By Joseph Lewis |
Upon hearing the news of the passing of NFL Hall of Famer and Washington Redskins great Bobby Mitchell this past April, I remember thinking not only of his many achievements as a football player, but of the extraordinary man he was.
My first memory of Bobby Mitchell was watching him score the final touchdown on a dramatic 45-yard run from scrimmage in a game against the New York Giants on November 27, 1966. Though the game meant little in terms of the standings, both teams put on a record-breaking performance that resulted in the highest total of points ever scored in an NFL game – a record that still stands today. Both teams combined for 113 points that day as the Redskins beat the Giants 72-41!
When Bobby Mitchell was traded from the Cleveland Browns to Washington in 1962, he became among the first black players to join the Redskins – the last all-white team in the NFL. Because of that status, Bobby was put under enormous pressure to perform on the field. That year, he ended up leading the league in pass receptions (72) and passing yards (1,384), while also being selected to the Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro.
Needless to say, the 1960s was a difficult decade in our nation’s history. There was great unrest throughout the country, especially as it related to the Civil Rights Movement. Black athletes like Bobby Mitchell were forced to endure the kinds of discrimination that defined much of society at the time. Being in Washington, he accepted the responsibility of being a strong figure and voice for the black community, something he did with exceptional dignity and courage.
Beyond his playing days, Bobby helped further the cause of justice and equal opportunity in the NFL as a member of the front office where he served as an assistant general manager for the Redskins. Though some have argued that he was unfairly passed over for the top post of general manager, he always felt he was helping blaze a trail for others to follow in his footsteps. This, he would say, was where his greatest satisfaction came from.
As a seven-year old kid in 1966, I had little understanding of all that was going on in the country at that time. However, when I do think back to my years of growing up in the Washington area, I fondly recall the heroes of my youth which included names like Sonny Jurgensen, Charley Taylor, Brig Owens, Rickie Harris, Chris Hanburger, Jerry Smith, and Bobby Mitchell. Perhaps I was too young and naïve to notice at the time, but it didn’t occur to me to distinguish whether they were black or white. To me, they were men I equally admired and looked up to.
During the football season of that year, my father and our next-door neighbor shared two season tickets to all Redskin home games, played at what was then called D.C. Stadium (only later renamed RFK Memorial Stadium, after Robert F. Kennedy). They would trade off weeks when one would have use of both tickets to invite a friend or family member to attend a game. On that particular Sunday in 1966, it was my father’s turn to use the tickets, but for reasons I cannot recall, my father was unable to go to the game. Having promised me a chance to attend a game before the end of the season, he asked our neighbor if he could take me to that week’s game, which he was happy to do (NFL home games were not televised locally at the time in order to protect stadium attendance).
Before I left for the game that day, my father took me aside and handed me one of his prize possessions – his brand-new Hambletonian 7 x 50, Field 7.1 degrees, Heavy Duty Binoculars, carried in a beautiful leather case with red velvet lining. Prior to the days of high-definition jumbo screens in state-of-the-art football stadiums, spectators had to rely on ways of enhancing their view of the game as best they could. In an era when professional sports stadiums were built more often for baseball games, football fans were accustomed to relying on a good pair of binoculars to gain a better view of the action. Many seats in older stadiums were notorious for having poor sight lines or even partially obstructed views. D.C. Stadium, for example, had seats in the upper deck, such as the ones we had, where parts of one of the endzones could not be seen. Sometimes we literally had to rely on the roar of the crowd to know what had happened on the field beneath us.
As I held the binoculars in my hand, I listened to my father explain about the great responsibility I was being given in taking proper care of them. We were a family of modest means and we learned to appreciate the things we were given. I remember feeling the weight of the binoculars strapped around my neck as I tried them on for the first time. As I placed them back in the case and prepared to leave, I remember how excited I felt about going to the game. None of us could have anticipated, however, the kind of game I was about to witness, or of what was to become of my father’s binoculars.
