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.
Mitchell said Monday night was special. He looked up at the other names in the Ring of Fame, and thought about how, as a fifth-round pick in 1990, he could never have imagined joining them.
"To be there now, it's a great feeling," he said afterward. "It just lets me know that hard work does pay off. My mom and dad always talked to me about: If you believe in something, you give your all."
That, Mitchell believed 10 years ago, would also be enough to retire as a Redskin. But early in Snyder's tenure as the team's owner, he decided Mitchell was expendable. For years, it rankled Mitchell. Then, last Wednesday, Snyder told Mitchell he regretted the decision.
"He said he and the franchise made a mistake by letting me go, that he was listening to a lot of people and getting the wrong information," Mitchell said. "And you know what? Whether or not people believe it or not, it was something that was rewarding to me, after all these years, to hear it. Let's face it: The toughest thing in the world is to tell a person, 'I was wrong.' "
So when he stood before the crowd and the microphone Monday, Mitchell thanked Snyder. The crowd booed. "Nope," Mitchell told them. "Don't do that."
It doesn't mean Mitchell won't.
"I'll always respect him for that," Mitchell said of Snyder's admission. "That's not going to mean that if he does something wrong, I'm not going to say something."