As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com), April 2020
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
It has been 36 days since the NBA suspended its season and 34 days since schools closed. This week we woulda, coulda been wondering how Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods missed the cut at The Masters and why the golf gods ruined our sacred spring event and “A tradition unlike any other.”
Oh to have such problems.
Instead we, all of us – not blues or reds, black or white, Christian or Jew, gay or straight, etcetera and so forth – are dealing with, well, you know – the microorganism that hatched from Hell, spawned in Wuhan, China and silently proliferated the globe.
But that’s not why you started reading. It was the intriguing title, wasn’t it? No? What then? Sheer boredom? Understandable and since you’re here - on to the story.
While strolling down my lane, properly masked and remaining at least six feet from other humans (which isn’t all bad depending on those encountered), I find what appears to be a genie’s lamp in the grass. Skeptical but old enough to remember re-runs of “I Dream of Jeannie”, I rub it with no expectation of magic. But sure enough, a groggy genie (or was he drunk?) appeared and reluctantly offered to grant three wishes.
There’s a catch, though. My initial doubt that this lamp was little more than a hollow trinket severely limited the apparition’s offer. The genie, we’ll call him Corona, knew I was a sports writer in a time of no sports. Corona, wanting to help my plight but also penalize for my doubt, said he would grant three interviews with any sports luminaries of my choice, but one had to be an active player, one retired and one deceased.
I chose Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle, former New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason and ‘Skins Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell, who passed away on April 5. At least that’s how the bizarre dream went. Social distancing has activated my subconscious - and arguably a wicked psychosis.
The choice of Doolittle defies explanation; maybe his love of Star Wars piqued my interest. Gleason, I get – his story is inspirational. Watch the documentary “Gleason” if you haven’t…just have tissues near. Picking Mitchell was obvious too; he is the most important person in the history of Washington professional football.
Whoa. What? Most important?
It’s fair to take umbrage. Sammy Baugh, Sonny Jurgensen, John Riggins or Joe Gibbs would all be reasonable candidates. Baugh was a superior player. Jurgensen and Riggins are more popular. Gibbs is more accomplished. But Mitchell, who played for the ‘Skins from 1962 to 1968 and served in the front office from 1969 through 2003, likely had the longest tenure with the team (setting aside Jurgensen’s broadcasting career). And like the others, his bust resides at the Pro Football Hall of Fame and his name appears in the ‘Skins Ring of Fame.
Tenure, touchdowns and shrewd personnel moves aren’t what separate Mitchell’s resume in the annals of franchise history, though. When Bobby Mitchell took the field for Washington in 1962, he became the first African American to play for the last NFL team to integrate. This happened a shameful 15 years after Jackie Robinson first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, 16 years after African Americans first played in the NFL - and it happened in the capital of a nation that was supposedly founded on freedom and equality. Mitchell’s donning of the burgundy and gold didn’t solve racism, but it promoted its continued confrontation. And his first appearance on the ‘Skins roster maintains a dubious relevance today as the organization, nearly 50 years later, is still struggling with racial awareness (the nickname).
Mitchell was vastly under-appreciated by the fan base and the organization at large. Fact is, a statue of Bobby Mitchell should reside outside of FedEx Field and his number 49 should join Baugh’s as the second in franchise history to be retired. That’s how you honor your most important player.
As for having an opportunity to interview him, that would have been a genie-in-a-bottle wish. I didn’t get the chance in this life, but there’s always the next…unless that DeLorean/flux capacitor/time travel thing becomes reality.