Remembering Bobby Mitchell

Bobby Mitchell, star of the Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins, and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died yesterday. He was 84. No cause of death was given.

Mitchell broke the Redskins’ color barrier, but said he wanted to be remembered first and foremost as a great player, rather than an historically significant one. In this post, I will honor that wish. You can read about his historical significance in a post I wrote in 2012.

When Mitchell retired after the 1968 season, he ranked second in NFL history in total all-purpose yards and fifth in career touchdowns. Moreover, Mitchell was a star at two positions — first as a running back for Cleveland and then as a wide receiver (“flanker”) for Washington.

When the Redskins moved Mitchell to flanker, 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. In addition, he had made the Pro Bowl as a running back.

But Washington 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. The NFL had great pass catchers like Raymond Berry and gifted speedsters like Tommy McDonald. But before Mitchell, no receiver in the game combined his speed, shiftiness, and ability to outjump defenders for the ball.

In his debut game, against the Dallas Cowboys, 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.

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.

As the season went on, defenses focused more and more on Mitchell, but his 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. Mitchell accomplished this with a young, ordinary quarterback (Norm Snead), an unimposing offensive line, and no other high-quality receiver.

The next season, Mitchell was good for even more yards receiving — 1,436 — an average of more than 100 per game. He led the league in receiving yards both seasons and, of course, made the Pro Bowl in both, as well as in 1964.

The Redskins have been blessed with many fine receivers since 1962, including two all-time greats — Charlie Taylor (also a converted running back) and Art Monk. But for my money, none ever played the position quite as well as Bobby Mitchell did in his first two seasons with the Redskins, during which he bore the burdens of breaking the color barrier in Washington, D.C. and carrying the hopes of the city’s large black population.

After Mitchell retired as a player, Vince Lombardi recommended him for a position in the Redskins’ front office. Mitchell served there for decades.

He was also a presence in the D.C. community. When my father was president of a local union, he asked Mitchell to speak to members and potential members. These were among the lowest paid workers in the area — garbage collectors, janitors, hospital orderlies, etc.

Mitchell answered the call, and in so doing gave the union a boost.

All told, Mitchell was with the Redskins for 40 plus years and continued to reside in the area for nearly 20 more. I never heard anyone speak of him in other than glowing terms.