A well-deserved honor for Mitchell

An emotional John Mitchell, the Steelers Assistant Head Coach, stood at a podium in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium at the University of Alabama, holding back tears as his voice cracked when he started to speak.

And he was emotional for a good reason.

Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson, two men who broke racial barriers and opened doors for those who came after them at the University of Alabama, were being honored by the school for what they did and the opportunities they provided for so many others.

Mitchell was the first Black football player to play for Alabama, first Black captain, All-American and All-SEC selection at the school, not just breaking the barriers, but shattering them as he played for the legendary coach, Paul 'Bear' Bryant. Jackson was the school's first Black scholarship player.

"It's a day that we're going to pay recognition and tribute two leaders of our university, and that's Wilbur Jackson and John Mitchell," said Greg Byrne, Alabama's athletic director. "Over 50 years ago, these two trailblazers overcame adversity and made history by becoming the first African American football players to sign a scholarship and play in a varsity football game for the University of Alabama. The decision to become part of the Crimson Tide paved the way and helped provide opportunities for future generations that are all benefiting today. Today, we've gathered here to unveil the plaque in John and Wilbur's honor, which proudly symbolizes the impact on the University of Alabama, and permanently commemorates their legacies for years and generations to come."

A plaque of the two groundbreaking men was unveiled outside the stadium prior to Alabama's spring game, as well as being honored at halftime of the game, something that had Mitchell more emotional than he anticipated.

"I want to gain my composure first," said Mitchell as he stood at the podium, speaking on behalf of both men.

"From the bottom of my heart, I can't tell you what this moment means to me. Coach Bryant took an 18-year-old kid and he developed him into a young man. I've said many times before, everything professionally that happens to me was because of Coach Bryant. I don't know what he saw in me. He saw some things in me that I didn't see in myself. I miss him every day.

"In my 24 years coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line, the things that I coached was the things that I learned right here at Alabama. I'm indebted to this great institution for the rest of my life."


Mitchell and Jackson did the honors of unveiling the plaque, something Mitchell took time to really take in and appreciate where he had been and the road he traveled.

"It was a moment I will never forget," said Mitchell. "It was very touching. You grow up a little Black kid from south Alabama and these are things you never dream of. So today was very special for me and my family. And it was very special to stand next to Wilbur Jackson. This weekend has been more than I could ever dream of, more than I ever expected."

Mitchell said it was his time at Alabama, which also included being a part of Bryant's coaching staff, that paved the way for where he is today, something he always shared with his Steelers' players.

"I would tell my players that the things we're going to do here are not things John Mitchell thought about when he was lying in bed," said Mitchell. "These are things that were taught to me when I was at the University of Alabama. We had a lot of success. If you believe in them and work hard, you'll have success."