Brian Mitchell is all about 'thankfulness' as he takes place in Redskins' Ring of Fame

Brian Mitchell, the NFL's all-time leader in both kickoff and punt return yardage, said,
Brian Mitchell, the NFL's all-time leader in both kickoff and punt return yardage, said, "I don't have any vendettas." (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Barry Svrluga
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

When Brian Mitchell caught a punt, in those days when he danced through defenders, there was no telling what might happen. He could break left. He could break right. He could, at any moment, break one right back to the end zone.

When Mitchell stepped to the microphone Monday night at FedEx Field, there was no telling what he might say. For fans of the Washington Redskins in the 1990s, perhaps no player epitomized what it meant to wear burgundy and gold than the 5-foot-11 return man from Louisiana. Now, though, a decade after he played his last game for Washington, Mitchell has developed into a brutally honest assessor of his old team.

Might Mitchell use this special occasion -- his induction as the 44th member of the Redskins' Ring of Fame -- to voice his displeasure? No way.

"Tonight's a night of thankfulness for me," Mitchell told the crowd before Washington's game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

That, then, is what Mitchell did. In a speech that lasted just more than a minute, he spoke of wanting to please his late parents, and of how thankful he was for the fans who supported him.

"But I'll tell you one thing," Mitchell told the crowd. "I believe in what I believe in, and that's why I played the game I played, and that's why I live my life the way I live it."

That, then, is the position in which he finds himself now: believing that his former franchise is in need of changes in the future, even as he was honored for his place in its history. And in his role as an analyst on Comcast SportsNet, and his former role as a sports talk radio host, he frequently lets his old team have it.

"I don't worry about balancing anything," Mitchell said on the sideline after the ceremony, which featured video highlights of his career. "I don't have spite. I don't have any vendettas. I don't have an agenda. I say what I see, as I see it. I think if I'm being honest, people are going to respect that."

For 10 years, Mitchell played in Washington, straddling the Joe Gibbs dynasty and the Norv Turner debacles, RFK Stadium and FedEx Field, Jack Kent Cooke and Daniel Snyder. He was never a star in the truest form, a go-to running back or All-Pro receiver, and he started only 16 of his 223 career games. But he was a special teamer in the best sense, a kick and punt returner who took his craft seriously, who always seemed to say the right thing in the locker room and out.

Mitchell, a quarterback at Southwestern Louisiana, finished his 14-year career -- which concluded with three seasons in Philadelphia and one final go with the New York Giants, keeping his entire experience in the NFC East -- with 14,014 yards on kick returns, still more than anyone in NFL history. He finished with 4,999 yards on punt returns, still more than anyone in NFL history. Add those numbers together, and his 19,013 yards on returns of any kind remain more than anyone who has played in the NFL.

Throw everything together -- including Mitchell's totals rushing and receiving from scrimmage -- and only wide receiver Jerry Rice has more total yards in league history. And no one returned more punts and kicks for touchdowns than Mitchell's 13.

"Special is just what he was," emcee Rick "Doc" Walker, the former Redskins tight end, told the crowd.

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