Bobby Mitchell, who was the first African American player to sign with the Washington Redskins, died Sunday at 84, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced.
"I was extremely saddened to hear the news about the passing of the great Bobby Mitchell. Bobby was a Hall of Fame player and executive and represented the Washington Redskins organization with integrity for over 50 years," team owner Daniel Snyder said in a statement. "His passion for the game of football was unmatched by anyone I have ever met. Not only was he one of the most influential individuals in franchise history, but he was also one of the greatest men I have ever known. He was a true class act and will be sorely missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Gwen and the entire Mitchell family during this time."
Mitchell began his pro career as a halfback for the Cleveland Browns in 1958. A running and receiving threat, he shared the backfield with Jim Brown, giving Cleveland one of the strongest offensive attacks in the league. During his four seasons in Cleveland, Mitchell accounted for 3,759 yards from scrimmage.
In 1962, the Browns traded Mitchell to the Washington Redskins, who moved him from halfback to flanker. That season, he led the league in receptions (72) and receiving yards (1,384). The following season, Mitchell caught 69 passes for a league-leading 1,436 yards. He also tied an NFL record with a 99-yard touchdown reception against his former team.
During his first six seasons with the Redskins, he never caught fewer than 58 passes. He was a four-time Pro Bowl selection -- once as a running back and three times as a wide receiver.
Mitchell, a seventh-round draft pick in 1958, retired in 1969, finishing his 11-year NFL career with 14,078 total yards. He had 91 career touchdowns, including 65 receiving and 18 rushing. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983.
"The entire Pro Football Hall of Fame family mourns the passing of Bobby Mitchell. The Game lost a true legend today," David Baker, the Hall of Fame's president and CEO, said in a statement. "Bobby was an incredible player, a talented executive and a real gentleman to everyone with whom he worked or competed against. His wife Gwen and their entire family remain in our thoughts and prayers. The Hall of Fame will forever keep his legacy alive to serve as inspiration to future generations."
It was his time with the Redskins that Mitchell once called "life-altering." Mitchell was traded from Cleveland to Washington in December 1961 in exchange for Ernie Davis after Davis said he would not play for the Redskins. Nine months after the swap, Mitchell, Leroy Jackson and John Nisby helped break the NFL's only remaining color barrier -- the Redskins were the final NFL team to integrate -- and they did so with little fanfare, as far as the rest of the Redskins' roster was concerned.
Redskins owner George Preston Marshall had said that many fans preferred watching white players and would reject the Redskins if they had an African American player.
In contrast to other NFL owners, Marshall "did not pretend there were no blacks good enough to make his team," Andy Piascik wrote in "Gridiron Gauntlet: The Story of the Men Who Integrated Pro Football in Their Own Words." "Unlike the others, he was honest enough to admit that he simply didn't want them around."
Under pressure from then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and the John F. Kennedy administration, however, the Redskins finally integrated their roster. In his first game with the team, Mitchell caught six passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns and had a 92-yard kick return for a touchdown in a 35-35 tie with the Dallas Cowboys.
In his first home game at D.C. Stadium, Mitchell recorded seven catches for 147 yards and two scores against the St. Louis Cardinals.
"You're performing for a group of people, and you're not sure if they want you, so I had a lot of mixed emotions that game," Mitchell told The New York Times. "I still don't believe I performed as well as I did, knowing how I felt all week long getting ready."
Still, Mitchell became a first-team All-Pro selection in his debut season in Washington. He led the NFL in receiving yards, with 1,384, and led the league again in 1963, with 1,436. In 1964, alongside new Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, Mitchell had an NFL-best 10 receiving touchdowns.
"He was a go-to guy receiver," Jurgensen, who spent 11 seasons in Washington, including five alongside Mitchell, told FoxSports.com in 2014. "He was exceptional because you just had to get the ball in his hands, and he was capable of going all the way. ... He and Charley Taylor gave me two good wideouts, and even if [defenses] tried to take one of them away from you, they weren't going to keep the other one down."
However, Mitchell's first three years in Washington were trying, especially for his wife and two children, he once told The New York Times. Some stores and restaurants refused to serve them, he said, and there were sportswriters who told him that their editors had ordered them not to write feature stories about him or vote for him to be an All-Pro. Even so, the team began to add more African American players and continued to improve. By the mid-1960s, the Redskins were one of the highest-scoring teams in the league.
"The whole tenor changed," Mitchell told the Times. "As we got more black guys on the team and we began to split out around communities, treatments began to change."
After his playing career ended, Mitchell joined the Redskins as a scout under then-coach Vince Lombardi. He spent 35 years in the team's front office, rising to the position of assistant general manager.
Retired NFL running back Brian Mitchell, who has no relation to Bobby but became friends with him, said he learned from the Hall of Famer, "Tough times don't remain, tough people do, and you don't let what you go through change who you are, unless it's for the better."
"I'm sure there was people saying stuff to him and doing things that [ticked] him off, but he wasn't bitter," Brian Mitchell said. "When you look at him when he was working for the Redskins early on, many people felt Bobby should've been the general manager of the Washington Redskins. He didn't get bitter. He kept doing the things he can do."
Bobby Mitchell said during a 2015 episode of Showtime's "60 Minutes Sports" that he understood pretty quickly upon signing in Washington that "there was no one in this town used to having a black star." His friend and fellow Hall of Famer Jim Brown took it one step further.
"Bobby was an individual that was thrown into the arena of being a victim for no reason," Brown said. "He had to suffer for being black more than any person I know that played football at the time I played. With that kind of ability, if he were white, everybody on this earth would know who he was."
After retiring, Mitchell became active in the community and, starting in 1980, held an annual golf tournament to raise funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
"You look at Bobby, his career was a Hall of Fame career, but I know for African American people, he was a social activist, as well," Brian Mitchell said. "Not only was he a great football player and a guy who would go out there and fight for the rights of his people, but he was also a guy who was a philanthropist, a guy doing everything that you're supposed to do."
Bobby Mitchell grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, played baseball in high school and starred in track and football at the University of Illinois. The Hall of Fame flag on the museum's campus in Canton, Ohio, will be flown at half-staff in his memory.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.