Bobby Mitchell (1935–2020)
Robert Cornelius (Bobby) Mitchell played professional football for the Cleveland Browns and the Washington Redskins before becoming a scout for the Redskins. He is the only athlete born in Hot Springs (Garland County) to have been selected to the National Football League (NFL) Hall of Fame.
Bobby Mitchell was born in Hot Springs on June 6, 1935, to the Reverend Albert Mitchell and Avis Mitchell. He became a four-sport standout at Langston High School in Hot Springs. The local media referred to Mitchell as “Mr. Touchdown” due to the talents he exhibited on the high school gridiron. In 1953, the senior-packed Langston team, coached by Fred Mason, took the Negro State Football Championship, going undefeated in conference play. Mitchell was selected to the all-state Negro squad his junior and senior years.
In 1954, Mitchell received a football scholarship to the University of Illinois, where he made the Fighting Illini varsity team in 1955, his sophomore year, as a backup halfback to Harry Jefferson. On November 5, 1955, he replaced an injured Jefferson and managed a sixty-four-yard run and touchdown in the fourth quarter against the University of Michigan Wolverines. Mitchell continued to play superbly during the last few games.
In the 1956 season, his junior year, a knee injury curtailed his playing time, but he came back strong the following year, making the All Big Ten football team. In early 1958, he established an indoor world record in the seventy-yard low hurdles with a time of 7.7 seconds; however, the record only lasted six days. At the Big Ten track championships in 1958, he tied for the 100-yard dash in 9.6 seconds and won the 200-yard dash in 21.3 seconds. He also registered twenty-four feet in the long jump, and the selection committee placed him on the All Big Ten track team.
Following his senior year, Mitchell was selected to the 1958 College All-Star Team, which played against the National Football League (NFL) champions, the Detroit Lions. The Stars beat the Lions 35-19 at Soldier’s Field in Chicago, Illinois. Mitchell and quarterback Jim Ninowski of Michigan State University shared Most Valuable Player honors.
Mitchell was surprised when the Cleveland Browns drafted him and paid him $7,000 to play professional football. In his rookie season, he was side by side with the great Jim Brown and was awarded Rookie of the Year.
Mitchell had four good years with Cleveland at halfback; however, the Browns traded him to the Washington Redskins at the end of the 1961 season. The change proved to be a boost to Mitchell’s career. Washington moved the fleet-footed pass catcher to flanker (today known as wide receiver). In 1962, he gathered in seventy-two passes for a total receiving yardage of 1,384 yards and scored eleven touchdowns. He ran for a combined season total of 1,794 yards.
He continued to put up big numbers until his retirement during the 1969 pre-season training camp. His new coach, Vince Lombardi, wanted him to stay on and suggested to the Redskins that they keep Mitchell on the staff. Mitchell became a Redskins scout and eventually rose through the organization to assistant general manager. In 1983, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Mitchell was also inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, the Walk of Fame in Hot Springs, the Touchdown Club Hall of Fame, and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium Hall of Stars. He retired from the Redskins front office in 2003.
Mitchell and his wife, Gwen, had two children. Following retirement, he worked with a number of charities.
Mitchell died on April 5, 2020. In June 2020, the Redskins announced that they would retire his jersey.
For additional information:
“Bobby Mitchell.” Pro-Football-Reference.com. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/M/MitcBo00.htm (accessed February 28, 2022).
Duren, Don. “The Remarkable Bobby Mitchell.” The Record 42 (2011): 163–175.
Krupsaw, Jeff, ed. Untold Stories: Black Sports Heroes before Integration. Marceline, MO: Walsworth Publishing, Co., 2002.
Lebovitz, Hal. “Player Prizes to Brown, Mitchell in Another Sweep for Cleveland.” The Sporting News, December 24, 1958, p. 33.
“NFL Hall of Famer Mitchell Dies at 84.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 6, 2020, pp. 1C, 4C.
“Unheralded Arkansan Sparks Illini 25-6.” Arkansas Gazette, November 6, 1955, p. 1B.
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