Some 30 years after his retirement from professional football, Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown still ranks among the very best running backs in the game's history As a member of the Cleveland Browns from 1957 until 1966, Brown made a mockery of his opponents, scoring a record-setting 126 touchdowns and leading the league in yards gained for eight of his nine seasons A combination of speed, intelligence, and sheer strength, enabled Brown to set 15 National Football League (NFL) records Sports Illustrated attested that Brown "dominated pro football like no player ever had It is possible that had he continued to play, he would have put all the league's rushing records so far out of reach that they would have been only a distant dream--like [New York Yankees baseball player] Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak--to the runners who followed him"
Brown is one of the first professional football players to parlay his gridiron fame into notable off-the-field accomplishments Since retiring from sports he has devoted his energies to other projects, becoming an actor and a social activist.
Brown has founded and run several well-known community programs aimed specifically at improving economic opportunities for American minorities His latest enterprise is Amer-I-Can--its name emphasizing the "I Can"-- a project aimed at fostering self-esteem and diffusing tensions among urban gang members Brown has created a 15-step course in personal responsibility that he has introduced everywhere from maximum-security prisons to encounter sessions in his own Hollywood living room
Part of Brown's success in these ventures has rested on his image as a hard-working football player who never forgot the pressing issues of the black community despite his fame and fortune Brown's own life is an illustration of his philosophy that economic development is the best strategy for success in the United States Said Los Angeles Times columnist Mike Downey, "Brown doesn't offer gang members dispassionate advice to be better citizens, to be cool, to go out and get decent jobs He gives them a way Brown doesn't counsel prison inmates to get themselves straightened out, to lead more productive lives He shows them how He does something.
In 1936, James Nathaniel Brown was born on St Simons Island, off the coast of Georgia His father, who had been a professional boxer, left the family when Jim was still an infant For the first seven years of his life, Brown was raised by his great-grandmother on the island His mother, Theresa, had moved north to Long Island, New York, where she found work as a housekeeper Eventually Brown joined her there, undergoing a sort of culture shock in his new surroundings He told Newsday that on his first morning at Manhasset Valley grade school he got into a fight "My mother had dressed me in new clothes," he remembered "That morning when they gave us recess, a black boy made a wisecrack, said I looked `pretty,' and he shoved me I reacted Georgia-style.
I tackled him, pinned him with my knees, punched him The closed circle of kids watching then started chanting, `Dirty fighter, dirty fighter' I stopped fighting I was mystified How did these boys fight up here?"
Circumstances improved for Brown when he found his way onto sports teams He was a natural athlete who excelled at virtually every game, from baseball and football to lacrosse and track events A policeman named Jack Peploe encouraged Brown to join the Manhasset Police Boys' Club and even gave Brown the keys to the high school gym so he could open it for Boys' Club games
As early as his freshman year of high school, Brown was grabbing the attention of local coaches Ed Walsh, who ran the Manhasset High School football program, recruited Brown and pushed him to work on his already formidable skills Walsh told Newsday that Brown "probably had more drive to succeed of anybody I have ever coached.
Whatever he did, he wanted to do better than anybody else"
With Brown's talent and leadership, Manhasset High became a powerhouse in football, baseball, and lacrosse The students at the school were so impressed with their star athlete that they elected him chief justice of the high school court Even so, Brown admits that he did indulge in a bit of minor gang activity as a teenager-- chiefly breaking in on rival parties and fighting occasionally This mischief, however, did not impinge on his athletic career or his academic potential During most of his high school years he was a member of the honor society for scholastic achievement "I was a poor kid from a broken home," he told Newsday, "but I was not insecure, because where there is love there cannot be insecurity"
Brown was recruited by 45 colleges and universities He chose New York's Syracuse University at the prompting of a friend, attorney Ken Molloy Unbeknownst to Brown, Molloy had canvassed Manhasset businessmen for funds to pay Brown's tuition until the young man could earn a full athletic scholarship.
That proved more difficult than anyone had anticipated when, as a freshman at Syracuse, Brown was passed over for less talented white players in basketball and football As a sophomore, he was benched in football until a timely injury to another player opened a place for him on the offense Once he found his way into a game, he plowed down the opposition so forcefully that the fans began to chant his name He became a starter after that, ultimately earning ten varsity letters as a Syracuse Orangeman--three each in football and lacrosse and two each in basketball and track With only a slight knowledge of the various events, he placed fifth nationally in the 1956 decathlon competition and qualified to attend the Olympic Games
Brown did not go to the 1956 Olympics, however, choosing instead to concentrate on football During his senior year at Syracuse, his team qualified for the prestigious Cotton Bowl, where they lost 28-27 to Texas Christian University Brown, who scored 21 points in that game, was later named to the 1957 College All-Stars When he graduated in the spring of 1957, he had gained 2,091 yards and scored 187 points--including 25 touchdowns--for the Orangemen
Brown was the first-round draft choice of the Cleveland Browns in 1957.
With little fanfare, he joined the team's training camp for summer workouts While most professional football players need several years to adjust to the level of play in the NFL, Brown starting at fullback made his presence known immediately By his fifth game, he had surpassed the team record for most touchdowns scored in a single season He played a key role in Cleveland's Eastern Division championship of 1957, and with the first of his seven season-rushing records in hand, was the unanimous choice for rookie of the year In 1958, he again won the rushing title with 1,527 yards, tying the single-season touchdown record with 18
Year after year Brown continued his onslaught If teams could contain his rushing on the ground--and few could--he would catch "hail Mary," or long "bomb" passes and streak into the end zone He was voted onto every All-Pro team between 1958 and 1965, and he was named football back of the decade for 1950 to 1960 In Cleveland especially, he was hailed as a conquering hero, a superstar for a sports-obsessed city
Still, by 1962 Brown was dissatisfied with his role with Cleveland.
