Football Team

Black History Month: Remembering Bobby Mitchell's legacy in Washington

Football Team

Few people can be credited with making individual contributions that unilaterally altered the trajectory of the National Football League. Bobby Mitchell is one of those individuals.

In his 40-plus years as a player and member of the front office in Washington, Mitchell was one of the first Black players to help integrate the team in 1961. And upon retiring, he became the first African American to work in an NFL front office. 

But before all of that, Mitchell was a multi-sport athlete from Hot Springs, Arkansas. Growing up, he played football and ran track. He did both sports at the University of Illinois. 

In 1958, he set the indoor track world record in the 70-yard low hurdles, and while the record was short-lived (it was broken just six days after he set it), his speed was enough to catch the eye of Paul Brown, head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

"You know he wanted to go to the Olympics and he had that world record for about a week. And the only reason why he didn't pursue track was because at that time, you couldn't really make money," his son, Bobby Mitchell Jr., said.

The Browns drafted Mitchell in the 1958 NFL Draft, bringing him together with Jim Brown to form one of the most iconic backfields in NFL history. But the partnership between Brown and Mitchell was cut short when the Washington Football Team traded for Mitchell in Dec., 1961.

The Washington Football Team was under pressure from the United States government at the time as the final NFL franchise not integrated. Owner George Preston Marshall, a staunch segregationist who marketed his club throughout segregated southern states, had to integrate his team or the Kennedy Administration would prevent him from playing games at then-D.C. Stadium, which was built in 1961 on federal land.

 

Mitchell's struggles with racism and hatred on the field were not enough to deter him from getting involved in the civil rights work going on around him at the time. In 1967, he was part of the infamous 1967 Cleveland Summit, where alongside Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor and Bill Russell, he expressed support for Muhammad Ali's stance against fighting in the Vietnam War.

The next year, Mitchell retired from the NFL as a four-time Pro-Bowler, taking a role in Washington's front office at the request of Vince Lombardi. He eventually became assistant general manager but, despite his aspirations and substantial qualifications, never reached his goal of becoming the NFL's first African American general manager.

"The thing that bothered my dad the most is he was never even interviewed or considered for the job," Bobby Mitchell, Jr. said.

Beyond breaking barriers for Black players and executives, Mitchell's continued presence in the NFL meant that he could mentor the generations that came after him and help them chart the path that he was prevented from taking himself.

One of those mentees was Martin Mayhew, who after being hired in January, became the first African American general manager in Washington franchise history. Mitchell passed away in 2020, but his legacy lives on in the Washington Football organization and the National Football League, two entities that without him would not be what they are today.