James Nathaniel Brown, better known as Jim Brown is a legend. That much is not in doubt. Born on February 17th 1936 in St. Simons Island, Georgia. Mr. Brown was a four-sport player where in two of them, he was not only All American, but he is arguably one of the best if not the best player to have played the game(s). These were football where he was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1971 and lacrosse, where he was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1984. To further show how much of a legend he was, the NCAA, on its website, names him as the only man enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. This was back in 1995.
The making of a legend
Jim Brown, who passed away peacefully on May 18th 2023 at his Los Angeles home with his wife by his side, started his career in sports at Manhasset High School after he had left St. Simons Island to join his mother in the Manhasset-Great Neck area where she worked as a maid. It was here that he was noticed by Ed Walsh who taught him to play with the help of quarterback Bob Brink. He credits Mr. Walsh with being his mentor as well as his surrogate father as his real father was not around.
He received 40 scholarship offers but he decided to join Syracuse University in 1953 where his career continued to blossom after initial setbacks. His football coach attacked his talent and told him he could not run. So vicious was the criticism that he believed it and he quit school. It was the Manhasset Superintendent of schools Mr. Raymond Collins who went and convinced him to continue. He did and got his breakthrough when injuries thinned the Syracuse backfield and he never looked back.
He played basketball, lacrosse, track and football. He was a dominant figure in football and lacrosse. Many in lacrosse consider him to be the greatest player ever to play, the game but it is in football where he made a name for himself. He started his NFL career in 1957 and played until 1965. Considering the kind of things he did for the sport and the kind of records he made, many people regard him as the best running back of all time. He did not get to play double digit years as some of the NFL greats. But he carved out a name that is spoken about from 1957 to date. Unlike many athletes, he played for only one team in his entire 9-year career. And unlike many, he left at the height of his career where he was its most valuable, most famous as well as the best player.
His prowess in the sport is seen in how during those 9 glorious years he played, he never missed a game. He was a 3-time AP NFL MVP, which is the most by a non-quarterback in NFL history. He was also a 9-time pro-bowler and his number was retired by Cleveland Browns and Syracuse as is done to the greats as a sign of respect and to honor them.
Jim Brown famously quit playing football while he was at the top of his game and at the top of his sport. As quoted by LA Times, he said “I want more mental stimulation than I would have playing football. I want to have a hand in the struggle that is taking place in our country, and I have the opportunity to do that now. I might not a year from now.” Before this, he had formed the Black Economic Union, a group that sought to advance economic equity for black people.
As he ventured into a 50-year acting career, he started with the Dirty Dozen in 1966. He was one of the pioneers in breaking the racial stereotypes in Hollywood. When he was termed as the black John Wayne, he concurred by saying “I could ride horses, shoot guns, rip the blouse off the girl, and mastermind the heist.” His movie career nosedived in the 1970s as his remarks became controversial in Hollywood and as he faced accusations of assault on women. However, he bounced back in the 1980s. His first leading role was in “The Split” in 1968. He was involved in one of the first interracial love scenes and the first in a major Hollywood production, in the movie “100 Rifles”. The love scene was with Raquel Welch and he was billed over Welch and co star Burt Reynolds. In 1987, he appeared opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie “The Running Man”. His last filmography includes 2005’s “Animal”, 2014’s “Draft Day” and 2019’s “The Black Godfather” which is a documentary where he appeared as himself.
As mentioned earlier, he had formed a Black Economic Union with some notable sportsmen being members. These included the great boxer Muhammad Ali as well as basketballers Bill Russell and Abdul Kareem Jabar.
With these same notable figures, he famously came to the public support of Muhammad Ali when he protested the Vietnam War and he refused to be drafted. This meeting was dubbed as “The Cleveland Summit”. In an interview aired by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he is quoted as saying that “….if we believed in him and trusted him, we could then back him up, at the risk of whatever we had to take, in other words we knew it was a great risk and then in my office in Cleveland in the back room we all got together for about five hours, and he thanked us for being there with him we agreed that we would fully support his particular stance and give him that public support”. He also supported Ali in a famous televised debate on segregation that he had with the then Georgia Governor Lester Maddox on The Dick Cavett Show.
