|Born:||June 6, 1935|
Hot Springs, Arkansas
|Died:||April 5, 2020(aged 84)|
|High school:||Langston (Hot Springs, Arkansas)|
|NFL Draft:||1958 / Round: 7 / Pick: 84|
|As a player:|
|As an executive:|
|Career highlights and awards|
|Career NFL statistics|
|Player stats at NFL.com · PFR|
Robert Cornelius Mitchell (June 6, 1935 – April 5, 2020) was an American professional football player who was a halfback and flanker in the National Football League (NFL) for the Cleveland Browns and the Washington Redskins. Mitchell became the Redskins' first African-American star after joining them in 1962, when they became the last NFL team to integrate. A four-time Pro Bowl selection, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983.
Mitchell was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and attended Langston High School. There, he played football, basketball, and track, and was good enough at baseball to be offered a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Instead of playing professional baseball, Mitchell chose to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which he picked from a host of schools that offered him scholarships. He played college football for the Illinois Fighting Illini and had a particularly good sophomore year. At the beginning of the 1955 season, he was behind junior Harry Jefferson on the depth chart. Seven games into the season, Jefferson went down with an injury, and Mitchell took over at one of the halfback spots. The first time he handled the football, he ran 64 yards for a touchdown. Though he entered in the third quarter, Mitchell gained 173 yards in 10 carries, and the Illini upset third-ranked Michigan, 25–6. He gained more than 100 yards in each of the final two games of the season, when he also played as a defensive back. That year, he averaged a record 8.6 yards per rush.
As a junior in 1956, Mitchell did not see the field much due to a knee injury. After his senior season, he was invited to play in the College All-Star Game, where he got behind defensive back, James David on an 84-yard touchdown reception, and then scored again on an 18-yard pass from Jim Ninowski. The All-Stars' upset the Detroit Lions, 35–19, and Mitchell and Ninowski shared game MVP honors. Mitchell was named first-team All-Big Ten football in 1955 and second-team status in 1957. He was named to The Pigskin Club Honor Roll by The Pigskin Club of Washington, D.C.
Mitchell was even more successful in track. In February 1958, he set an indoor world record (one that lasted only six days) with a 7.7 mark in the 70-yard low hurdles. In the Big Ten championships, he scored 13 points and helped Illinois win the title. Mitchell was unsure whether he wanted to pursue a career in football or track. Even though the 1960 Summer Olympics were still two years away, he had his sights set on competing on the American team. However, Browns head coach Paul Brown offered to pay him $7,000 during his rookie season and was able to convince Mitchell to play football instead of participating in the Olympics.
Mitchell was drafted in the seventh round of the 1958 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns, where he played as a halfback. He was teamed with Jim Brown to give the Browns one of the most successful running back combinations from 1958 through 1961.
As a rookie, Mitchell had a 98-yard kickoff return. A year later against Washington, he rushed for 232 yards, including a 90-yard scoring scamper. The same year, he returned a punt 78 yards against the New York Giants. He earned his first Pro Bowl selection in 1960.
As a Brown, Mitchell accumulated 2297 yards rushing, 1463 yards receiving, 607 yards on punt returns, 1550 yards on kickoff returns, and scored 38 touchdowns. He once held the Browns' career record for kickoff returns for touchdowns, and he also currently holds the team's best rookie rushing average (6.3 in 1958).
Under pressure to integrate the team by the U.S. federal government, the Washington Redskins selected Ernie Davis with the first overall pick of the 1962 NFL Draft. However, Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, wary of Davis's potential salary demands, traded his rights to the Cleveland Browns for Mitchell and first-round draft pick Leroy Jackson. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time of the draft, Davis had leukemia, and died without ever playing a down in professional football.
Mitchell, along with John Nisby and Ron Hatcher, was one of three black players on the 1962 Redskins, as the franchise became the last professional football team to integrate. Bill McPeak, in his first year as head coach, immediately announced Mitchell would become a flanker. In his first game in Washington, Mitchell ran back a 92-yard kickoff return against the Dallas Cowboys. The Redskins finished the season with a 5–7–2 record, their best record in five years. Mitchell led the league with 72 catches and 1384 yards and ranked third with 11 touchdowns. He was selected to the first of three consecutive Pro Bowls.
In 1963, Mitchell recorded 69 catches for 1436 yards and seven more touchdowns. During this season, he also became the second player in league and franchise history to record a 99-yard pass play. The pass from George Izo was the first 99-yard pass in over 23 years, when the Redskins' Frank Filchock and Andy Farkas set the original record October 15, 1939. During the next four years, Mitchell's reception totals were 60, 60, 58 and 60. In 1967, new head coach Otto Graham chose to move Mitchell back to halfback because of Graham's decision a year earlier to move the team's best running back, Charley Taylor, to wide receiver. Mitchell enjoyed only moderate success running the ball but he did catch 60 passes for 866 yards and six touchdowns.
In 1969, Vince Lombardi became head coach and promised Mitchell that he would return him to flanker. But as training camp progressed, Mitchell realized that he was not in the same shape he once was and chose to retire.
During his first six seasons with the Redskins, Mitchell never caught fewer than 58 passes. When he retired, his 14,078 combined net yards was the second-highest total in NFL history. He had also scored 91 touchdowns (18 by rushing, 65 on receptions, 3 on punt returns, and 5 on kickoff returns). He amassed 7,954 yards on receptions and 2,735 yards on rushes. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983.
Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post wrote an appreciation of Mitchell after his death: "As a four-way threat — running the ball from the backfield, catching passes as a wide receiver and returning kickoffs and punts — Mitchell is unique. No player has been among the very best in all four areas. Mitchell is a group photo of one ... Who is the only NFL player with more than 500 career rushes and 500 receptions to average more than five yards per carry (5.3) and more than 15 yards per catch (15.3)? Bobby Mitchell."
On June 20, 2020, the Washington Redskins announced that they would retire his number, #49. He was just the second member of the team to have his number retired, alongside Sammy Baugh's #33.
After retiring from football in 1968, Mitchell remained with the Redskins, at the request of then head coach Vince Lombardi, as a pro scout. He gradually moved up in the ranks to assistant general manager in the organization, and he aspired to become the NFL's first black GM. In 1978, Washington owner Edward Bennett Williams passed over Mitchell for the GM position in favor of Bobby Beathard. Mitchell retired in 2003, stating that he was "deeply hurt" by how owner Jack Kent Cooke passed him over as the team's general manager in favor of Charley Casserly in 1989 and by coach Steve Spurrier's decision to issue his No. 49 uniform number, which had not been issued for years though never retired, to Leonard Stephens that season.
As a player and a front office executive, Mitchell spent 41 years with the Redskins.
Mitchell lived in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Gwen, who is an attorney. They had two children, Robert Jr. and Terri.
Beginning in 1980, Mitchell hosted the Bobby Mitchell Hall of Fame Classic, an annual golf fundraiser that benefits the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Mitchell also worked in many efforts and organizations, including the United Negro College Fund, the Howard University Cancer Research Advisory Committee, the American Lung Association of D.C., the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission, the Boys Club of Washington, the National Urban League, the NAACP, the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the University of Illinois Presidents Council and the University of Illinois Foundation.
Mitchell died at age 84 on April 5, 2020.