The game that day was as exciting as the score suggests. With every touchdown by the Redskins (10 in all), everyone in the stadium would jump to their feet to cheer for the home team. Redskin defensive back Brig Owens scored two touchdowns himself, one on a fumble recovery and one on an interception, and, had 3 interceptions for the game.
By late in the fourth quarter, the Redskins held a comfortable 21 point lead. Perhaps eager to run some time off the clock, Redskin backup quarterback Dick Shiner (substituting for starter Sonny Jurgenson, whose day was complete after throwing 3 touchdown passes) handed the ball off to Bobby Mitchell. As he weaved his way through the beleaguered defense of the Giants, all of us in the stands jumped to our feet again as Bobby raced into the open field and scampered across the goal line to complete a dazzling 45-yard touchdown run.
As we cheered, I suddenly felt a great release from around my neck followed by the sound of something hitting the concrete floor at my feet. It was my father’s binoculars. After having endured the force of the weight caused by every jump I had made during the game, the thin leather strap holding the binoculars had finally given way.
As the fans all around me continued to celebrate, I bent down and began picking up the pieces of what was left of the binoculars. As much as I tried to convince myself that it was an accident, I couldn’t help but feel I had let my father down.
The drive home after the game was a mix of joy in having seen what Bobby Mitchell and the Redskins had done that day, and sadness in realizing what had happened to my father’s binoculars.
I am happy to say, however, that the apprehension I also felt in having to share the news with my father was something that did not last long. After returning home that day and opening the binocular case to reveal the broken contents inside, a smile quickly came to my father’s face. Perhaps having envisioned something far worse after telling him what had happened, my father announced that with a few repairs, the binoculars could be fixed. Probably sensing how badly I still felt about what had happened, my father quickly assured me that had the binoculars been equipped with a more reliable strap in the first place, they never would have broken. It did much in making me feel better.
True to his word, and within a short period of time, my father replaced one of the lenses and fitted the binoculars with a much stronger metal coil strap – all of which, he convinced me, made the binoculars better than they had been before.
Long before my father’s own passing in 2006, he gave me those same binoculars as a gift which immediately became one of my own prized possessions. To this day, they are kept in my study, and yes, I still make use of them from time to time (see picture). They are also a great reminder to me of that record-setting day in November, over fifty-four years ago. But more importantly, they bring to mind the people I still consider to be great heroes in my life whose influences have extended far beyond the football field.
I include my father, Eldon “Doc” Lewis, as one of those heroes. Not only was he handy at fixing broken things like those binoculars, he dedicated much of his life to helping others. In 1968, he was appointed Executive Director of the Fair Housing Board by the Board of Supervisors of Fairfax County, Virginia. This was a difficult time for race relations not only in our country but especially in the state of Virginia. Only three years before had Fairfax County finally desegregated all of its public schools. Although the county had passed a more stringent fair housing ordinance by 1968, rampant discrimination in housing remained a persistent problem. My father worked tirelessly in an effort to reverse that trend during his time in the position.
My father was also a man of strong religious conviction. After serving in the navy during World War II, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill to attend Georgetown University and then Catholic University for his law degree. It was during this time that he became a friend of Father Chester Ball, the first black Catholic priest to become a pastor in Washington D.C. My sister Mary Ann and I both remember my father bringing us with him to attend a Mass celebrated by Father Ball at a church in Washington, with a congregation of predominantly black parishioners. We were very young at the time and I remember thinking how we had been transported to another world. But it was a wonderful experience for us as we not only witnessed the universality of our Christian faith, but shared in a common fellowship among people of different races.
As our country today reels from many of the same issues that affected it over fifty years ago, I think of people like Bobby Mitchell, Father Ball, my father and so many others who have stood up and helped bring about real change. May we follow their same peaceful witness and example in the continuation of that work, and may their memory be an enduring reminder to us of what we can accomplish when we come together as one people.
Joseph Lewis is a longtime Washington Redskins fan and a history teacher and Dean of Students at Regina Luminis Academy in Berwyn, Pa. Lewis is the author of “The Ghosts of Westthorpe Academy,” published by eLectio Publishing in 2018. A resident of Exton, Pa., Lewis is married with six children and two grandchildren.