The Washington Redskins are once again at the center of national scrutiny as head coach Mike Shanahan publicly announced he would be benching franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III for the remainder of the 2013 NFL Season. The drama is perhaps appropriate from a team representing the political capital of the entire world and is very much in line with the sketchy history of the Redskins franchise which began in Boston in 1932.
For the city of change, nothing has changed.
The drama unfolding in Washington between owner Dan Snyder, coach Mike Shanahan, and franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III is certainly developing into one of Washington’s greatest manifesting fiasco’s of all-time. However it will never rival the outlandish stance Redskins owner George Preston Marshall held on integration.
The Redskins were the last team in the NFL to allow black players on their football team. Consider the Detroit Lions were the eleventh out of twelve teams to integrate. They did so in 1955. In 1961 the Redskins were still all white and fully suffering the consequences evidenced by their play on the field.
Marshall’s justification for his stance was based on appealing to his fan-base, the South. The Redskins were geographically the NFL’s sole southeastern team and they pandered to fans accordingly. The “Team of the South” would play “Dixie” before all home games and of course made sure they stayed all white, as to not offend southern gentlemen.
It took a hardball maneuver by the JFK administration in 1961 to force Marshall’s hand to integrate. The new RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. was federally owned and funded and under the umbrella of the Department of the Interior. Legally, the federal government could not make the Redskins sign a black player, but they did not have to let them play in their stadium.
Marshall eventually conceded to signing black players after the 1961 season. Because they had been so bad the previous year, the Redskins had the first pick in the NFL draft. Syracuse running back Ernie Davis became the first African-American ever chosen by the Redskins in the NFL draft. Ironically Davis was also the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy.
Marshall was not confident however the Redskins would be able to sign Ernie Davis. The NFL was in a full scale battle with the newly formed AFL to sign the best players coming out of college. The AFL had signed the previous two Heisman Trophy winners, Joe Bellino in 1960 and Billy Cannon in 1959.
Davis had already been drafted by the AFL’s Buffalo Bills. Instead of risking a bidding war, the Redskins traded Davis shortly after drafting him to the Cleveland Browns. The Redskins in return received future Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell, who is most commonly known as the first African-American player to play for the Washington Redskins. This is not exactly the case.
After drafting Ernie Davis on December 4th 1961, the Redskins later drafted a man by the name of Ron Hatcher in the eighth round. Hatcher, an African-American fullback out of Michigan State University, officially signed with the Redskins prior to the announcement of the Davis trade.
Unfortunately for Hatcher, he was one of the last cuts before the 1962 season and was not on the Redskins opening day roster, albeit he was able to play for Washington later that year.
Alas Nisby was not the last piece of the puzzle. As part of the trade of Ernie Davis for Bobby Mitchell, the Redskins had the rights to the Cleveland Browns first round draft pick in 1962 which ended up being Leroy Jackson. As a result the Redskins opened 1962 with three important black players on their roster.
So who was the first to actually play? All three played in the season opener versus the Dallas Cowboys, a game that was a shootout but ended in a 35-35 tie. It was Leroy Jackson that stepped on the field first. Jackson got his hands on the ball on the opening play returning the kickoff from the Cowboys.
Overall 1962 was a significant improvement from the previous year. In 1961 the Redskins finished with a record of 1-12-1. 1962 yielded a record of 5-7-2.