Across North American professional sports, virtually every franchise has at least a few retired numbers. As of Saturday, Bobby Mitchell will be the latest player to receive that honor. The Washington Redskins announced that, in addition to removing a memorial to George Preston Marshall, they would be paying tribute to their former running back.
While Mitchell might not be a household name for today’s football fans, he’s more than deserving of the honor. In addition to posting Hall of Fame-quality numbers, he also became Washington’s Jackie Robinson, breaking the franchise’s longstanding color barrier.
Bobby Mitchell’s road to the Washington Redskins
Bobby Mitchell didn’t begin his football career in the nation’s capital, though. He hit the gridiron and ran track at the University of Illinois before landing a job with the Cleveland Browns in the seventh round of the 1958 NFL draft.
Despite that lowly draft status, Mitchell quickly proved that he could play at the NFL level. As a rookie, he caught 16 passes and carried the ball 80 times for a total of 631 yards and four touchdowns; Mitchell also served as the team’s return man, further proving his versatility.
As an NFL sophomore, Mitchell improved both his rushing and receiving totals, piling up more than 1,000 yards on offense; in 1960, he played even better and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. The running back’s time in Cleveland, however, wouldn’t last much longer.
Becoming a star in Washington, D.C.
During his time in Cleveland, Bobby Mitchell had made a name for himself as a quality NFL player. In 1962, however, he would make NFL history.
Under pressure from the United States government, the Washington Redskins became the last team in the NFL to integrate their roster. George Preston Marshall drafted Ernie Davis, but was afraid the running back wouldn’t sign an affordable contract; he traded Davis’ rights to the Cleveland Browns, getting Mitchell back in return.
While three African-American players were on the Redskins that season, Mitchell became the main man. As a flanker, he caught 72 passes for 1,384 yards and 11 touchdowns; he followed that up with 1,436 receiving yards and seven touchdowns the following year.
In total, Mitchell played seven seasons in Washington, piling up 6,492 receiving yards, 438 rushing yards, 1,232 return yards, and 59 total touchdowns. He fittingly earned a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the class of 1983.
Bobby Mitchell finally received his due as the Redskins’ Jackie Robinson
Despite Bobby Mitchell’s historic role in franchise history, decades in the front office, and impressive on-field numbers, the Washington Redskins never formally honored the running back. As of Saturday, however, that has changed.
The organization removed a memorial to George Preston Marshall from outside their stadium and removed his name from the lower seating bowl of FedEx Field. That level will now be named after Mitchell and, come the 2020 season, the late running back will become the second player in Redskins history to have his number retired.
“Bobby was our Jackie Robinson. He had to handle the pressure of being the first African American football player to integrate the Washington Redskins. He, like Jackie, was a military officer headquartered in the DC area when he received notice of his trade,” former Washington safety Brig Owens explained in an official Redskins statement.
“In the face of great adversity, he served as a role model for the Washington, D.C. community, The Redskins, its fan base, and the NFL. He was committed to the National Leukemia Society and the Shaw Food Committee where, for 40 years, they fed over 500 families at Thanksgiving. He was more than an exceptional football player and athlete, he was an exceptional human being.”
Stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference