Bobby Mitchell came to Washington in 1962, the first African American to play for the Redskins, the last NFL team to integrate.
Traded here by the Cleveland Browns, Mitchell lived on my street in the Parkland apartment complex in Southeast, a neighborhood often alive with girls jumping double dutch and boys chasing the Good Humor truck.
Those were the days when pro athletes lived in our midst and not in gated communities. Ron Hatcher, a Skins fullback, rented an apartment directly below us and became friends with my dad. Washington Senators pitcher Bennie Daniels, when he wasn't on the diamond, was outside playing catch with us.
I was just 5 years old back then and hardly an expert on pro sports, but I remember the grown-ups bragging about what a dazzling player Bobby Mitchell was, claiming him as their own. Mitchell led the NFL in receiving that first year with the Skins, and he never left Washington. After hanging up his cleats in 1969, he continued his trailblazing in sports management at a time when there were no black role models, working his way up in the Skins' front office from scout to assistant general manager. Along the way, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame and voted one of the 70 greatest Redskins. The Metropolitan Police Boys Club named a field after him in Southeast.
But when Mitchell said farewell to the Redskins earlier this year, it was not a sweet so-long. Twice passed over for general manager, he had become, in a sense, a golden-oldies figure, kept around for historical reasons. And so when he decided to leave, all of the pioneer's frustrations came tumbling out, in print and on the air.
"When you've been around better than 40 years, you have a lot of things on your mind," Mitchell told me. "I really don't think too much about my career with that organization. But I do reflect on a lot of the people and things that happened during the course of those many years -- good things, bad things."
The bad things seem to gnaw on Mitchell now. There was, for instance, the team's handling of his jersey number, one of a few that were not so much retired as simply not used. The Skins issued No. 49 to a backup tight end last season, and even though the team apologized and said his number would never be worn again, it still hurts.
"I don't accept any of that," he said of the apologies, which he read in the newspapers. "As far as I'm concerned, it [No. 49] doesn't belong to me and will never belong to me." He said he plans never again to write "No. 49" with his autograph.
Then there was his exit chat with owner Dan Snyder. "I realized he didn't even know who I was, so I cut the conversation short and left."
Mitchell was one of the few Skins front-office veterans that Snyder kept on after taking charge of the team. But Mitchell says: "We never had a relationship. I think it was one of tolerance. I think he tolerated my being there."
Snyder couldn't be reached for his thoughts. A team spokeswoman directed me to a previously published Snyder statement about how "Bobby Mitchell is still and will always be a Redskin hero."
Some people look at Mitchell and see someone who got what he deserved -- he "has no one to blame but himself," says longtime D.C. sports commentator Harold Bell -- for sticking around so long even in the face of perceived slights, for not making enough of a ruckus about the paucity of blacks in front-office jobs in professional sports. It was not until last season that an NFL team named a black general manager, Ozzie Newsome of the Baltimore Ravens. And according to the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, there are only six African American general managers among the 145 major professional sports teams.
The criticism of Mitchell reminds me of what some of my minority colleagues used to say about the late Walter Morrison, a brilliant editorial writer and my mentor at the Milwaukee Journal. He was an urbane gentleman who wore fedoras and pinstriped Brooks Brothers suits and told time from a gold pocket watch. Some privately snickered and wished that he had been more radical. But Morrison's skill was not in huffing and puffing, but in giving private counsel and doing what Mitchell calls "inside work" to chisel away at barriers to progress.
As a result of his inside work, Mitchell said, "every administrative job that you can have in the National Football League, somebody black has."
Forty-five years in the NFL, and no one ever offered him a GM's job. "It was too early," he said. "People who push too early don't get anything. If I had come along 15 years later, something would've happened."
Still, his legacy is what it is. All these years I've kept Bobby Mitchell's football card, and one day I'm going to ask him to sign it. When he does, I hope he'll add No. 49 to his signature.
Kevin Merida's e-mail address is email@example.com.