His activism extended to his launch of a foundation, Amer-I-Can Foundation for social change. He launched it in 1988 and it is active to date. The Amer-I-Can Program’s 15-chapter life skills curriculum helps individuals meet their academic potential, conform to societal standards, and contribute to society. He also championed a truce between gangs and he believed that his foundation had grown and could continue even in his absence.
Mr. Brown was a famous person who used his platform to advocate for change, speaking out against racism and access to economic opportunity when it was not easy or fashionable to do so. Unknown to many, he was an eloquent, articulate and outspoken debater especially on social activism matters.
Of the many accusations and assault allegations, he was only convicted two times as many were dropped. One stemmed from misdemeanor battery of Frank Snow, his golfing partner in 1975 (he was sentenced to 1 day in jail, a 2 year probation and paid a $500 fine) and vandalizing his wife’s car in 1999 (he was sentenced to jail for 6 months in 2000 but served 3 months in 2002 after he refused to meet the terms of his release which were a 3 year probation, 1 year of domestic counselling and 400 hours of community service).
Jim Brown married Sue Brown in 1959 before divorcing in 1968 (finalized in 1972). They had 3 children. He later married Monique Brown in 1997 and they had 2 children.
As far as transcendent legends go, Jim Brown is up there with the very best. He came. He saw. He conquered.
Amer-I-Can Foundation. (n.d.). About Amer-I-Can . Retrieved from amer-i-cancommunity.partners: https://amer-i-cancommunity.partners/about-amer-i-can/
Bell, J. (2023, May 19). Jim Brown, NFL legend and Hall of Famer, dies at 87. Retrieved from USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/browns/2023/05/19/jim-brown-nfl-legend-cleveland-browns-dies/70237329007/
CBS Evening News. (2023, May 19). Football legend Jim Brown dies at 87. Retrieved from youtube.com: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2e6o1zfs_WI
CBS Sports. (2023, May 19). Jim Brown, one of the NFL’s all-time greatest players and a social activist, dies at 87 | CBS Sports. Retrieved from youtube.com: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7aTTWFUznuY
Cleveland Browns. (2023, May 19). Remembering Jim Brown. Retrieved from youtube.com: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeayv2QhFgs
Cleveland Browns. (2023, May 19). The Ultimate Brown: A timeline of Jim Brown’s life. Retrieved from clevelandbrowns.com: https://www.clevelandbrowns.com/news/jim-brown-life-timeline#:~:text=Dec.%2029%2C%201957%20%2D%20Brown’s,the%20AP%20and%20Sporting%20News.
Encyclopedia.com. (n.d.). Brown, James Nathaniel (“Jim”). Retrieved from encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/brown-james-nathaniel-jim
Kupper, M. (2023, May 19). Jim Brown, football great, actor and civil rights activist, dies. Retrieved from latimes.com: https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2023-05-19/jim-brown-football-actor-civil-rights-activist-dead
NCAA. (2023, May 19). Jim Brown, Syracuse football and lacrosse star turned NFL legend, passes away. Retrieved from ncaa.com: https://www.ncaa.com/news/football/article/2023-05-19/jim-brown-syracuse-football-and-lacrosse-star-turned-nfl-legend-passes-away#:~:text=The%20National%20Lacrosse%20Hall%20of,43%20goals%20in%2010%20games).
PBS NewsHour. (2023, May 20). A look at Jim Brown’s life and legacy as a football great and activist. Retrieved from youtube.com: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQ4w2uWWNKE
Pro Football Hall of Fame. (2023, May 19). Football’s ‘greatest player,’ Hall of Famer Jim Brown: 1934-2023. Retrieved from youtube.com: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ak4FI7fLE8
The Dick Cavett Show. (2019, February 20). Lester Maddox and Jim Brown Get Into Heated Debate on Segregation | The Dick Cavett Show. Retrieved from youtube.com: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAMWsWvcbtg
Vecsey, G. (2013, April 30). Jim Brown, Still a Hometown Hero. Retrieved from nytimes.com: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/01/sports/football/nfl-great-jim-brown-returns-to-manhasset-still-a-hometown-hero.html
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Jim Brown. Retrieved from wikipedia.com: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Brown#Assault_allegations
Withers, T. (2023, May 19). Jim Brown, all-time NFL great and social activist, dead at 87. Retrieved from apnews.com: https://apnews.com/article/nfl-jim-brown-03d88c7da08840a0921ae8d8dd0a6aaa