CLEVELAND — Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell couldn’t finish his story to the teenagers because he choked up. Nearly 60 years later, his train trip from Arkansas to attend the University of Illinois brings back a tidal wave of emotions.
“I was in the caboose by myself because I wasn’t allowed anywhere else,” he said Thursday. “I sat there crying. I didn’t know if I was good enough, I didn’t know if I would last.”
Mitchell was joined by fellow former Browns John Wooten, Paul Wiggin and Greg Pruitt and Pro Football Hall of Fame president/executive director Steve Perry on a panel Thursday in recognition of Black History Month. About 150 Cleveland high school students attended the event at Cleveland Browns Stadium, while 16 schools across the country, including Lorain High, watched on a teleconference.
The title of the discussion: Overcoming Challenges of Racial Barriers.
Mitchell’s journey to the Hall of Fame served as the perfect illustration. He was the first black player on the Washington Redskins when Paul Brown traded him from Cleveland in 1962. They were the last integrated team.
“I’m fortunate to be in the Hall of Fame. But it was a long, long road filled with good, bad and ugly,” Mitchell said. “You had to take the beatings. People said nasty things and denied you. My little kid was denied an ice cream cone. My family was mistreated.
“I wound up making All-Pro and everything that year, yet I had a reporter tell me he couldn’t write about me anymore because they wouldn’t allow him to put it in the paper anymore, I’m in the paper too much. That hurts. You work through it. You just keep going.”
A half-century later, there’s still plenty of bad and ugly in the pursuit of equality in the NFL.
Despite the Rooney Rule that requires teams to interview a minority for any head coaching or general manager vacancy, not a single one was hired for the eight coaching and seven GM jobs filled since the season ended.
“It’s almost like it’s come full circle. I used to argue with (former commissioner) Pete Rozelle and all those guys,” said Mitchell, who became assistant general manager of the Redskins after he retired. “The Rooney Rule means nothing really, and that’s unfortunate. I don’t know how they can work that out.
“They’re bypassing some darned good black coaches, experienced coaches. These aren’t guys sitting around saying give me a job. These are dynamic coaches. It’s disheartening.”
Wooten, a teammate of Mitchell’s from 1959-61, shares the frustration but is optimistic things will get better. Wooten is chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, established to promote diversity and equality of job opportunity in NFL coaching, scouting and front office positions. He sees progress in a run of seven straight Super Bowls with a minority head coach or general manager, but wants more.
He met with the NFL at the Super Bowl and said the Fritz Pollard Alliance has a plan to extend the Rooney Rule to other coaches and front office personnel and wants each team to establish a training program for coaches, like in corporate America.
“Something is going on here that needs to be fixed,” Wooten said. “It just doesn’t make sense to us. We have a long way to go.”
When will the hiring inequality no longer be an issue?
“We used to talk about black quarterbacks. Now look at the black quarterbacks, nobody says anything about it,” Wooten said. “When we get to that point with coaches and GMs, then we know we’ve got to where we need to be.”
All of the panelists stressed the importance of education in overcoming obstacles and achieving goals. Wiggin got his bachelor’s and master’s in education from Stanford and used to teach in the offseason when he was a player. Mitchell reminded the high school kids that getting their diploma should be priority No. 1.
Mitchell’s difficult road likely left the biggest impression on the teens. He said he could hear racial slurs shouted at him as he ran in Washington, and he was spat on at a famous restaurant.
He credited his four years in Cleveland as necessary for him to be able to handle the tough times in Washington.
“That’s what saved me,” Mitchell said. “I was a weakling. But I built up some strength around Jim Brown, Wooten and the guys that were strong.”
And he wouldn’t trade his journey. Even the lonely train trip to Illinois.
“When you’re young you don’t know,” Mitchell said. “But you’re really happy later on down the road that you took the chance, you went with it, you stuck with it.”