As the years pass, the subset of fans who witnessed the Bucknell gridiron stars of the 1960s play in person grows smaller. For the younger followers, many of those legends are known merely as photos in a yearbook, or names that litter the records section of the media guide. We lost one of those all-time talents – perhaps the most legendary of the legends – to cancer back in July. For those of us not fortunate enough to see Bucknell’s greatest pass receiver with our own eyes, let’s look back at the greatness of Tom Mitchell ‘66.
“Tom was the master of everything,” says fellow Bucknell Athletics Hall-of-Famer Bobby Marks ’67, the standout Bison quarterback who was on the giving end for many of Mitchell’s 173 career receptions. “It didn’t matter what it was, he was the best at it. He was the best ping-pong player. He was the best at Whales Tales. He even dated and later married the sharpest, prettiest girl at Bucknell, Ella Weeks, who was the captain of the cheerleading team.”
In his three varsity seasons from 1963-65, Mitchell totaled 2,358 receiving yards, and 18 of his 173 catches went for touchdowns. He graduated with every Bucknell receiving record for a single game, season and career. He still holds the marks for receptions (13 vs. Harvard) and receiving yards (264 vs. Temple) in a game, and remarkably his career marks held up until Will Carter eclipsed them last season – 51 years later – even though Mitchell played in an era with nine-game seasons and freshman ineligibility.
A 6’3”, 225-pounder from Conshohocken, Pa., Mitchell was a nimble but bruising, physical end. He was so physical on Saturdays that he rarely practiced on Mondays and Tuesdays because he was in the whirlpool working out the last of the knots and bruises. But even though his athleticism gave him a head start, Marks remembers that it was his route-running and football sense that made him one of the elite players in the country.
“He always got open, and he always wanted the ball,” says Marks. “Assistant coach Rod Oberlin was a guy who many of us thought was the sharpest coach on the staff, and Rod always said that Tom ran special routes. He would line up everywhere – slot, fullback, tight end, end – it didn’t matter. The other team tried everything they could to stop him, and he was always open anyway.”
“I personally feel that Tom is, without a doubt, one of the finest offensive ends on the East Coast,” Temple head coach George Makris said after Mitchell torched his Owls for 162 yards in a 31-28 Bucknell victory on Halloween in 1964. Knowing he needed to focus on stopping the Bucknell star when the teams met again the following year, all Mitchell did was set the single-game record with 264 yards in a 40-14 Bison rout.
Mitchell’s Bucknell teams combined for a 19-8 record during his career. They won the Lambert Cup as the top team in the East in coach Bob Odell’s final season in 1964 and the Middle Atlantic Conference title in coach Carroll Huntress’s first season in 1965.
Mitchell is as decorated as any Bucknell football player in history. He was twice an Associated Press First Team Little All-American. He was named the MAC Player of the Year and twice the ECAC Player of the Year. He even made the overall All-East Team, which included players from the “major conference” schools. He became the first Bucknell player to participate in the Senior Bowl, and he was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the third round of the American Football League collegiate draft.
“Tom had a pretty good Spring of ’66,” says Marks with a laugh. “He got drafted by the Raiders, then he bought a honeymoon in Hawaii and a Thunderbird car. That’s not bad.”
After all the records and awards at Bucknell, many wondered what kind of pro he would become. He caught 23 passes for 301 yards as a rookie with Oakland, but was released the following season. He spent the 1967 campaign on the Baltimore Colts’ taxi squad, made the roster in 1968, and went on to enjoy six terrific seasons in Charm City.
Mitchell played in two Super Bowls with the Colts, first losing to Broadway Joe Namath and the upstart New York Jets in 1969 before bouncing back to beat the Dallas Cowboys two years later in Super Bowl V. Sharing time at tight end with the Colts Hall-of-Famer John Mackey, Mitchell caught 133 passes for 1,786 yards and 19 touchdowns with Baltimore. He was voted team co-captain in 1973.
One of Mitchell’s teammates on those great Colts teams was another Bucknell graduate in Hall-of-Famer Sam Havrilak ’69. Havrilak was a freshman when Mitchell was a senior, so the two were not especially close at Bucknell, but they became good friends and even roommates during their days together in the NFL. Among all of his buddy’s attributes, Havrilak remembers Mitchell’s toughness.
“Tom was the toughest guy I’ve ever met on the football field,” says Havrilak. “He got in more than a few fights in practice, including a few with Mike Curtis, who was known as one of the meanest, toughest guys in the league. Tom wouldn’t back down from anyone. He was quiet but competitive. I played defensive back, and I couldn’t guard the guy.”
“A lot of people forget when he was in Oakland he beat out Billy Cannon, who was a Heisman Trophy winner. In Baltimore he eventually beat out the great John Mackey and started for the Colts. And then at the end of his career when he went to San Francisco, he beat out Ted Kwalick, who was an All-Pro player. That’s how good Tom Mitchell was.”
The Colts began a rebuilding process in 1974 and traded away many of their veteran players. As part of the purge, Mitchell was traded to the 49ers, where he played for four more seasons before retiring after his 11th pro campaign. All told, he caught 239 passes for 3,181 yards and 24 touchdowns. He added another nine catches, including a touchdown against the Vikings in the lead-up to Super Bowl III, in eight career playoff games in Baltimore.
The Bucknell Athletics Hall of Fame was founded in 1979. When deciding on whom to induct in that very first class, the committee had nearly 100 years of Bucknell sports history to dissect. They settled on representatives from the Classes of 1892 (Andrew Wyant), 1902 (Christy Mathewson), 1904 (Moose McCormick), 1918 (Malcolm Musser), 1923 (Arda Bowser), 1930 (Lefty James), 1932 (Clarke Hinkle), 1934 (Eddie “Speed” Myers), 1945 (Bill Lane) … and the youngster of the group, Tom Mitchell from the Class of 1966. His accomplishments rivaled a century’s worth of stars in Bucknell annals.
When Mitchell passed away this summer, he was survived by Patricia, his second wife of 22 years, along with a son and three daughters. One of those daughters, Christy, married Bucknell graduate and noted college and pro head coach Greg Schiano. Their son, Joe, is currently a junior on the Bison football squad, meaning the Mitchell bloodline is still in the program today.
The late Bob Odell, just after he departed Bucknell to coach at Penn, perhaps best summed up Tom Mitchell the football player: “Tom Mitchell could play for anyone.”
And his legacy at Bucknell will stand the test of time.
This feature story originally ran in the program for Bucknell's game against Marist on Sept. 2, 2017.