I always say people don't realize how recent was segregation until it is pointed out to them men like Bobby Mitchell and Jimmy Raye, along with Raye's Michigan State teammates now in their 70s, are still walking around.
Now, Mitchell is gone, joining other pioneers.
Mitchell was among the early wave of black athletes from the South to play at Big Ten schools through word-of-mouth. This is the distinction that makes Duffy Daugherty's Underground Railroad teams the leader in the college game. Illinois and other Big Ten schools had a half-dozen or fewer black athletes that a coach learned about from a friend.
In 1962, the Associated Press reported Michigan State had the most fully integrated roster in the nation with 17 black players. Daugherty, with his vast network of southern black high school coaches, had 20 black players with 11 from the South on the his 1965 and 1966 national championship teams.
In 1966, Mitchell was the keynote speaker on Jimmy Raye Day in Fayetteville, N.C.
The stories of these athletes can't be told enough times for the significance to be appreciated. For example, by mid-afternoon a story on Mitchell's death had moved off the ESPN.com home page among the top six stories teased with headlines. Bobby Mitchell was more significant than the remaining six stories, but, sadly, apparently not worth enough clicks.
Excerpts used in this story were taken from Raye of Light, my book with Jimmy Raye.
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By TOM SHANAHAN
The “Negro Motorist Green-Book” identified safe spots to stop for food, fuel and a hotel. The segregation-era guide had an obscure shelf in American history until the 2018 movie “Green Book” dusted it off for a place in the library of popular culture.
As a biographical comedy-drama set in 1962, the move depicts the travels of black jazz pianist Don Shirley and white driver Tony Vallelonga, but Pro Football Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell didn't need popular culture to learn about the "Green-Book." He lived it driving on his own.
Mitchell, who died on Sunday at age 84, was a pioneer in the integration of college football when he enrolled at the University of Illinois in 1954 and then played an even more significant role in the NFL when he was traded from the Cleveland Browns to the Washington Redskins in 1962. Despite his fame, he needed a “Green-Book” by his side when he traveled back home to Hot Springs, Ark.
“I had to map out exactly where I could stop all the way from Cleveland to Hot Springs,” Mitchell told me in a quote used in Chapter 1 of Raye of Light, a book on Michigan State’s leading role in the integration of college football with its Underground Railroad teams that Duffy Daugherty coached.
“I had to know how far I could go on a tank of gas before I could get more gas. It might be I could have gotten gas at other places, but you didn’t know what would happen if you stopped. Driving through the South was frightening. You had to worry about the police pulling you over – all those things. You had to be careful all the way and that was a long trip.”
“All those things,” of course, meant encountering white racists informing him that he had stopped in the wrong place.
Mitchell blazed his two trails thanks to two very different types of phone calls – one was word-of-mouth between friends, the other from series of political calls that began with President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
The word-of-mouth phone call involved two old Illinois roommates. Mel Brewer was an Illini assistant coach when he took a call in 1954 from his old friend, Arkansas judge Henry Britt. Brewer was coaching under former Illinois head coach, Ray Elliot, who won Big Ten titles and Rose Bowls in the 1946 and 1951 seasons. Britt practiced law in Illinois until President Eisenhower appointed him an Assistant United States attorney for Western District of Arkansas.
Britt told Brewer about a kid named Mitchell in Hot Springs that was dominating opponents. Illinois faced no major school recruiting competition for Mitchell since southern schools remained segregated 10 to 15 years beyond the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling knocking down separate but equal segregated schools. The first black player at Arkansas for coach Frank Broyles wasn't until 1970. Bear Bryant, the preeminent coach of his time, didn't have a black athlete at Alabama until 1971.
Mitchell, like other African-American athletes in the South in his time, had his eyes on Grambling State, a Historically Black College and University in neighboring Louisiana, that was coached by the legendary Eddie Robinson.
“Eddie Robinson and I laughed about that for years,” Mitchell said. “He said, ‘I had you before that ruling.’ I decided I would go out and try Illinois. Eddie Robinson had so many great players from the South, I probably wouldn’t have made his team.”
That, of course, wasn’t true. But what was definitive was Mitchell’s respect for the number of NFL players turned out by Grambling and other HBCUs during segregation.
