Jim Brown’S Life And Legacy Was Celebrated In A Fitting Tribute

Jim Brown’s life and legacy was celebrated in a fitting tribute

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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.


It took an extraordinary effort to celebrate an extraordinary man, Jim Brown, and his extraordinary life. And the Browns, the NFL, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Monique Brown and Jim’s family pulled it off.

Emceed flawlessly by NBC’s Mike Tirico, the 90-minute, multi-media program, with a live musical interlude by R&B artist Johnny Gill, divided Brown’s life into six chapters, each presented by a different speaker whose life was indelibly touched by Brown in his 87 years. Brown died on May 18.

Though the Cleveland Browns have other tributes planned to memorialize the greatest player in their history, the elaborate “Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Jim Brown” fittingly was staged in a symphony hall on the campus of the birthplace of the NFL, with dozens of Hall of Famers, former teammates and Browns’ alums, present Browns, Commissioner Roger Goodell, and comedian Dave Chappelle in attendance.

Among the Hall of Famers present were Paul Warfield, Warren Moon, Anthony Munoz, Tony Dorsett, Mean Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Bill Cowher, Jerome Bettis, Class of 2023 inductee Joe Thomas, and many others.

Tirico warmed up the rapt, invitation-only audience with fascinating facts about Brown’s athletic career – such as he threw two no-hitters in Yankee Stadium in high school and averaged 38 points a game for his high school basketball team – before introducing the six chapters of Brown’s life. Each chapter included a short video preceding its speaker.

Chapter 1, Brown’s dominance as a player and a person. Presented by Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.

Haslam told the story of bringing Brown back into the franchise’s fold after buying the team in 2012 and getting to know him and Monique over the years.

Haslam said what particularly struck him about Brown was his love for the Cleveland Browns and the city of Cleveland even though he always maintained his residence in southern California, his rare blend of special confidence” while maintaining humility, and his “supreme ability to bring people together.” 

The last attribute was a theme emphasized by every speaker.

Dozens of Hall of Famers, former and present Browns, and NFL officials turn out to celebrate Jim Brown's life and legacy. (TheLandOnDemand)



Chapter 2, Brown’s passion to help gang members turn around their lives through his Amer-I-Can Program. Presented by Rudolph “Rock” Johnson.

Johnson’s riveting story as a “predator” gang member started with him in state prison at age 16, being called to Brown’s home and arriving with a .357 magnum tucked under his shirt, and Brown convincing him to “be better” and rescuing him from a life of crime.

“I don’t know my biological father,” Johnson said. “Knowing Jim and dealing with Jim for over 31 years, he is the reason I am free today and why I’m alive. Without him I would be dead or in jail for the rest of my life.”

The climax of his story involved the revelation of losing his 15-year-old daughter in 1998 in a gang shooting and Brown talking Johnson out of seeking revenge.

Johnson, 60, now runs Brown’s Amer-I-Can Foundation for social change. “That program taught me I am not cursed at birth but I am somebody,” he said.

Chapter 3, Brown as a black role model. Presented by Ray Lewis.

Lewis related his interactions with Brown starting with the 2000 Super Bowl won by the Baltimore Ravens, where Brown, then 64, jabbed Lewis, “Man, you don’t want none of this.”

“Jim Brown had a vision that every man is equal regardless of his economics, regardless of his skin color, regardless of where he comes from. Jim Brown took authority. You didn’t have to give him authority. He took that,” Lewis said. “Jim Brown was a walking god, an angel that God empowered."

“I’ve never met a greater person. I called him Papa,” Lewis continued. “He became fathers to the fatherless. He gave hope where there was no hope. This man committed his life to this. And now it’s our turn.”

Lewis said in his last conversation with Brown, who was using a walker, his humor was still intact. “He said, ‘If I put this walker down, I still don’t think you can stop me from getting a yard.’”

Chapter 4, Brown as a trailblazing actor. Presented by Bob Arum.

Arum, 91, disclosed it was Brown who introduced him to Muhammad Ali in 1965 and launched his career as a long-time boxing promoter and founder and CEO of Top Rank.

Within a month of announcing Ali’s first fight, Ali’s draft status was reclassified and Ali declined to report to the Army and fight in the Vietnam War. Negotiations between Arum and President Lyndon Johnson resulted in a deal that would allow Ali to continue his boxing career as a member of the Army.

But Ali still opposed the war and would not accept it. Brown gathered the top professional black athletes in the country in Cleveland, which came to be known as the Cleveland Summit, to convince Ali to take the deal. Ali still wouldn’t budge and he was banned from boxing for 3 ½ years.

After he came back, Arum founded Top Rank and became a driving force in boxing. He attributed it all to Jim Brown.

“Jim had the idea, so simple, that all people should have the opportunity to succeed in this economy,” Arum said. “He established the organization that led to offices all over the country. Because unless Americans realize that if we didn’t integrate the economic viability of everybody in the United States, we would fail as a country. Now we haven’t done it completely, but thanks to Jim Brown it is now something that we can see happening.”

Chapter 5, Brown as a fighter for dignity and respect. Presented by John Wooten.

Wooten, Brown’s closest friend and teammate, described Brown’s vision.

He said, “Woot, we’re not going to march. We’re not going to be on the citizens. But we got into the fight. The fight is an economic and an education thing. Human dignity is what all this is about. Respect everyone is what we have to have.”

Wooten called on all athletes to be involved in community. He asked Ray Lewis to stand and announced, “This is the man Jim chose to be the next leader of athletes.”

Wooten acknowledged Goodell and said, “This is the new leader that we want.”

Chapter 6, Brown as a man dedicated to service. Presented by Monique Brown.

Monique referred to Jim as “an underdog” who grew up an only child without a father.

She said he was taught dignity and pride by an elderly African-American man in St. Simons Island, GA. When he moved to join his mom in Manhasset, Long Island, a community of businessmen paid for his education at Syracuse University.

“By all the odds he should have failed. He didn’t have a father, went to Syracuse University and they told him he wasn’t good enough to play, didn’t have a scholarship,” Monique said.

“When I think of all the people he’s brought together, we’ve only seen a piece of it today, he was really a catalyst for change. Because he understood what it was like to not have a father.”

After Monique spoke, she was presented a plaque from Cap Fendig, Glynn County (GA) Commissioner, who announced the county will fund-raise to complete a pet project of Brown in establishing a home for young and elderly people needing hope and training on property he owns in St. Simons Island to carry on the vision of Jim Brown.