In Memoriam: Jim Brown
It is a rare find when a human is so naturally gifted in so many different ventures. As humans, we yearn for the chance to be truly special at just one trade that could make us stand out in the crowd. to have the ability that everything we touch turns to gold is often a pipe dream. So when we see someone with that sort of opportunity, we are often left in wonder at what that person will achieve. Jim Brown was that person.
Born in the tourist trap Saint Simons Island, Georgia on February 17, 1936 to a professional boxer and a homemaker, little was expected of young Brown. However, he was able to manage a scholarship to the prestigious Manhasset Secondary School in Long Island where he would blossom as an athlete. In his years as a prep superstar, Jim Brown starred in football, lacrosse, baseball, basketball and track. He even managed to set a Long Island record by averaging 38 points per game in basketball. That record would eventually be broken by Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski.
He caught the eye of Syracuse's Ben Schwartzwalder who instantly saw greatness in the young fullback. In his three years on the varsity, Jim Brown took the college world by storm. As a senior, he averaged 6.2 yards per carry, was unanimously named an All-American and surprisingly placed fifth in the Heisman Trophy vote, losing to Paul Hornung, the quarterback (and eventual NFL legend) for a losing squad at Notre Dame. By the time he graduated, the school had already picked his successor.
In just four years, Ernie Davis would become the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, all the while wearing Jim Brown's famed number 44. Floyd Little would soon follow as well, bearing the familiar number while dashing through helpless defenses on his way to both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. And it all began with Jim Brown paving the way.
It seemed fitting that Jim Brown was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1957 and he quickly blossomed in coach Paul Brown's system, picking up his first of three league MVP awards that very year and the year after. Not only was he a force on the football field, he used his mind as well as he utilized his body. time after time, opponents would watch him slowly get up after another bruising tackle, convinced that he was hurt, only to be embarrassed on the next play as he either bowled them over or made them look ridiculous with a nifty juke or a sudden burst of speed. The great fullback often said that he was just conserving energy, there was no need to immediately bounce back up and scurry to the next play.
In his nine years as a Brown, Jim Brown was invited to the Pro Bowl each year and led the league in rushing eight times. But his greatness alone couldn't bring Cleveland another championship. He was forced to be patient as Paul Brown's system and attitude eventually cost him his team.
As a result, Jim Brown had to grow as both a player and as an individual. In 1963, he set a league record, rushing for 1,863 yards in just 14 games. That record would stand until O.J. Simpson eclipsed 2,000 yards in 1973. But it wasn't until the following year that Brown and the Browns won the NFL championship. Just one year later, after earning his third NFL MVP Award with 1,544 yards and 21 total touchdowns, Jim Brown abruptly retired. At that point in his life, he didn't need football. He knew that he was going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (inducted in 1971) and already held every record that he could possibly aspire to hold. There was nothing else for him to achieve on the gridiron.
The cause of the sudden retirement was a bit unusual. During the 1966 training camp, Brown was in London filming The Dirty Dozen. When Browns owner Art Modell requested his presence, Brown refused and balked at the hefty fine Modell threatened. So at the youthful age of 29, Jim Brown retired at the top of his game, having already set many league rushing records and resting comfortably at a 5.2 yards per carry lifetime average.
In the coming decades, Jim Brown would appear in many movies including 100 Rifles, Any Given Sunday and Draft Day. He made history in 100 Rifles when he was featured in one of the first interracial love scenes in cinema history with Raquel Welch. Over the course of his 53 acting credits, Brown became known as one of Hollywood's first Black action heroes.
Not only was Jim Brown widely known for his gridiron greatness and better-than-average acting skills, he was also known for being active in the activism of the era. When Muhammad Ali had his title belt taken from him after refusing to participate in the Vietnam War, it was Jim Brown who gathered the other Black superstars of the era to listen and support the iconic boxer in his time of need. Known as the Cleveland Summit, it became a bit of a rallying cry for further activism in a critical time in America's complicated history with race.
While he was in the throes of Hollywood stardom, Jim Brown founded Amer-I-Can, a foundation that serves at-risk youth in underserved schools and juvenile detention centers. Since its founding in 1988, Amer-I-Can has helped a slew of youth as well as gang members willing to make a life change.
Jim Brown passed away in his home in Los Angeles on May 18, 2023 at the ripe old age of 87.