Commanders

Doug Williams, Martin Mayhew reflect on Bobby Mitchell's legacy

Commanders

When Doug Williams arrived in Washington in 1986, one of the things he was most excited about was the chance to meet Washington legend Bobby Mitchell.

The quarterback knew about Mitchell's great days as a player, but what really interested Williams was what he was his role in Washington's front office as an assistant general manager. To Williams, it was incredible to see an African American man assume a role of that stature.

“Forgot about what Bobby had done on the field, but for me, it was to see a Black assistant general manager in the National Football League on a team that I got an opportunity to play for," Williams told NBC Sports Washington.

Just as it is today, representation was everything for Williams and other Black athletes during that time. While playing the game of football was one thing, it was still uncommon even in the 1980s to see other African Americans assuming roles in the front office of sports leagues. It remains a conversation to this day regarding head coaching opportunities for Black assistants. 

With Mitchell working -- and succeeding in that capacity -- it sent a message to many young players that they could do that as well. It was always a dream, but seeing Mitchell there made it a reality for many.

“I think as a player, what we miss -- and when I say we I’m talking about the National Football League, across this league -- what they miss I think is the impact of a guy like a Bobby Mitchell sitting in that chair," Williams said. "What it does to the locker room. What it does to the guys down in the locker room. It’s a different feeling.”

 

Williams added: “Down in that locker room, that resonates with these players that know that they got somebody that look like them that is in a position of power to make decisions. That’s how I view Bobby Mitchell.”

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Personally, Mitchell was a major influence in Williams' career after he hung up the cleats. Once Williams finished his time as a coach, he wanted to pursue a job as an executive in the NFL. Using Mitchell as motivation, he eventually climbed through the ranks, landing back in Washington and serving in numerous senior roles that revolved around player personnel and player development. 

Throughout it, Mitchell was there rooting him on. Not just because he wanted to see him personally succeed, but because the Washington legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer wanted Williams to achieve something he never could.

“The last conversation we had, he was hoping that I got the opportunity he didn’t get. And that was to be the general manager," Williams said.

Despite spending three-plus decades in Washington's front office, Mitchell was passed over for the general manager position multiple times. Prior to his passing in April of 2020, he was hoping to see Williams cross that finish line.

Williams has not had that opportunity yet, but another one of Mitchell's mentees has.

Just three years after Williams arrived in Washington, Martin Mayhew -- the new general manager of the Washington Football Team hired this month -- joined him. Much like the quarterback, the cornerback was immediately drawn to Mitchell. He too had a desire to one day work in the front office in the NFL.

“He was a guy that I always looked up to," Mayhew said. " And during my career here when I decided I wanted to be an executive, he was a great example for me.”

Where their relationship really blossomed, however, came when Mayhew was beyond his playing days. Mayhew rejoined Washington in 1999 as a front office assistant while attending law school. It was then that Mitchell became someone he consistently turned to for advice on how to climb the NFL's executive ranks. 

Mitchell was receptive, offering to be someone who would help Mayhew with whatever questions he had or dilemmas he faced.

“When I was in law school I got together with Bobby and I told him point-blank that I wanted to be a general manager in the National Football League and he really encouraged me and said it was something I could do," Mayhew said.

 

Not only did Mitchell offer words of encouragement, but he gave Mayhew pointers and advice on how he could make that dream become reality. 

He taught him the importance of networking in the NFL and making connections with as many people as possible. He also preached the importance of having a clean reputation. There had to be no reason why a team wouldn't want you on its staff.

“Almost like talking to an uncle or somebody who has some good advice for you, who had already been through the things you were trying to achieve," Mayhew said. "I really just enjoyed his mentorship during that time.”

More than that, Mitchell also went out of his way to provide Mayhew with life-changing experiences. That included setting up a meeting between Mayhew and Ozzie Newsome. There, Mayhew was able to pick the brain of the first African American general manager in NFL history and establish a relationship that helped him get to where he is today. Newsome, a Hall-of-Famer himself, took over that role for the Baltimore Ravens in 2002

That place is as the general manager of the Washington Football Team. It's a role Mayhew feels ready for, and a lot of that has to do with Mitchell's guidance. His only regret is that his good friend isn't around to see what they accomplished.

“I wish he was still here to see that I finally got here," Mayhew said.

For both Williams and Mayhew, the goal is now to pass on the lessons Mitchell gave to them. Just like when they were young, there are now plenty of players and young coaches aspiring to one day assume a role in the front office. Williams and Mayhew looked up to Mitchell, but now many look up to them.

Understanding that, they're making sure to continue to give back and build up others.

“There are a lot of young guys who I’m in contact with now. Young guys in the business who want to be GMs, want to be scouts, want to be coaches," Mayhew said. "I never forget the time Ozzie gave me, the time that Bobby gave me. I always try to give some of that time back."

Being in Washington helps with that goal. Looking at the organization, diversity is something that has become a major focus of late. Williams and Mayhew are a part of that, and so is team president Jason Wright. That includes head coach Ron Rivera, assistant coach Jennifer King and senior vice president of media and content Julie Donaldson, too. 

Surveying some of the top positions in Washington, there is one lesson that can be learned. No matter who you are, you can accomplish your goals and reach the highest level.

“I don’t know of another organization that is probably as diverse as we are at this particular time," Williams said. "It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, just to see all the faces on the computer doing Zoom, it kind of tells you where we come from and where we are, and hopefully that we just keep growing."