The Washington Redskins will retire the number worn by Bobby Mitchell, the first African American player in their history, who died earlier this year. The move, which a source said had been in the works for a while, comes one day after the statue of former Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, the last NFL owner to integrate his roster, was removed outside of the team’s former home.
Mitchell’s No. 49 is only the second to be retired by the Redskins in their 88-year history. Sammy Baugh’s No. 33 had previously been the only retired number.
In a statement, Redskins owner Dan Snyder said, “There is no one more deserving of these honors than the late Bobby Mitchell. Bobby was one of the most influential players not only in our team’s history, but in the National Football League. 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. He was one of the greatest men I have ever known.”
Also, the Redskins renamed the lower bowl at FedEx Field in honor of Mitchell; it had been named after Marshall, who owned the franchise from the time of their inception in 1932 in Boston until his death in 1969.
On Friday, Marshall’s statue was taken down by Events DC, which controls the land at RFK Stadium. Marshall had resisted numerous overtures for years to integrate his roster.
But in 1961, he was under pressure by Interior Secretary Stewart Udall to integrate or lose the lease to new D.C. Stadium, which was on federal land. To appease Udall, the Redskins acquired Mitchell in a December 1961 trade with the Cleveland Browns, sending them the rights to African American running back Ernie Davis. Mitchell played seven seasons for Washington and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1983.
It wasn’t always easy for Mitchell, who died on April 5. He often recalled hearing racial epithets hurled his way and said he was once spat upon at a local restaurant. However, Mitchell, while acknowledging the pain, overcame the vitriol and lasted 41 seasons with the franchise. He also became heavily involved with the National Leukemia Society as well as the Shaw Food Committee locally, among numerous other organizations.
Mitchell was proud of what he accomplished in the NFL and wanted to be known for more than just breaking a color barrier in Washington. After his retirement, he told the Washington Post, “I have to live with people always talking about me as the first black player against all my exploits. I’ve always been very upset that people always start with that. I don’t want to hear that, and yet I have to hear it constantly and it overshadows everything I’ve done in the game.”
However, that status meant a lot to his teammates and many others.
“Bobby was our Jackie Robinson,” former Redskins safety Brig Owens said in the release. “He had to handle the pressure of being the first African American football player to integrate the Washington Redskins. He, like Jackie, was a military officer headquartered in the DC area when he received notice of his trade. In the face of great adversity, he served as a role model for the Washington, D.C. community, The Redskins, its fan base and the NFL. He was more than an exceptional football player and athlete, he was an exceptional human being. He was like a brother to me.”
Mitchell was a running back in four years with Cleveland, but switched to flanker in Washington. In seven seasons with Washington, Mitchell caught 393 passes, averaging 16.5 yards per catch, and had 49 touchdown receptions. He carried the ball 90 times with Washington, scoring twice and averaging 4.5 yards per carry. In Cleveland, Mitchell ran the ball 423 times, scoring 16 touchdowns and averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
Mitchell also was a standout returner, averaging 10.1 yards on punts and 26.4 yards on kickoffs for his career. He was named first-team All-Pro three times and, when he retired, Mitchell had the second most all-purpose yards in NFL history.
Only one player had worn Mitchell’s number since he retired after the 1968 season – tight end Leonard Stephens in 2002. Mitchell said after that season he was hurt that the team had re-issued his number, though then-coach Steve Spurrier said it was simply an oversight and it was never given to another player.
In the release, Mitchell’s wife, Gwen, said about the jersey being retired that “Bobby would have been thrilled and humbled by this wonderful recognition…I would like to thank Dan Snyder and the entire Washington Redskins organization for this great honor,”
His daughter, Terri Mitchell, said, “This honor would have meant the world to him. He felt that the retiring of a jersey is the ultimate recognition of an athlete.”
Mitchell was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1983 and served as an assistant general manager with Washington until he retired after the 2002 season. Mitchell said at the time he was hurt that late owner Jack Kent Cooke had passed him over for the general manager’s job two different times – in favor of Bobby Beathard and later Charley Casserly. But Mitchell didn’t let any disappointment overwhelm him.
He also told the Post after retiring, “I’ve always said I’m not going to walk away from this game bitter. I’ve been close, but I was determined not to let it get to me. I held up.”
The Redskins plan to have a ceremony at a future home game.
Earlier in the week the Redskins held a series of town hall meetings on race led by members of the organization, including senior vice president of player development Doug Williams and a good friend of Mitchell’s. A source said Mitchell’s jersey retirement had been discussed before these meetings.
Ron Rivera, the only minority head coach hired this offseason, announced last week that the Redskins also have started the Black Engagement Network.
Marshall remains in the Redskins’ Ring of Fame with his name adorned inside the stadium along with other members of that group. The franchise’s nickname also remains a source of controversy, which has been renewed in recent weeks amid a growing emphasis on racial matters.