Fame Catches Up With Ex-Redskins Mitchell, Jurgensen
By Paul Attner
For a few moments, as they sat in the shadow of the Hall listening to Edward Bennett Williams present them to the crowd, Jurgensen and Mitchell were young again. They were Washington Redskins again, passing and running as only each man could.
Williams painted the images, of Jurgensen rallying the Redskins past the Dallas Cowboys, of Mitchell gaining 232 yards for the Cleveland Browns against Washington. He painted other images, too, of Jurgensen "who is all man" and of Mitchell "who is a superstar as an athlete and a gentleman."
This was a day of great emotion for both men. They had feared that too much time had passed since their retirements, that their chances of being in the hall would be reduced with each year. Instead, they were side by side today seeing their dream finally come true.
It was also an emotional day for many Redskins fans who traveled here to honor their heroes. Perhaps 300 or more Washingtonians were in the crowd, a turnout that even drew praise from NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. Billy Kilmer was there, as was Brig Owens, both former Redskins and friends of Jurgensen and Mitchell.
Jurgensen, reading from a prepared text, was poised and polished during his acceptance speech. Earlier in the day, when asked what he would be thinking about during that speech, he choked up and couldn't speak.
"Coach [Vince] Lombardi and my family," he finally said in a weak voice.
It was Lombardi, Williams recalled, who predicted in 1969 that Jurgensen would make the Hall of Fame. Williams recited Lombardi's words: "Sonny Jurgensen is a great quarterback, he may be the greatest this league has ever seen. He certainly is the greatest I've ever seen. He hangs in there in the worst of adversities. He's no longer a young man, but he's all man."
Williams recalled the day Jurgensen reported to the Redskins after being traded from Philadelphia as "Hallelujah Day in Washington . . . He was Merlin the Magician . . . It was Phoenix coming up from the ashes, it was Lazarus rising from the dead; that's what Sonny Jurgensen could do to a team . . . Coach Lombardi is up there today, smiling down, with the pride of a prophet and the love of a father."
Jurgensen also spoke of Lombardi and the 1969 season, the only one Lombardi coached in Washington ("and the only one I didn't play with my sidekick, my stomach"). But earlier, he singled out a 1974 game as perhaps his greatest moment, a last-minute comeback victory over Miami two years after the Redskins had lost to the Dolphins in the Super Bowl, a game in which the injured Jurgensen didn't play.
When Washington won in 1974, Jurgensen said, his reaction was, "If I had been there in 1973, we would have won that one, too."
Mitchell, who gave a moving address, stumbled only when he began talking about his family."
"She has worked tirelessly for many a year," he said about his wife Gwen. "I think of the number of times that she would walk behind so I could shine. I had the glory, she had all the strength. I just hope sometime through this lifetime that I can find the strength to say to her that I think she has been a great partner."
The two men were inducted along with Paul Warfield of the Miami Dolphins, Bobby Bell of the Kansas City Chiefs and Sid Gillman, former coach of the Rams and Chargers. The crowd flowed well beyond the formal seating area. Fans lounged on a nearby hillside and even watched from the top seats of the stadium across the street.
It was so hot the inductees were asked to take off their special Hall of Fame sport coats. But they weren't complaining. They were having too much fun.
"I didn't play for championship teams," said Jurgensen, a fourth-round Eagles draft choice who feared he would never survive in the NFL because he hadn't passed enough in college. "I had nine operations . . . There were a lot of frustrations and disappointments, but this makes up for a lot of those."
Mitchell said that "this is an especially great day for me and my family. It doesn't seem so long ago that I was playing on the fields in the city of Hot Springs, Ark. . . . How do you write a speech for this? How can a speech do justice to this hall? . . . My reaction [to the ceremonies] is one of joy, excitement, delight, and wonderment."
Mitchell spoke of Paul Brown, who paid him $7,000 his rookie season to lure him away from running in the Olympics.
"I was very fortunate to have Paul Brown. He taught me football, he taught me what it means to be a gentleman, he taught me about taking care of family and he taught me about security. All those things I have used in my life to get to this moment," said Mitchell.
He spoke of the trade to Washington that led to his becoming the team's first black player. He said it was "a great day and a sad day that started a very beautiful relationship with Coach Bill McPeak and some great athletes.
"We didn't win a lot of games but we cared about each other. I was in a city that cared a lot about Bobby Mitchell."
Said Edward Bennett Williams: "When [Mitchell] left football in 1969, only Jim Brown was his equal in combined yardage in NFL history. But no one surpassed him in character, courage, dignity and in integrity."
And Mitchell spoke for both Jurgensen and himself when he concluded: "This makes you wonder if you are worthy. I've always wanted to be recognized and respected. My enshrinement today tells me that I am recognized. The love of my family and all of my friends tells me I am respected."