NFL Hall of Famer and former Washington Redskins player Bobby Mitchell, the first black player for the franchise, passed away Sunday at the age 84, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Born Robert Cornelius Mitchell on June 6, 1935 in Hot Springs, Ark., he was a seventh-round pick in the 1958 NFL draft from the University of Illinois when he began his 11 season pro football career with the Cleveland Browns, according to the NFL’s website.
After playing four seasons as a halfback for the Browns and setting a team record for the longest rushing play with a 90-yard run (a record that wouldn’t be broken until 2018), Mitchell was traded to the Redskins in 1962, becoming the team’s first black player. He played for them until his retirement in 1969 and continued working with the team for over 30 years serving as their assistant general manager for all three of the team’s Super Bowl victories, according to the Redskins’ website.
“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,” Redskins owner Dan Snyder said.
According to ESPN, the Redskins was the last NFL team to integrate when Mitchell joined along with players Leroy Jackson and John Nisby. Mitchell called it a “life-altering” experience but it never would have happened if racism had its way. From ESPN:
Redskins owner George Preston Marshall had said that many fans preferred watching white players and would reject the Redskins if they had an African American player.
In contrast to other NFL owners, Marshall “did not pretend there were no blacks good enough to make his team,” Andy Piascik wrote in “Gridiron Gauntlet: The Story of the Men Who Integrated Pro Football in Their Own Words.” “Unlike the others, he was honest enough to admit that he simply didn’t want them around.”
But Mitchell not wanting to be known solely for his fight against racism doesn’t mean he wasn’t, indeed, a fighter. He was one of the many renowned black athletes to attend the Cleveland Summit in 1967 where he stood alongside NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown and others in support of Muhammad Ali’s decision not to enlist in the US military during Vietnam.
“Bobby Mitchell will absolutely be remembered for his play on the field. But he should be equally celebrated for his dedicated activism off the field to pave the way for generations to come,” the Redskins said in a tweet.
Mitchel finished his career with 14,078 total yards and 91 touchdowns and was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1983. The cause of death has not been released.