His response, more or less, was to lead a player revolt against the coaching of Paul Brown, who was fairly conservative in his play selection In 1963, Jim Brown prospered again, this time under replacement coach Blanton Collier Brown rewrote the record books by gaining 1,863 yards, catching 24 passes, and scoring 15 touchdowns in a single season In December of that year he visited then-President Lyndon Johnson at the White House
The era of product endorsements and athlete-actors was just dawning, and Brown was a pioneer in both respects He signed a contract with Pepsi Cola and traveled in the off-season as an executive and spokesperson for the soft drink company He also took a role in a feature film, Rio Conchos, about US Cavalry troopers in the 19th century The movie work opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for Brown.
Although he was still at the top of his form as an athlete and the highest-paid football player of his day, he actively sought film roles as a means to move away from sports
In 1966 Brown starred in the box office hit The Dirty Dozen, earning praise for his portrayal of a black man victimized but unbroken by the white world Shooting for The Dirty Dozen was repeatedly delayed, and ultimately conflicted with football training camp in 1966 It was then that Brown abruptly announced his retirement from football He was 30 years old and at the height of his game Regarding his decision to leave football, Brown told Sports Illustrated, "I quit with regret but no sorrow I've been able to do all the things I wanted to do, and now I want to devote my time to other things And I wanted more mental stimulation than I would have had playing football"
For some years after Brown retired from football he continued to win major film roles in works such as Dark of the Sun, Ice Station Zebra, and 100 Rifles The latter featured an American cinematic first, when Brown did a love scene with costar Raquel Welch, a white actress.
Brown told People that he thinks the interracial love scene and his tendency to play strong, confident characters, proved his undoing in the industry "I think Hollywood just got tired of a big ol' black Negro kissin' all their women," he said
Others, such as Gentleman's Quarterly contributor John Lombardi, claimed that highly publicized charges of battery by several women- -none of them resulting in a conviction--undermined Brown's image Lombardi wrote, "Brown's movie career was only a memory by the early eighties, his ten-year publicity contract with Pepsi-Cola went unrenewed, and he found himself hustling Celebrity Bowling tournaments on TV for $20,000 paydays"
Brown admitted in People that his numerous relationships with women led him astray for a time "I've done things I'm not particularly proud of," he said in Esquire, "but at least I'm honest enough to talk about them" When the film and television offers dried up, he founded his own production company, Ocean Productions, to encourage minority participation in movie-making.
Though that venture has not seen great success, other Jim Brown projects have not only enhanced the athlete's image, but have also brought him substantial financial reward
Brown has been no stranger to the field of public service As early as his playing days in Cleveland, he founded the Black Economic Union (BEU), which used professional athletes as facilitators in the establishment of black-run enterprises, urban athletic clubs, and youth motivation programs The BEU eventually folded, but Brown took his ideas to the Coors Golden Door program and Jobs Plus In 1986, he founded a new endeavor, Vital Issues, aimed at teaching life management skills and personal growth techniques to inner-city gang members and prison inmates By 1989, Vital Issues had evolved into Amer-I-Can
The image most often associated with Amer-I-Can is that of Brown-- aging but still powerful--surrounded by teenage gang members in various stages of the self-improvement program Brown conducts sessions of Amer-I-Can from his home in the hills above Los Angeles In 1992, Amer-I-Can won more than a million dollars in grant money to expand its programs into cities such as San Francisco and Cleveland Los Angeles Times correspondent Jesse Katz explained that Amer-I-Can, as set forth by Brown, "draws on the self-determination of ?1960s social activist? Malcolm X, the capitalism of [conservative U.
S president] Ronald Reagan and the recovery plan of Alcoholics Anonymous," adding,"At a time when police and politicians are at a loss to stem the rising tide of gang violence, Amer-I-Can is one of the hottest tickets in town"
While he may not be the only athlete to reach out to others less fortunate than himself, Brown urges his peers to do more than "make gestures" when facing society's ills As he told Stephan Garnett of Dollars & Sense, "If they [black athletes] ever united and created a capitol base and put up a pool of resources to oversee that money, they would really be doing something great" Regardless of whether or not his vision is manifested, Brown's example serves to bolster his community He suggested to Garnett that "for too long black Americans have been chasing the shadow of the rabbit It's time for us to start chasing the rabbit, not his shadow" Amer-I- Can provides one way to do so
Ultimately, Brown does not want to be seen as yet another wealthy athlete who made his way in the world through his physical ability "I was a highly paid, over-glamorized gladiator," he told the Washington Post.
"The decision-makers are the men who own, not the ones who play I was never under an illusion as to who was the boss" Brown's aim is to give a new generation the courage to succeed "The young black male is the most powerful source of energy and change we have," he told the Washington Post "My hope is to start a direction where these young men will be given respect and taught how to utilize it"
In the years since hanging up his cleats, Brown has continued to win accolades from being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971 to being named one of the most important sports figures of the preceeding 40 years by Sports Illustrated in 1994 The 12,312 yards he gained rushing stood as a record for nearly 20 years, until Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears broke it on October 7, 1984 Even more impressive, Brown's 126 career touchdowns record stood for nearly 30 years, until San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice broke it on September 5, 1994 Still, no fullback or running back has maintained Brown's average of more than 522 yards per carry.
Despite having cemented a phenomenal page in sports history, Brown told Jet magazine, "I have no trophies in my home When I lay down, I think of all the experiences I've had and the respect that I've gotten That's my glory" In Esquire he added, "My performance is still there They can try to make the numbers do tricks now, make them say something they really don't, but the other runners know who the man was I have always carried myself in a way that made people afraid to take liberties".