When asked about his historic Super Bowl performance while playing for Washington’s NFL team, Doug Williams often refocuses the conversation on the first African American trailblazer in franchise history: Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell, who died Sunday at 84. Mitchell opened a door once shut to black players and executives, who are indebted to him.
“Let me tell you something: Here, and I remind people of this all the time, Bobby was the pioneer,” Williams, Washington’s senior vice president of player development, said on the phone Monday.
“When Bobby got to Washington, he was it. And you know what that means. With everything that Bobby had to go through, with everything he dealt with, he showed how tough he was. He showed how great he was. And a lot of us followed him right through that door.”
The franchise’s first African American star, Mitchell was part of Washington’s first integrated roster in 1962 along with two other black players. George Preston Marshall, Washington’s owner at the time who was known for his racist ways, had finally relented and reluctantly made Washington the nation’s last team in major professional sports to desegregate, under pressure from the Kennedy administration, civil rights organizations and The Washington Post.
Mitchell, the 84th overall pick in the 1958 NFL draft, began his career as a running back with the Cleveland Browns. After the 1961 season, Washington traded for Mitchell and moved him to wide receiver. Despite the racism Mitchell and his family encountered during his first few years with Washington, he thrived and became a pillar of the organization. Once his playing days ended, Mitchell continued to break barriers in football operations, rising to the rank of Washington’s assistant general manager in 1981. In many ways, Mitchell transformed the franchise.
“When I came to the organization in 1986, I walked upstairs and there’s a black man sitting in an office. It’s Bobby Mitchell, the assistant general manager. That’s not something you saw back then,” Williams recalled. “For all of us [black players], when you go into work, you hollered at Bobby Mitchell.
“Being a young black man, being a quarterback, knowing some of the things I had to do to get to where I was at that time, and to see a black man in the assistant general manager chair, man, that was a big plus. And it wasn’t just me. For all the black guys on the football team, Bobby Mitchell was something to them.”
Throughout his 41 years with Washington, Mitchell set an example with his professionalism. Just ask Brian Mitchell.
A standout on special teams during Washington’s last Super Bowl-winning season in 1991, Brian Mitchell, who is not related to Bobby Mitchell, remained in the area after retiring as a player and has built a successful career as a sports talk radio host, television analyst and motivational speaker.
“Seeing Bobby work in the capacity he was working in, it made me broaden my vision and see that we just don’t have to play this game, we can also work on the other side of it,” Brian Mitchell said. “And just watching how he was always classy showed a lot. He got passed over for things but he wasn’t bitter because of it.
“He stayed focused on what he wanted to accomplish, instead of getting pissed off at one thing or another. He didn’t act silly or do something wrong, which maybe would have ended him getting another opportunity. He kept pushing. He kept working and doing something positive, and that helped push other people forward.”
By the time Tony Wyllie joined the organization in 2010, becoming the franchise’s first black senior vice president of communications, Mitchell had been retired for years. Nonetheless, Mitchell quickly reached out to Wyllie and became a mentor to him.
“I stood on his shoulders. There’s no way I would have been in the position I was in if it wasn’t for Bobby Mitchell,” said Wyllie, who left the franchise last year to become the regional president and managing director for Special Olympics North America.
“And more importantly, Bobby and Gwen, his lovely wife, took me and my wife and my family in like we were part of their family. I visited him at his house many times and bounced things off of him. He was always there for me.”
Wyllie was one of many.
Beginning in 1990, Mitchell was the honorary chairman of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s fundraising golf event in Northern Virginia for 22 years. Before his final event in the role, Mitchell, who was involved with many charitable organizations, reflected on the work he did on and off the field in an effort to make a difference.
“When you’re a star and you’re making money, you’ve got to give back. And not just with your money, but with your time,” Mitchell told a Washington Post reporter in 2012. “You’ve got to do it for one reason: It’s the right thing to do.”
Mitchell was a star who, to hear many tell it, made all the right moves. And because he did, Washington’s NFL franchise is forever better.