Bobby Mitchell retired yesterday after 41 seasons with the Washington Redskins as a player, scout and front-office executive, saying he was "deeply hurt" by the manner in which late owner Jack Kent Cooke passed him over for the team's general manager job in 1988 and by Coach Steve Spurrier's decision to issue his uniform number to another player last season.
"People just missed it," Mitchell said of tight end Leonard Stephens wearing No. 49. "They weren't thinking. It was an oversight. But my family and my friends and I, we grieved about it all year. It's really close to what happened with Mr. Cooke, but this one might have been the worst one. It was tough for me to see the pain of my family and my close friends. That shakes you up. People kept saying to me, 'Why don't you say something?' But I kept thinking about the kid [Stephens]. I thought, 'I can't say anything.' "
Spurrier said in a statement issued by the team that "there was a mistake by everyone in the organization -- me, our equipment staff, tight end coach and personnel guys. We made a mistake and we'll correct it. No one will be wearing Bobby's number during any season."
The Redskins have retired only one jersey number, 33, for Sammy Baugh but former equipment manager Jay Brunetti had a list of unofficially retired numbers that he refused to hand out. With Brunetti gone, quarterbacks Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel briefly wore the numbers of quarterbacks Sonny Jurgensen and Joe Theismann before this season, but changed their minds.
Mitchell, 67, joined the Redskins' front office in 1969 at the suggestion of late coach Vince Lombardi after the conclusion of his Hall of Fame playing career in which he became the team's first African-American player. He once had a valued voice on player-related decisions, but his position had become increasingly ceremonial and he said late in the just-completed season that he planned to retire.
Mitchell once had sought to be the NFL's first black general manager, but said he felt comfortable leaving the league now that Ozzie Newsome has been given the Baltimore Ravens' GM job. He was passed over for the Redskins' GM job by late owner Edward Bennett Williams in 1978 in favor of Bobby Beathard, and passed over again by Cooke a decade later.
"Mr. Cooke was the one I was upset with because he never said a word to me, which showed disrespect to me," Mitchell said. "He said Charley [Casserly] was 'preeminently qualified.' This has nothing to do with Charley. He's a friend. All Mr. Cooke had to say to me was, 'Charley is going to be the general manager,' like Mr. Williams said to me with Bobby Beathard. I've always been crazy about Mr. Cooke. I still am. I genuinely like the man, but that was a deep hurt."
As he sat in his office yesterday, Mitchell stressed that he is not unhappy and does not leave on bad terms.
"You don't walk away from forty-something years and just laugh about it," Mitchell said. "It's going to be an emotional thing, but I've always said I'm not going to walk away from this game bitter. I've been close, but I was determined not to let it get to me. I held up."
Mitchell spent a few hours at Redskins Park yesterday to finish cleaning out his office and say his final farewells to some Redskins employees, who honored him with a private ceremony. The team plans to honor him publicly with a ceremony at FedEx Field prior to a game next season.
Mitchell said he regretted comments he made to an Associated Press reporter criticizing owner Daniel Snyder's methods. The remarks were picked up by various Washington media outlets yesterday afternoon.
"Dan works awful hard at this," Mitchell said. "The man works twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to make sure we have a winner. That doesn't mean that everything he does is right. But the manner at which he works at it, you've got to think it's going to turn out all right eventually. I'm not in position to say it's definitely going to turn out right, but I hope it comes out the way Dan wants it and we all want it. I like Dan. We never had a harsh word. We never were as close as we should have been, but that was just the age difference."
Said Snyder: "As a lifelong Redskin fan and as the owner of the team, I think I speak for everyone in saying that Bobby Mitchell is still and will always be a Redskin hero. He exemplified not only the tradition of winning on the field, but winning off the field. We hope to always have Bobby involved with the organization."
Mitchell spent 45 years in the NFL after being selected by the Cleveland Browns in the eighth round of the 1958 draft. He was traded to the Redskins in 1962, along with Leroy Jackson, for Ernie Davis. When he retired, Mitchell was third in NFL history with his 14,078 total yards and fifth with his 92 touchdowns. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983, and last year the receiver was named one of the 70 greatest Redskins as part of the franchise's celebration of its 70th anniversary.
"I have to live with people always talking about me as the first black player against all my exploits," Mitchell said. "I've always been very upset that people always start with that. I don't want to hear that, and yet I have to hear it constantly and it overshadows everything I've done in the game."
He joined the Redskins' personnel staff in '69 and was promoted to director of pro scouting, then to assistant to the president. He was named assistant general manager in 1981, and retained that title even though the Redskins have been without a general manager since Casserly resigned as part of a financial settlement with Snyder prior to the 1999 season. Mitchell's long list of community endeavors includes an annual charity golf tournament, featuring Hall of Fame players from different sports, to benefit leukemia research.
"Bobby had a good run -- a lot of good times, a lot of good stories," said longtime Redskins trainer Bubba Tyer, now a front-office administrator for the team. "I'm glad he has a chance to get away. He should. Forty-one years in one place is long enough."
Redskins Notes: The club is close to hiring Ken Clarke, who coached most recently in NFL Europe, as its defensive tackles coach.