Many inspiring and thought-provoking messages were delivered during Thursday’s Browns panel discussion in recognition of Black History Month.
If the 150 students from five Cleveland public high schools in attendance at Brownstown at Cleveland Browns Stadium, and several hundred other students from 16 schools in Ohio and around the country listening via a video-conferencing took in a fraction of what was said during Lessons From The Past: Overcoming Challenges of Racial Barriers, lives could be changed.
But the most poignant and impactful message was one that was uttered through dead silence.
It occurred near the start of the 90-minute program as Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Bobby Mitchell, one of four former Browns standouts serving as panelists, recalled growing up in the segregated South and then heading off to college in 1954.
“In my senior year of high school, I didn’t know if I was going to further my education or pick cotton,” said Mitchell, who played with the Browns from 1958-61. “My family didn’t have any money to send me to college. No one in my neighborhood had any money. Then I was offered a scholarship to play football by the University of Illinois.
“I took a train from Hot Springs, Ark. to get to Champaign-Urbana (Ill)., and it was a long, long trip. I had to ride in the caboose. I wasn’t allowed to sit up front. When I finally got there, I didn’t know if I was good enough. I didn’t know if I would last a day.”
Then Mitchell stopped talking, being overcome by emotion.
Finally after about 10 seconds, Hall-of-Fame president/executive director Steve Perry, who was serving as moderator of the event, politely excused Mitchell from trying to continue.
Afterward, Mitchell, 77, was asked about his strong feelings of something that happened 59 years ago.
“It really impacted me,” he said. “It left an impression on me.”
Much of the program served as a window into a different time in American history.
Panelist John Wooten, a guard with the Browns from 1959-67, talked about playing against the Washington Redskins in the first part of his career.
“It’s Washington, our nation’s capital, and they were the only team in the NFL that didn’t have any blacks,” he said. “We would go in there for a game, and they would play Dixie, where they’re singing about picking cotton. That got us fired up. It became our fight song.”
Paul Wiggin, a defensive end from 1957-67 and the lone panelist who was not African American, talked about a linebacker he coached with the Kansas City Chiefs, Hall of Famer Bobby Bell.
“He told me that he went back to where he grew up, Shelby, S.C., to be honored and the mayor gave him the key to the city,” Wiggin said. “He said he asked the mayor, ‘Can I use this key to go across the street to that ice cream parlor and get an ice cream cone?’ The mayor told him, ‘No, not yet, Bobby.’
“It’s hard for me to even tell that story.”
Running back Greg Pruitt (1973-81), who had to fight racism along with the belief by coaches and scouts at every level of his career that he was too small to play, told the students to ignore doubters.
“You guys out there want to be doctors, lawyers or whatever, and don’t let someone tell you that you can’t do that,” he said. “Go find out for yourself. In most cases, you’ll learn that you’re better than you think you are.”
Persistence really does pay off in every regard, Perry urged.
“The first thing you have to realize is that there are opportunities out there,” he said. “The road to equality has moved a great distance over the years.
“But it takes hard work, and failing to excel in school is not an option if you want to achieve your goals.”