On September 16, 1962, Bobby Mitchell became the first black player to take the field for the Washington Redskins. The NFL had long been integrated, but the Redskins hadn’t followed suit. Owner George Preston Marshall was a racist who, in addition, cultivated a southern fan base (there was no NFL team located in Dixie during the 1950s).
The Redskins integrated only after Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall made doing so a condition of playing at the new Washington, DC stadium (now known as RFK Stadium). I doubt the federal government has done anything since that so improved the quality of my life.
In the first round of the next NFL draft, the Redskins selected a black player — the great college running back and Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis. They then traded Davis to the Cleveland Browns for Bobby Mitchell, already a great running back. The Browns dreamed of a backfield featuring Davis and Jim Brown, the NFL’s best runner, both out of Syracuse. But Davis became ill, never played for Cleveland, and died of luekemia.
The Redskins moved Mitchell from running back to flanker (as the “wide-out” position was then called). It seemed like a strange decision considering what a great runner Mitchell was. Indeed, he had set the record for most yards rushing in a single game (surpassed many times since), and had set it against the Redskins.
But Redskins coach Bill McPeak knew what he was doing. Running behind the Redskins line was a difficult proposition for anyone. McPeak wanted to isolate Mitchell on defenders to take advantage of his great speed and moves. The coach called Mitchell “the ultimate flanker,” and the player proceeded to revolutionize the position.
In his debut game, against the Dallas Cowboys in Dallas, Mitchell scored on pass plays of 81 and 6 yards, and set up two other touchdowns with a pass reception and an interference call. He also contributed a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. That’s 35 points, which is what the Redskins scored in a 35-35 tie.
After the game, Dallas fans demonstrated further the folly of the Redskins’ finally defunct “Southern Strategy.” They cheered Mitchell.
Mitchell’s next game was at Cleveland. The Browns went all out to stop their former teammate, and did limit him to three catches. However, on one of them, a quick, short pass to the flank, Mitchell juked his man-to-man defender and outraced the entire Cleveland defense for a long touchdown. On the day, Mitchell’s three catches produced 94 yards, and the Redskins (who had won only once the previous year) gained a shock victory over the Browns.
The Redskins also won the next week, behind Mitchell. The “ultimate flanker” caught seven passes for 174 yards and two more touchdowns. Interior Department policy never looked so good.
As the season went on, defenses focused more and more on Mitchell, but productivity was little diminished. He delivered five more games of 100 plus yards receiving, and ended the 14 game season with 72 catches for 1,384 yards and 12 touchdowns. All of this Mitchell accomplished with a young, ordinary quarterback (Norm Snead), an unimposing offensive line, and no other high-quality receiver.
The Redskins have been blessed with many fine receivers since 1962, including two all-time greats — Charlie Taylor and Art Monk. But for my money, none ever played the position quite as well as Bobby Mitchell did during his first season with the Redskins, during which he bore the burdens of breaking the color barrier in Washington, DC and carrying the hopes of the city’s large black population.