Many would argue that the Redskins are overdue in honoring Mitchell, given his significant contributions, on and off the field, in his 41 years with the team as a player, scout and front-office executive.
Mitchell was the first black player acquired by Marshall, who in 1962 became the last NFL owner to integrate his team’s roster. He did so, as part of a trade with the Cleveland Browns, only after federal officials threatened to deny the Redskins use of what’s now known as RFK Stadium for their home games.
Mitchell, who died at 84 on April 5, was a four-time Pro Bowl honoree and a 1983 inductee to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He acknowledged upon retiring from the Redskins in 2003 that he had been “deeply hurt” by former owner Jack Kent Cooke’s decision to pass him over for the team’s general manager job in 1988 and by then-coach Steve Spurrier’s decision to issue his uniform number to another player in 2002.
Gwen Mitchell, his wife of 61 years, said in a statement released by the team Saturday that her husband would have been “thrilled and humbled” by the recognition.
Team owner Daniel Snyder called Mitchell “one of the greatest men I have ever known.”
“Bobby was one of the most influential players not only in our team’s history, but in the National Football League,” Snyder said in a team statement. “He excelled on the field, in the front office and most importantly in his community, where he had a tremendous impact on the lives of so many through his charitable efforts.”
Mitchell was an explosive and versatile game-changer during his seven seasons with the Redskins, primarily lining up at flanker. In eulogizing Mitchell, Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell hailed him as “the most electric man with a football in his hands in D.C. history.”
Doug Williams, the Redskins’ senior vice president of player development who led the team to the Super Bowl title after the 1987 season, called the honors announced Saturday well deserved for a man whose impact can’t be overstated.
“It’s a shame, like they say, he didn’t get the flowers when he was still here,” Williams said in a telephone interview.
Williams was 7 when Mitchell joined the Redskins in 1962, but the two clicked immediately when Williams was brought in, initially as a backup quarterback, in 1986 and Mitchell worked in the front office.
“When you think about the [racial] climate right now, just think about the climate when Bobby came here in 1962, before the civil rights movement had really gotten going,” Williams said. “It’s a terrible thing to go to work every day for a man who didn’t want any black men on his football team. Can you imagine what that was like every day for Bobby? There isn’t a human being alive who could have worn Bobby’s shoes.”
The decision to rename FedEx Field’s lower bowl marks the first time in Snyder’s 21-year ownership that he has sought to distance the team from racism in its past. The Redskins’ six-paragraph statement about the change makes no reference to Marshall, whose name also appears on the Ring of Fame that encircles the stadium’s inside upper wall. According to a person familiar with the Redskins’ deliberations, the team is revisiting the question of whether Marshall should remain among the 51 members of the organization honored there.
In replacing Marshall’s name with Mitchell’s for the main seating bowl, the Redskins, in a sense, join the growing ranks of businesses, cities and institutions that are removing racially charged symbols — from statues of Confederate war dead to racially stereotyped product names and logos — as the nation grapples with its legacy of racism amid calls for justice and an end to systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s killing while in police custody last month in Minneapolis.
Snyder has given no indication that he is willing to reconsider the team’s nickname, which many regard as a racist slur. Snyder has insisted throughout his ownership that the nickname is an honorific and a proud part of the team’s legacy that he will never change.
Mitchell is only the second former player to have his number retired in the team’s 88-year history, joining former quarterback Sammy Baugh (No. 33). Rather than retire jerseys, the team’s general practice has been not to issue the numbers of great players of its past. Spurrier notably violated that practice by issuing Mitchell’s No. 49 to a journeyman tight end, Leonard Stephens, in 2002, and he later apologized. Mitchell’s retirement followed a few months later.
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