Growing up in Hot Springs, there was no doubt Charles Butler wanted to play with Bobby Mitchell.
"You knew early on when you chose your teams," said Butler, a childhood friend of Mitchell and teammate at Langston High School and the University of Illinois, "you wanted him on your side or you wanted to be on his team."
Mitchell, a Hot Springs native who earned induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died Sunday at 84 at his home in Washington, D.C.
No cause of death has been announced.
Born June 6, 1935, in Hot Springs, Mitchell was one of eight children of Albert and Avis Mitchell.
He played at the segregated Langston High School and Illinois before spending 11 seasons in the NFL. He was drafted by Cleveland in the seventh round of the 1958 draft and spent four seasons with the Browns before being traded to the Washington Redskins.
When the Redskins acquired Mitchell, he became the first black man to play for the franchise, which was the last to integrate in the NFL.
Butler first met Mitchell when he was in the third grade and Mitchell was in the second grade. He said he enjoyed his friendship with Mitchell.
"He was a very friendly person," Butler said. "He was very outgoing."
In his 11-year career, Mitchell finished with 521 receptions for 7,954 yards and 65 touchdowns. He had 1,000-yard receiving seasons in 1962 and 1963. Mitchell caught 72 passes for a NFL-high 1,384 yards with 11 touchdowns in 1962, then had 69 catches for 1,436 yards and 7 scores in 1963.
Don Duren, a sports historian and Hot Springs native, recalled watching Mitchell play football at Langston. Duren went to Hot Springs High School, but he wanted to see how good Mitchell was in person.
"He was a tremendous ballplayer," Duren said. "In my opinion, I think he's the greatest football player to ever come out of Arkansas."
Mitchell was enshrined in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1977 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983.
Seeing Mitchell play on the professional level was fun for Butler.
"It was like the song, 'U Can't Touch This' [by rapper MC Hammer]," Butler said. "He was so hard to get a hold of. He was so shifty. He had that kind of speed.
"He was a winner."
Mitchell starred in multiple sports at Langston, which won the 1953 Negro State Football Championship. Mitchell was an All-State Negro Football selection his junior and senior seasons.
While in Hot Springs, Mitchell met other black athletes -- such as baseball stars Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, and boxer Joe Louis -- who came through the city in the 1940s and 1950s to visit the casinos, bathhouses and hotels. In fact, Campanella bought Mitchell's suit for his graduation ceremony at Langston in 1954.
Butler said Mitchell wanted to be a professional athlete, in part because of those visits.
"We were always told, if you had any aspirations at all, you can be like them," Butler said of having careers like Robinson, Campanella and Louis. "The teachers, almost to a fault, they said even though we were segregated, if you took the lessons seriously, you could make a good life for you and your family."
After high school, Mitchell played football at Illinois from 1954-57, earning All-Big Ten honors. He was also on the track and field team for the Fighting Illini, establishing an indoor world record in the 70-yard low hurdles in 1958 with a time of 7.7 seconds, but the record lasted only six days. He later won the Big Ten championship in the 100-yard dash (9.6) and the 200-yard dash in (21.3).
Mitchell played halfback for the Browns from 1958-61, and was a flanker for Washington from 1962-68. Mitchell was a three-time All-NFL selection and played in four Pro Bowls.
When Mitchell joined the Redskins in 1962, they became the last NFL team to integrate. Redskins Owner George Preston Marshall attended segregated schools, but he was under pressure from President John F. Kennedy's administration to integrate the Redskins.
The Redskins acquired Mitchell in 1962 from the Browns, who received the signing rights to Syracuse running back Ernie Davis in the deal. Davis never played in the NFL after being diagnosed with leukemia in the summer of 1962. He died in May 1963.
After retiring from football, Mitchell remained with the Redskins' organization. He became a scout and then was hired as the team's assistant general manager. Mitchell was part of all three of the Redskins' Super Bowl championship teams as a member of the front office in 1982, 1987 and 1991. He retired from the front office in 2002.
Mitchell's career in Washington paved the way for future Redskins players such as Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green, who paid tribute to Mitchell on Twitter on Monday.
"Bobby Mitchell was an awesome person and a mentor to a lot of young knuckleheads like myself back in the day," Green tweeted. "His mentorship helped to put us on the right path from the first moment we entered the building. He will be fondly remembered and sorely missed by us all!"
Duren said Mitchell made Hot Springs proud.
"We think the world of Bobby Mitchell," Duren said. "I've talked with some of my buddies. We all think he was the greatest football player we've seen. Maybe one of the best athletes, period."
Sports on 04/07/2020
Print Headline: Mitchell somebody to have on 'your side'