Mitchell played at Illinois from 1955 (freshman were ineligible in those days) through 1957. He broke into the lineup late in his 1955 sophomore year when the starter was injured in the third quarter of a game against No. 3 Michigan. Mitchell's first carry was 64 yards for a touchdown. He finished with 10 for 173 yards in a 25-6 upset of played in Champaign.
Injuries sidelined him in 1956, but he earned All-Big Ten honors as a senior in 1957.
After the Browns drafted him in the seventh round, head coach Paul Brown had a Hall-of-Fame backfield in the era of two-back offenses with Jim Brown at fullback and Mitchell at halfback. Mitchell was a quadruple-threat in his three Cleveland seasons, 1958-61, while rushing for 2,297 yards, catching passes for 1,463, returning punts for 607 and kickoffs for 1,550. He totaled 38 touchdowns.
But those political phone calls from the Oval Office led to Washington acquiring Mitchell from the Browns for the 1962 season.
The Redskins were the last all-white team in the NFL, and the Kennedy administration used leverage to force owner George Preston Marshall, who wasn't shy about his racism, to acquire a black player. The leverage was the Redskins had signed a 30-year lease to play at D.C. Stadium, which was built on federal land. The stadium, later renamed RFK Stadium, opened in 1961.
Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, informed Marshall the lease would be revoked without Washington adding a black player to its roster for the 1962 season.
The Redskins used their first pick of the 1962 NFL draft on Syracuse halfback Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961. But recognizing Davis would be difficult to sign with his reluctance to play for the Redskins and his option to sign with the rival American Football League, the Redskins made the deal with the Browns.
The 1962 draft was held on Dec. 4, 1961, although the 1961 post-season didn't begin until Dec. 24. Washington worked behind the scenes to allow Browns time to sign Davis and finish the 1961 season without Mitchell knowing he had been traded.
Symbolically, Mitchell was the first black player with the Redskins, but the first black athlete to sign with the franchise was Michigan State fullback Ron Hatcher. He signed as an eighth-round draft pick ahead of the Davis-Mitchell trade. At the Hatcher signing ceremony, Marshall refused to pose for photos with Hatcher.
Hatcher only played three games in 1962, but Mitchell earned three of his four career Pro Bowl trips in with Washington, 1962-64. He was shifted from halfback to flanker, leading the league in receptions in 1962, receiving yards in 1963 and 1964 and receiving touchdowns in 1962.
As the southernmost team in the NFL, the Redskins were long considered the South as their fan base, including in the town of Fayetteville, N.C. When Fayetteville businessman and civic leader Don Clayton organized a “Jimmy Raye Day” banquet to honor Michigan State’s quarterback from Fayetteville’s E.E. Smith High, he contacted Mitchell as a keynote speaker.
Raye was the South's first black quarterback to win a national title while playing for Daugherty’s Underground Railroad. The Spartans won back-to-back national titles with Raye as a backup in 1965 (United Press International) and a starter in 1966 (National Football Foundation co-champions with Notre Dame).
Mitchell was flown to Fayetteville with arrangements made for him as an keynote speaker rather than having to pull out his “Green-Book” to map out the nearly five-hour drive to Fayetteville.
“I was impressed to see black and white people coming together to honor him,” Mitchell said in Chapter 2 of Raye of Light. “It was unusual, but I felt so comfortable. Everybody was so nice. You knew he had to be a great player for the town to honor him, but at the same time it said a lot about what a good person he was.”
Mitchell’s final NFL season with the Redskins was 1968, but an overlooked chapter of his ground-breaking career began in 1969. Vince Lombardi came out of a retirement to coach the Redskins in 1969 and hired Mitchell as a scout. Although Lombardi died shortly before the 1970 season, Mitchell remained with the Redskins until 2003 at age 66.
He had hoped to become the first black general manager in the NFL, but he was passed over for Bobby Beathard in 1978 and Charlie Casserly in 1989.
The country has changed enough that Bobby Mitchell eventually didn't need his Green Book. But it hasn't changed enough that stories about Bobby Mitchell as a passed over GM and Jimmy Raye as a passed over head coach -- he was a long-time NFL assistant -- are still repeated in the modern NFL of 2020.
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I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055
Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
Don’t believe the myths at Duffy Daugherty’s expense about Bear Bryant’s motivation to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game or myths about the Charlie Thornhill-for-Joe Namath trade. Bear Bryant knew nothing about black talent in the South while he dragged his feet on segregation.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in.”