Mr. Mitchell was one of the most versatile and dynamic offensive threats of his era, forcing his way into the end zone after a catch, throwing off defenders on long runs and sprinting down the field as a punt and kickoff returner. By the time he retired, after the 1968 season, his 14,078 all-purpose yards were the second most in National Football League history.
Drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1958, he formed a formidable running back duo with Jim Brown and made the Pro Bowl in 1960 but was traded to the Redskins after four seasons. He spent the rest of his career with Washington and shined as a flanker, racing down the sideline to haul in passes from quarterback Sonny Jurgensen.
Trying to outmaneuver him, Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich once wrote, was “like trying to deal with a basketful of snakes.”
For all of his talent on the gridiron, Mr. Mitchell was primarily known by many fans for breaking the color barrier on the Redskins, the last American professional team in any major sport to integrate. Its first integrated roster, in 1962, featured three black players — Mr. Mitchell, guard John Nisby and fullback Ron Hatcher — who took the field only after a protracted showdown between owner George Preston Marshall and a member of the Kennedy administration.
As the team moved toward desegregation, neo-Nazis paraded outside the stadium with signs reading “Keep Redskins White,” according to an account by sports historian Thomas G. Smith. But Mr. Mitchell plowed ahead, making the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons with the Redskins while enduring what he later described as “a great deal of racial discrimination from the fans and the Washington community.”
He later spent more than three decades with the franchise as a scout and front-office executive while spearheading fundraisers for leukemia and lymphoma patients and championing civil rights causes that broadened his earlier work on the field.
More than a dozen African Americans played pro football in the 1920s and early 1930s, but the sport closed its ranks to black athletes before the Browns and Los Angeles Rams signed African Americans in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. By 1955, the Redskins were the only all-white holdout in the NFL and had embraced their status as a segregationist franchise.
“We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites,” Marshall once quipped. In 1961, he told the New York Times, “We take most of our players out of Southern colleges and are trying to appeal to Southern people.”
For many years, the league did not seem to mind. Marshall had become a part-owner of the Redskins back when the franchise was known as the Boston Braves. He moved the team to Washington and helped pioneer the modern NFL by championing a new playoff format, favoring rule changes that opened up the sport and turning his team’s home games into modern “gladiator shows,” complete with a marching band and colorful halftime performances.Radio and television stations carried Redskins games across the South. And while the team band played the Confederate anthem “Dixie” before kickoff, civil rights activists organized demonstrations outside the stadium.
Inside, many fans protested as well, booing the team less for the color of its players than the quality of its play. The Redskins won just one game in 1960, and Povich turned the franchise into a punching bag, calling the team’s colors “burgundy, gold and Caucasian.”
In 1961, the Redskins were scheduled to move to a new stadium under construction on land owned by the National Park Service. But that March, Stewart L. Udall, President John F. Kennedy’s newly installed interior secretary, announced that if the team wanted to play in D.C. Stadium, later renamed for Robert F. Kennedy, it would need to follow federal anti-discrimination laws and integrate.
Marshall said he doubted that “the government had the right to tell the showman how to cast the play.” But after Udall responded by threatening the team with potential criminal prosecution, giving the Redskins until their first home game to hire a black player, Marshall met that fall with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
In subsequent interviews, Marshall said he was interested in signing a black player. Udall gave him a one-year deadline, and with the top pick in the 1962 NFL draft (held in December 1961), the Redskins selected halfback Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy.
In a trade with the Browns, the Redskins acquired Mr. Mitchell and Leroy Jackson in exchange for Davis, who was later diagnosed with leukemia and died in 1963 having never played a professional game. Mr. Mitchell went on to have one of the finest seasons of his career in 1962, scoring a career-high 11 receiving touchdowns and leading the league in catches and receiving yards.
In his Redskins debut, a season-opening tie at the Dallas Cowboys, Mr. Mitchell “returned a kickoff for a 92-yard touchdown; scored on an 81-yard pass play; scored another on a six-yard pass and set up the other two touchdowns with a pass reception and a pass interference call,” according to a report in The Post.
Two weeks later, he scored a pair of touchdowns in the team’s home opener, with Udall and three Supreme Court justices watching from the stands.
Robert Cornelius Mitchell was born in Hot Springs, Ark., on June 6, 1935. His father was a church minister, his mother a homemaker, and Mr. Mitchell recalled meeting athletes such as boxer Joe Louis as a boy, when sports figures frequented the town for its thermal-water baths.
Mr. Mitchell was offered a professional baseball contract by the St. Louis Cardinals after graduating high school but turned it down to attend the University of Illinois, where he received a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1958 and starred on the football team.
He made a bigger splash in track, setting a world record in the indoor 70-yard low hurdles and drawing speculation that he would compete for a spot in the 1960 Olympics as a sprinter. Instead, he committed to football after receiving encouragement — followed by a $7,000 salary — from Browns Coach Paul Brown, who spotted him at a track in Cleveland and selected Mr. Mitchell in the NFL draft’s seventh round in 1958.
Mr. Mitchell compiled a 6.3-yard rushing average in his rookie season. In a game against the Redskins the next year, he sprinted downfield for 90 yards — part of an astonishing 232-yard day — to set a franchise record for longest rushing play that lasted nearly six decades. He bested that distance while playing for Washington in 1963, scoring on a 99-yard pass play against his old team.
While Mr. Mitchell and teammate Charley Taylor emerged as one of the league’s best receiving duos, the franchise continued to struggle during Mr. Mitchell’s tenure with the team, never winning more than seven games or appearing in the playoffs. He was named to the all-NFL team three times and was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1983.
At the suggestion of new coach Vince Lombardi, he joined the Redskins’ front office in 1969. He aimed to become the NFL’s first black general manager but was passed over at least twice, by Redskins owners Edward Bennett Williams and Jack Kent Cooke, before retiring in 2003 as assistant general manager.
He was “too early” for a GM position, he told The Post that year. “People who push too early don’t get anything. If I had come along 15 years later, something would’ve happened.” Nonetheless, he said that as a result of the pressure he applied on league officials, “every administrative job that you can have in the National Football League, somebody black has.”
Mr. Mitchell married Gwen Morrow in 1958 and had two children. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Mitchell was named one of the Redskins’ 70 greatest players in 2002, but he said he was disappointed that his on-field glory at times seemed to be an afterthought, overshadowed by the racial milestone he came to represent.
“I have to live with people always talking about me as the first black player against all my exploits,” he told The Post upon his front-office retirement. “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.
“You don’t walk away from 40-something years and just laugh about it,” he 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.”
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