organization with integrity for more than 50 years, “said team owner Daniel Snyder in a statement. “His passion for football is unmatched by anyone I have ever met. Not only was he one of the most influential individuals in the history of the franchise, but he was also one of the greatest men I have ever known. It was a real acting class and will be greatly missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Gwen and the entire Mitchell family during this time. “

Mitchell began his professional career as a halfback for the Cleveland Browns in 1958. Threatened to run and receive, 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 represented 3,759 yards of scrimmage.

In 1962 the Browns traded Mitchell to the Washington Redskins, who moved him from halfback to flank. That season, he led the league in receptions (72) and in receiving yards (1,384). The following season, Mitchell caught 69 passes for a total of 1,436 yards at the top of the league. He also tied an NFL record with a 99-yard touchdown reception against his former team.

In his first six seasons with the Redskins, he has never caught fewer than 58 assists. He has been selected four times at the Pro Bowl – once as a ball carrier and three times as a wide catcher.

Bobby Mitchell, left, is featured at the Fan Football Hall of Fame Pro Fest in 2014. He was inducted into the Hall in 1983. AP Photo / Mark Duncan

Mitchell, a seventh round pick in 1958, retired in 1969, ending his 11-year NFL career with 14,078 total yards. He has had 91 career touchdowns, including 65 in receiving and 18 in racing. 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 real legend today, “said David Baker, President and CEO of the Hall of Fame. “Bobby was an incredible player, a talented executive and a true gentleman to everyone he worked with or competed with. His wife Gwen and all of his family remain in our thoughts and prayers. The Hall of Fame will forever keep its legacy alive to serve as inspiration for future generations. “

It was his time with the Redskins that Mitchell once called “life changing.” Mitchell was traded from Cleveland to Washington in December 1961 for Ernie Davis after Davis said he would not play for the Redskins. Nine months after the exchange, Mitchell, Leroy Jackson and John Nisby helped break the only remaining color barrier in the NFL – the Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate – and they did it with little of fanfare, as much as the rest of the Redskins’ list was concerned.

Redskins owner George Preston Marshall said many fans would rather watch white players and would reject the Redskins if they had an African American player.

Unlike other NFL owners, Marshall “did not pretend that there were no blacks good enough to make his team,” wrote Andy Piascik in “Gridiron Gauntlet: The Story of the Men Who have integrated professional football into their own words. ” “Unlike the others, he was honest enough to admit that he just didn’t want them there. “

Under pressure from former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and administration John F. Kennedy, the Redskins finally joined their roster. In his first game with the team, Mitchell caught six passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns and made a 92-yard punt return for a touchdown in a 35-35 draw 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 Saint Louis Cardinals.

“You play for a group of people, and you don’t know if they want you, so I had a lot of mixed feelings about this game,” Mitchell told the New York Times. “I still don’t think I performed as well as I do, knowing how I felt all week preparing for it. “

Still, Mitchell became an All-Pro selection for the first team in his first season in Washington. He led the NFL with 1,384 receiving yards and again led the league in 1963 with 1,436. In 1964, Mitchell had one of the top 10 receiving touchdowns in 1964, alongside Redskins new quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. NFL.

“He was a go-to receiver,” said Jurgensen, who spent 11 seasons in Washington, including five with Mitchell, at FoxSports.com in 2014. “He was exceptional because you just had to have the ball in your hands , and he was able to go all the way. … He and Charley Taylor gave me two good enlargements, and even if [defenses] tried to kidnap one of them, they weren’t going to keep the other down. “

However, Mitchell’s first three years in Washington were trying, especially for his wife and two children, he told the New York Times once. Some stores and restaurants have refused to serve them, he said, and some sports writers have told him that their editors have ordered them not to write stories about him or to vote for him to be an All -Pro. Despite this, the team started adding more African-American players and continued to improve. In the mid-1960s, the Redskins were one of the highest rated teams in the league.

“The whole tenor has changed,” Mitchell told The Times. “As we had more and more black guys on the team and started to spread out around the communities, treatments started to change. “

After his playing career ended, Mitchell joined the Redskins as a recruiter under coach Vince Lombardi at the time. He spent 35 years in the team’s front office, becoming deputy general manager.

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