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As Washington prepares to honor the late Bobby Mitchell, GM Martin Mayhew reflects on mentor's impact




The young defensive back believed he had crafted the ideal strategy for acclimating himself to a new team.

"Fly under the radar," Martin Mayhew told himself shortly after signing with Washington's pro football team back in 1989. He would, "lay low," learn as much as possible while focusing entirely on mastering his on-field tasks. And he would keep his distance from front-office executives.

Mayhew, a 10th-round pick of the Buffalo Bills out of Florida State in 1988, had missed his entire rookie season with injury, and he needed to capitalize on the fresh start that a free agent contract with Washington offered. He didn't need any distractions, and he didn't need to consume his time with relationships with anyone outside of the locker room and coaching staff - or so he thought.

But as he learned more about his surroundings, Mayhew found himself drawn to one key member of the front office: assistant general manager Bobby Mitchell.

Former Washington assistant general manager Bobby Mitchell, left, looks on as fellow Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow, former executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, holds a \"Bobby Mitchell, number 49\" jersey during a Washington news conference Friday, March 14, 2003.
Former Washington assistant general manager Bobby Mitchell, left, looks on as fellow Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow, former executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, holds a \"Bobby Mitchell, number 49\" jersey during a Washington news conference Friday, March 14, 2003.  

Mayhew realized that Mitchell wasn't the traditional team executive. For one, he was Black. At that time, people of color rarely held high-ranking positions within football organizations. Mitchell also was a former player who had starred as Jim Brown's running mate in Cleveland before continuing his career in Washington, becoming the franchise's first Black player and excelling as a playmaker capable of punishing defenses as a pass catcher after previously operating primarily as a ball carrier. Mitchell's on-field heroics had earned him enshrinement into the Hall of Fame, Mayhew learned. Yet he found himself even more impressed with the way that Mitchell carried himself and related to people.

"He was someone I could definitely identify with," Mayhew told USA TODAY Sports. "He was very professional in the way he carried himself. As a player, he made that transition to the front office, which was very impressive because back then, there weren't many African Americans to accomplish that. He was very approachable, very comfortable in his own skin."

Little did Mayhew know that Mitchell's influence would help shape him as a man and forge his career path beyond his playing days. And little did Mayhew know that one day he would return to Washington as the first Black general manager in the history of the franchise with which he won a Super Bowl as a player in 1991.

Mitchell died in April 2020, and as Washington celebrates its home opener of the 2021 season by hosting the New York Giants on Thursday, the franchise will officially honor their former player/executive by retiring his No. 49. (The decision to retire Mitchell's number was made last year, but Washington officials opted to wait until this year, once fans were permitted to return to games, to hold the ceremony.)

"It would've been great to do it when he was still here so he could have enjoyed the moment," Mayhew said. "But it'll be great for his family. Definitely something we should've done a while back, but it's great that we're doing it now."

Mayhew believes that he very well may have never achieved management roles in the NFL, or this position with Washington, if not for his relationship with Mitchell.

When he retired following the 1996 campaign after nine NFL seasons, Mayhew consulted a select number of individuals who had molded him as a player. Mitchell of course ranked among them. Mayhew told his mentor he was considering going to law school and focusing on sports law. Mitchell strongly encouraged him to do so, predicting that education would open doors for him to work his way up management ranks in the NFL.

"I remember coming back here (to Washington headquarters) and meeting with Bobby a few times, sitting in his office and talking to him, and he was always very supportive and encouraged me and told me I could do whatever I wanted to do in the league even back then," said Mayhew, who enrolled at Georgetown University and worked as a personnel intern under Mitchell during the 1999 season before graduating in 2000.

Mayhew has held front office positions with the Detroit Lions, New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers before returning to Washington this offseason. He finds himself unconsciously emulating Mitchell's leadership style.

"He was a great example for anyone in a front office - Black or white - on how you carry yourself, how you deal with players, how to deal with ownership or even practice squad guys," Mayhew said. "As a player, you do notice those things, and to me, he was a great example of what I wanted to do."

Playing and front-office careers combined, Mitchell spent 41 years with Washington, helping the team win three Super Bowls while impacting the lives of many young men like Mayhew.

"Bobby's influence on me was everything," said Mayhew, one of only five Black general managers in the NFL today.

Now, he has the chance to make a similar impact on Washington's franchise and beyond.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bobby Mitchell: Martin Mayhew reflects on mentor's impact on NFL

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