CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Bobby Mitchell entered the interview area at the Pro Football Hall of Fame FanFest in a wheelchair, his age and his NFL body showing.
Mitchell then talked about his four years with the Cleveland Browns, during a time when Jim Brown taught him about “standing up as a black man.”
He spoke on a weekend not long after Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made blatantly racist and prejudicial statements on a tape recording, and shortly before Michael Sam may be drafted as the NFL’s first openly gay player. The man who rode into the room spoke of standing with pride some 50 years ago -- something that was not easy for an African-American in the 1960s, and not often welcomed. They did it because it was the right thing to do.
“That was one of the things that me and Jim Brown and John Wooten and all of us, that was the one thing that we determined,” Mitchell said. “Stand up. Stand up. Stand up.”
In some ways Brown and Mitchell show how far society has come in the 50 years since they played. As Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson said, the only color that matters nowadays in the NFL is the uniform.
But in other ways, the experiences of Brown and Mitchell show how far society has to go -- and may always have to go. Fifty years after Brown and Mitchell’s playing days, the NBA had to ban one of its owners and the Boston Bruins had to apologize for racist posts on Twitter directed at P.K. Subban, a black Montreal Canadiens defenseman who had scored a game-winning goal against Boston.
Brown and Mitchell played in a time of segregation and racism, a time when African-American men were not always supposed to stand up.
Brown sat down for nobody.
And when Mitchell played for the Browns from 1958 through 1961 it was Brown who taught him how to handle himself, Mitchell said.
“You said ‘Boo,’ Bobby Mitchell was gone,” Mitchell said, talking of how he feared certain people in his hometown of Hot Springs, Ark.
Mitchell then told the story of the town bully. When Mitchell heard the name, he would run and hide.
“I went through a whole childhood up to my sophomore year of college not knowing what he looked like,” he said.
Brown helped change Mitchell, and helped prepare him for his next team. Mitchell left the Browns in 1962, traded to Washington along with Browns first-round draft pick Leroy Jackson for the rights to Redskins first-round pick Ernie Davis.
The Associated Press report at the time stated: “All the players -- Davis, Mitchell and Jackson -- are Negroes.”
Mitchell wound up playing for George Preston Marshall, an owner who said he’d start signing black players when the Harlem Globetrotters started signing whites. Marshall was Marshall before Donald Sterling even thought of buying an NBA team.
Mitchell told the story to NFL Films when the Redskins returned from training camp for a pre-opener luncheon in 1962, Marshall had the team band play "Dixie." Marshall tapped Mitchell on the shoulder and said, “Bobby Mitchell, sing!”
Mitchell knew the history when he was traded, knew he’d be the first African-American to play for a team that attracted a largely Southern fan base.
But Mitchell said once he signed, Marshall let him be.
“Everyone was so focused on George Preston Marshall, but George Preston Marshall never did anything to me,” Mitchell said. “Once I signed that contract, no problem.”
Mitchell said that the first time he spoke with Marshall, it was in Marshall’s large office. He said he barely heard a word Marshall said.
“Because I was so impressed that all around that room were portraits of Indian chiefs,” he said. “He had every Indian chief that you could name. Big portraits. He was talking and I was just looking. I was so impressed.”
Mitchell even addressed the discussion over the name “Redskins,” saying he joined when the name was just the name of a team, but times do change.
“Because, as a black man, I understand what the Indians are saying,” he said. “I understand.”
Because Mitchell went through the struggle. Though he said Marshall left him alone, others did not.
“It was people around him and people in the town who [weren’t] ready. As I tell people you must understand I came to Washington as a star. I was already an All-Pro. So they were aware of me. Well, a couple other guys said they never had any problem. That’s because they didn’t know who you were.”
Mitchell readily acknowledged that it was much more difficult to “stand up” in Washington 50 years ago than it is now.
So it was that in 1967, Brown and Mitchell were part of a group of black athletes who stood up for Muhammad Ali, who had come to Cleveland seeking support for Ali’s declaration that he could not fight in Vietnam because of his religious beliefs.
“A lot of people don’t understand,” Mitchell said, “that when we decided to have the meeting with Muhammad Ali about going into the service and brought him to Cleveland, all of us could have lost our jobs.
“All of us. But, again, it’s standing up.”
Brown is never shy about standing up for his beliefs. He quit playing NFL football when then-owner Art Modell demanded he leave the filming of The Dirty Dozen. He started the Ameri-I-Can program to help inner-city African-American students. He stood up for Ali. He said he played in a time when teams would make a point to have an even number of black players so whites and blacks would not have to room together. He raged against racism. He brought gang members together in Los Angeles to stop violence. He spent time in jail at the age of 64 because he thought a misdemeanor domestic charge against him was unjust.
Brown spoke at a roundtable discussion at the FanFest with Barry Sanders, and when a fan asked Sanders why he never spiked the ball after a touchdown Sanders explained that he thought his work was done once he scored.
Host Larry King asked Brown if he had ever spiked the ball, and he laughed.
“Become one of the buffoons?” he asked. “Like these 300-pound go-go dancers?”
The crowd laughed.
“That directly relates back to the fact that they need to go to college for four years to learn what dignity is,” Brown said.
The crowd applauded, and Brown took the discussion in a completely new direction, one he said he hoped would be “controversial.”
“Slavery used to promote that, to have the slaves dance and sing or kneel and boogie-woogie and all that for the entertainment of the masters,” Brown said. “These young guys are carrying that legacy on without knowing it. So they need to study history and understand that they not dance in the end zone.”
King called the point “a stretch,” and Brown didn’t argue.
Not long before the FanFest, many African-American NBA players spoke loudly against Sterling. Mitchell addressed that.
“This was one time that everybody spoke out,” Mitchell said, referring to players and people of all backgrounds. “And that was the part that I liked.”
Perhaps one day history will look back at the actions of people like Brown and Mitchell and realize that they helped change the world, that they stood up when it might not have been popular, that they made it possible for guys who came after them to succeed.
That fact was not lost on the other Hall of Famers.
“Yesterday I was sitting with Jim Brown, and Jim and I were sitting there talking, and I said, ‘Jim, tell me: What is it like to be Jim Brown?’” Carson said.
Every time he said the name, he said it slowly, with emphasis: Jim. Brown.
“You feel like a kid again when you are surrounded by these guys,” Carson said. “You just feel so insignificant.”
“They broke the ground for everybody; they paved the way,” ex-Vikings guard Randall McDaniel said. “All you can do is say thank you every time you see them. Sit back and admire the things that they did and play in those times and still be able to do the things that they did.
“I think those are the true heroes.”
The struggle never ends for Brown, and won’t as long as some are angry about the race of a goal-scorer, and not as long as an owner exists who would not welcome an African-American fan. That’s why Brown will keep standing up, and why Mitchell stands taller than many, even in a wheelchair.
In the roundtable, Brown was asked his most significant off-the-field moment.
Brown said it hasn’t happened yet, that he is in the midst of helping organize a summit to bring people together, a summit with two goals: To bring quality education to all children, regardless of race or income level, and to end violence in neighborhoods.
“By the time it’s successful,” Brown said, “I’ll probably be gone.”