When a team retires a player's number, it sends a clear and powerful message that the player has contributed in a unique and extraordinary way. It says that the player changed that team, made it something better than it was. What greater honor could a team bestow on an athlete than to single out his contributions by making his number his and only his?
The Redskins' intention of retiring Darrell Green's No. 28 is a good one. Retiring 28 would be a deserving tribute. Green's 20 seasons as a Redskin have surpassed even the tenure of Sammy Baugh, whose 33 has been the team's only retired number. But this forthcoming honor also reminds us that the Redskins have a rich history and that several former players should enjoy the same tribute.
For me, that list begins, unarguably, with Bobby Mitchell.
And close behind is Sonny Jurgensen.
There are others. Of them, more later.
Mitchell deserves immediate action. His 49 should have been retired long ago. Mitchell has spent 40 years with the Redskins as a player and front office executive. He was an electrifying player, as both a runner and pass receiver. He was a trailblazer for racial justice, both on the field and in the front office.
Mitchell, who recently hinted that he will retire shortly, arrived in the Washington of another day. The Redskins of the early 1960s were the only one of 14 NFL teams not to employ black players -- and owner George Preston Marshall wanted to keep it that way. But the federal government in the person of Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall pressured him, threatening to bar his team from playing in the new District stadium. In time for the 1962 season, Mitchell arrived in trade from Cleveland along with rookie Leroy Jackson, and they would become the team's first black players. (Fullback Ron Hatcher, an eighth-round draft choice, actually was the first black player to sign a Redskins contract, although he did not play until late that season.) Mitchell's contributions to the Redskins have scarcely been interrupted since.
Breaking the Redskins' color barrier took courage. Marshall billed the Redskins as the team of the South, and his band played Dixie. In Marshall, Mitchell was introduced to an intimidating figure who remained stubbornly biased. He did what he did only because he had no choice. But no matter the uncertainties Mitchell faced and the thoughts that had to have crowded his mind, he excelled on the field as if the game itself was all he had to think about.
So, too, he made history by joining the Redskins' front office at the encouragement of Vince Lombardi. As African Americans in sports still struggle to gain positions as coaches and executives, Mitchell's continuing presence as a Redskins assistant general manager reminds us of a time when it was even more difficult to overcome bias, and causes us to wonder why prejudice still remains. We are left with the lingering thought that Mitchell earned more than he got, that he deserved to be a general manager.
No Redskin has worn No. 49 since Mitchell. But the team needs to make sure no one ever will. The Redskins need to make it official.
The same with No. 9.
No one has worn it since Jurgensen, although Shane Matthews entertained the thought briefly last spring. Players become attached to numbers, as Matthews had to 9. But to fans, certain numbers mean certain players. And certain memories. To Redskins fans, No. 9 means only one player, the one who enlivened a drab franchise with his quick release and accurate passes, a distinctive figure not shaped quite like the mythic gladiator but not one with whom opponents relished doing battle.
Some teams have cheapened the honor, retiring a player's number after minimal service, and even though the player was identified with another franchise. But, for a long time, the Redskins have erred the other way, bypassing several icons from a storied franchise. (Should Dan Snyder see to it that the omissions are rectified, fans might applaud him for a change.)
Now to some others.
Certain Redskins numbers besides 9 and 49 haven't been given out since certain players wore them. You know the ones: 7, 42, 43, 44, 65 and 81. A case could be made for any of these; I admit to having particular feelings about 43.
There are others, whose numbers were returned to action. They could have a case, too.
This much is for sure:
Baugh and Green, yes.
Mitchell and Jurgensen, yes.