The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brian Mitchell isn’t in the Hall of Fame. It’s time to right that wrong.

Brian Mitchell outran Martín Gramática during a 100-yard return in 2000. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
6 min

On the Saturday night before the Super Bowl, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will announce its 2023 class. Brian Mitchell won’t be in it. Again. That’s ridiculous. Let’s change it.

“I just have a lot of respect for him, and I think our teams did,” Joe Gibbs said. “Certainly, if there’s a way to get him in the Hall of Fame, we need to do it.”

“If you’re evaluating for great players that love the game and understand the game,” Andy Reid said, “he would have to be one of them.”

Here is a list of players who gained more all-purpose yards than Brian Mitchell: Jerry Rice.

Jerry Rice and … who? Jerry Rice and nobody. That’s who.

The list of players who had more kick returns and kick return yards:

The list of players who had more punt returns and punt return yards:

But here’s the thing about Mitchell’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame: It’s not just about overlooking Brian Mitchell. It’s about overlooking what coaches constantly tell us is a third of the game: special teams.

Bobby Beathard’s keen eye was matched only by his human touch

“When I talk about our Super Bowl teams, I always say that we started with special teams,” Gibbs said by phone last month. “Our first meeting of each day was special teams. I always felt like special teams was the heart of your team because I think all the guys that played just offense or just defense, they had such tremendous respect for the guys that played special teams. There’s guys that appreciate the courage it takes to stand down there and field a punt when you got 11 guys coming down to try and kill you.”

That was Mitchell. He arrived in Washington as a fifth-round pick in 1990. He was a college quarterback at Louisiana, but Gibbs told him the best way to make the team was as a do-whatever-was-asked return man. In a preseason game that August, he received the first kickoff of his life. He returned it 92 yards for a touchdown. In a 14-year career — 10 in Washington, three in Philadelphia and one with the New York Giants — he gained 19,013 yards on punt and kick returns. Not only is that the most ever, no one else is within 4,000 yards of him. He returned 13 punts and kicks for touchdowns, behind only Devin Hester. His style: You’re running at me? I’m going to run at you.

“He just knew — all his teammates, the other team knew, everybody on the field knew: You better get him running sideways instead of straight ahead,” said Reid, who coached Mitchell in Philadelphia from 2000 to 2002. “If he gets it going forward, you got problems.”

“Brian was one of those guys that was going to finish off the run,” Gibbs said. “He wasn’t looking to avoid a hit or get out of bounds. If anything, he was trying to hurt the defender.”

But Mitchell’s résumé goes beyond what he did in the return game, as a running back or as an occasional threat to throw the ball. (“He threw two of the prettiest passes you’ll ever see,” Reid said.) What adds to Mitchell’s Canton case was an attitude that made an enormous impact in the locker room.

“You talk about a leader,” Reid said. “I was a relatively young coach, and that covers a lot of ground when you have a player who was as good as he was but was just phenomenal as leader. An absolute leader.”

Gibbs remembers shaking a young Mitchell’s hand for the first time.

“The guy’s got baseball-mitt hands,” Gibbs said. “But what you come to understand he’s really bright, and he’s really football-smart, which is really important. And the thing that stood out with Brian Mitchell more than anything was his physical toughness and his mental toughness. This guy was a tough dude.”

What’s one way to gain an understanding of how respected a player is by his coaches and peers? Reid happens to be the current coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. You know, the Kansas City Chiefs who are in the Super Bowl. Asked earlier in the playoffs whether he would pick up the phone and talk to me about Mitchell, he made time. Gibbs oversees four NASCAR teams that are preparing for the season-opening Daytona 500. But . . . “I just respect Brian so much.”

So can Canton call? Please?

Look, I have nothing to do with the Hall of Fame voting process, which is left to a 49-member panel that whittles an initial group down to semifinalists, then down to the 15 modern-era finalists who will be discussed next week in Arizona. I’m even on the record arguing that sportswriters should be out of the process for such honors.

But I’m also not above advocating for a wrong to be righted. Mitchell was on this year’s original list of 129 modern-era nominees. He didn’t even make the cut to 28 semifinalists. He has never been a finalist.

Really? That ignores not only his contributions and his accomplishments, but it disrespects a group of players — coverage guy Steve Tasker and returner Hester come to mind — who flourished in essential jobs not everyone is equipped to handle.

Of the Hall of Fame’s 362 inductees, only three were selected based primarily on special teams play — kickers Morten Andersen and Jan Stenerud and punter Ray Guy. No return men. No coverage men. Fine, special teamers don’t play as high a percentage of snaps as a quarterback or a cornerback. But given their exclusion, how is the Hall representative of the game’s complete history? How does that reward the players who committed themselves to what Gibbs believes is the “heart of your team?”

“I definitely believe Brian deserves to be in the Hall of Fame,” Gibbs said. “He is one of the toughest, brightest guys ever to play. He understood football. Put it this way: Our team needed that guy.”

The Hall of Fame needs Brian Mitchell. Remember that when this year’s class is announced — and when it’s time to consider who’s worthy again next year.