There’s been a lot of talk this month about incredible Redskins debuts, what with Robert Griffin III setting the world on fire in New Orleans and all. But Examiner columnist Thom Loverro brought up a pretty salient point: 50 years ago this week, Bobby Mitchell made his Redskins debut. It was also pretty exceptional. And Mitchell, of course, faced the added burden of being Washington’s first black football star.
Which means its time for a trip to the archives, and The Post’s game story from Sept. 17, 1962.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Washington Redskin Bobby Mitchell tied the Dallas Cowboys today, 35-35, in a wild National Football League opener for the two have-not clubs of the Eastern Division.
In a truly tremendous Redskin debut, Mitchell returned a kickoff for a 92-yard touchdown; scored on an 81-yard pass play; scored another on a six-yard pass and set up the other two touchdowns with a pass reception and a pass interference call.
An announced crowd of 15,730 sat in this Cotton Bowl cauldron and stayed to cheer the enemy player.
Despite Mitchell’s heroics, only a field goal miss from the Washington 35-yard line by the usually reliable Sam Baker, a former Redskin, in the last eight seconds prevented a Dallas victory. It enabled the Skins to escape being beaten by Dallas for the first time in history.
I mean, as insane as RGIII’s first game was, scoring three touchdowns and setting up two others in a 35-35 tie isn’t half bad.
When we worked on our story about black Washington’s relationship with the Redskins last year, a great many people — from Jim Vance to Vincent Gray — dated their Redskins fandom to Mitchell’s debut.
“When you talk to [older fans], I think that Bobby Mitchell really was what caused them to say ok, now we have a team in Washington,” Darrell Green told me. “If you listen to certain people from different generations, that is a major piece.”
“Bobby Mitchell is, to this day, the only athlete for whom I have an autographed photo,” Kevin Blackistone said.
“When I first got to Washington, I hated the Redskins....embracing them was very, very difficult,” Vance told The Post’s Chris Jenkins. “The reason I finally did had to do with a couple of special people,” he added, ticking off the names of Redskins greats from the late 1960s and 1970s. “Bobby Mitchell, Charley Taylor, Kenny Houston, Larry Brown and Brig Owens. These were stand-up guys — they were men of distinction. They were the reason I started to pay attention to [the] ’Skins.”
Shirley Povich, of course, wrote about Mitchell’s remarkable Skins debut:
The degree in which Mitchell assisted in salvaging a tie out of the proceedings is obvious. He got them three touchdowns personally, set up the other two with individual heroics and three times put them back in the ball game when they were behind….If there is a tendency to remark that all the Redskins have is Mitchell, it calls to mind the criticism once directed at Bing Crosby: All he can do is sing.
In our current age, a debut like that for Washington’s first black star would be covered as more than just a football story. And indeed, Mitchell told me that race was a large part of his challenge in coming to Washington.
“The tough part for me is [black Redskins fans] couldn’t stand me not being perfect,” he told me. “I didn’t have the luxury of a dropped pass, a missed block or anything else. They wanted me to be perfect. I was now representing them, and that’s what they wanted from me. It was really really tough, because they wanted to see me star every time, and that’s just a very difficult thing to do.
And while the Dallas game story and Povich’s column basically ignored Mitchell’s race, a Povich column two weeks later — after Mitchell’s third game for Washington, and first in the District — did not. An excerpt:
Present at the Redskins-Cardinal game were Supreme Court justices Clark, White and Goldberg. Also Cabinet officer Udall. An unfortunate absentee was Attorney General Robert Kennedy, missing under the pressure of other business and thus perhaps missing out on a great tactical lesson in integration.
Otherwise Mr. Kennedy today might be tempted to call off his U.S. marshals and his Army troops, bench James Meredith, and ask Bobby Mitchell to integrate the University of Mississippi by fake, thus resolving that crisis brightly. Twice in the first half, the Redskins’ elusive Negro halfback gave defenders the slip to infiltrate the Cardinals’ end zone.
The Cardinals were watchful of Mitchell no less than Gov. Ross Barnett’s Mississippi sheriffs are on guard against student applicant Meredith, but it didn’t help. Trying to intercept Mitchell is like trying to deal with a basketful of snakes.
Mitchell caught seven passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns on that day, part of Washington’s 4-0-2 start. Through those first three games, the Redskins had nine touchdowns on offense and special teams; Mitchell had accounted for six of them.
So while anniversary stories are sometimes overdone, the 50th anniversary of Mitchell’s first game in burgundy and gold seems worthy of a quick thought.
As Loverro wrote, “when Mitchell took the field in Dallas to face the Cowboys in the opener, sports changed in Washington — immediately and for the long term.”