Thom Loverro: Mitchell's impact still felt 50 years after Redskins debut

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Sports,NFL,Redskins,Thom Loverro

Washington is buzzing following the amazing debut of Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, just like it was 50 years ago Sunday. Another player made his debut with the franchise that day -- one whose impact went well beyond the football field.

Bobby Mitchell took the field for the first time for the Redskins on Sept. 16, 1962 -- the first time a black player suited up for Washington's NFL franchise.

It was embarrassingly overdue, and Redskins owner George Preston Marshall had to be threatened by the federal government with the lease on new D.C. Stadium to force his hand.

But when Mitchell took the field in Dallas to face the Cowboys in the opener, sports changed in Washington -- immediately and for the long term.

"It was a special time for the African-American community here," longtime high school basketball coach and radio talk show host Butch McAdams said. "Before that, we didn't have much of a reason to go to games.

"I remember my dad took me to a Redskins game in 1961, the first year they were in the new stadium," McAdams said. "You could count the people who were there. But when Bobby Mitchell became a Redskin, the games became an event."

The Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate. Marshall embraced the fact that his team was the southernmost franchise in football at the time and as a result fielded a lily-white team that went 9-37-4 over four seasons, including a 1-12-1 mark in the new stadium.

Washington drafted Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, who tragically passed away a year later, and traded him to Cleveland for Mitchell, who had been a Pro Bowl running back and flanker.

Mitchell had a memorable debut, catching six passes for 135 yards and two scores in a wild 35-35 shootout with the Cowboys in Dallas. The following week in Cleveland, Mitchell caught three passes for 94 yards and one touchdown in a 17-16 Redskins victory.

The unbeaten Redskins came back to Washington for Mitchell's home debut Sept. 30 before a crowd of 40,000 -- larger than any crowd the year before in the new stadium save for the Colts game, when many Baltimore fans made the trip. The crowds only would grow in size.

Mitchell gave them something to remember, catching seven passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns as Washington dominated the St. Louis Cardinals 24-14.

The Redskins started out 4-0-2 before going into a spiral and finishing 5-7-2 -- still the most wins they had in five years. And while his presence did not result in winning teams, the excitement level changed with the arrival of Mitchell.

"Before that, my family used to go up to Baltimore regularly to see the Colts," McAdams said. "They had players like Lenny Moore, Jim Parker and Johnny Sample. But then Redskins games became a social event when Bobby Mitchell arrived."

Examiner columnist Thom Loverro is the co-host of "The Sports Fix" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN980 and espn980.com. Contact him at tloverro@washingtonexaminer.com.

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Thom Loverro

Sports columnist
The Washington Examiner