Jim Brown was the greatest NFL player ever. But that was just the beginning of his lasting legacy. (Associated Press)
Jim Brown’s complicated life was always relevant
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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.
When a person 87 years old dies, it shouldn’t come as a shock. But when his family released the news on Friday that Jim Brown had died, it rocked not only the sporting world but all the levels of society he impacted in his amazing, controversial and flawed life.
“It’s almost, you can’t believe this has happened,” John Wooten, Brown’s former teammate and one of his lifetime best friends, said to me on Sunday. “You start reflecting on how all of this was.”
As a professional football player, Jim Brown was indestructible – inarguably the best running back and arguably the best player ever. As an activist for social justice and race relations, he was everlasting, relevant for over 50 years.
After he retired from football at the age of 29 to pursue an acting career, he dominated that world just as he did football, crashing barriers in the motion picture industry. Author Mike Freeman dubbed him the first black action hero. He also was the first black man to share an intimate scene with a white woman in a movie.
He brokered the historic Cleveland Summit in 1967, enlisting the nation’s most prominent black athletes in a show of support for Muhammad Ali, who refused to be drafted in protest of the Vietnam War and was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title.
Well into his 70s, Brown was negotiating truces among gangs in southern California, mentoring convicts in prisons, and devising help programs for disadvantage school kids through his Amer-I-Can program.
Brown’s lifetime resume includes several incidents of alleged domestic violence against women, at least six arrests and a six-month jail sentence after he declined to attend domestic counseling and do community service for smashing his wife’s car with a shovel and allegedly threatening her.
“He just wished he had done things different in his lifetime,” Wooten said. “We’ve all made mistakes. Some of those mistakes have been very hurtful.”
Brown intersected the most prominent figures in Cleveland Browns history, from Paul Brown to Art Modell to Bill Belichick. He feuded with his first coach, buddied up to the young owner who fired Brown and then supported Modell’s move of the franchise to Baltimore, and ultimately befriended and became a close confidante of Belichick long after he was fired by Modell.
When former owner Randy Lerner gave Brown a salaried position in the organization reborn after expansion, Brown eventually sparred with team president Mike Holmgren and boycotted the franchise’s inaugural Ring of Honor ceremony.
The most prominent living alum of the Browns franchise was often a thorn in its side.
Dominant on the football field
My lasting image of Jim Brown as a player is the first image of Cleveland Browns football I can remember.
My father, brother and me are sitting in our living room watching a Browns game on black-and-white TV. It could have been 1963 or 1964. Brown is pulverizing tacklers, knocking them down as he accelerates through them. Often he would carry one or more on his back while running for extra yards.
“Look at him,” my dad exclaims. “He’s an animal. They can’t stop him.”
Brown played football that way for nine seasons. He never missed a game and led the NFL in rushing in eight of those seasons. He didn’t just lead the league in rushing; he dominated his position like Babe Ruth did in home runs in the 1920s. Brown outpaced the next-best running back by more than 670 yards in three of those eight seasons.
He is the only running back in NFL history to average more than 100 yards per game (104.3) in his career. He won the Associated Press MVP award three times; no other non-quarterback won it more than once.
In 1965, his ninth and final year, Brown led the NFL with 1,544 yards when it was a 14-game season. The next-highest figure belonged to rookie Gale Sayers, who had 867.
Brown walked away at the age of 29 to pursue a career in motion pictures when Modell threatened to fine him for missing training camp when shooting of the movie “The Dirty Dozen” was delayed in London.
Throughout his life, Brown was unceasingly outspoken.
“Exactly right,” Wooten said with a chuckle. “That’s why he and Paul [Brown] didn’t get along. Paul was used to running the show himself. Jim felt, ‘Hey, I’m the one that has to run this ball, we need to change this to that,’ and Paul said, ‘Only one Brown runs this team and his first name is Paul.’ That created a rift right there.”
Brown owned whatever room he entered. He was imposing and intimidating. But in my interactions with him after he returned to the Browns organization, he was always accommodating, accessible and candid.
In 2006, I sat down with Brown in a small office in the Browns’ headquarters in Berea. He was 70 years old. We talked for an hour. I felt I could ask him anything. He answered everything and enjoyed the conversation.
“Why are you still relevant?” I asked.
“People tend to remain relevant if they have an interest in people,” he said. “If you have an interest in people, you're going to be dealing with a lot of events and you'll be a part of the fabric of what's going on. If I look back on my life, I've always been involved in the social fabric. You stay relevant and what you try to do is make a contribution.”
“What’s important to you at this stage of your life?”
“I've always said this and it's really true,” he answered. “In the years that I have left I want to serve. I want to have input in other lives as much as possible and on every level and any level. It's the most enjoyable thing that can happen.”
He bemoaned the lack of leadership and activism from leading black athletes at that time.
“The guys today are not as educated as the guys of the past,” Brown said. “Most of my teammates graduated from college, John Wooten and those guys. And we were a part of the civil rights movement and conscientious every day of things other than playing. Therefore, we were like the students at Kent State and Berkley. Kids at that time were very aware of the social situation. They gave up careers for black freedom, equality and justice. That era was an era of political consciousness. This era is an era of money and buffoonery and fooling around.”
He called Muhammad Ali “a great, great contradiction.”
“There's two of them,” he said. “One was before he was stripped of his title, the other was after he came back. Two different guys. One hated by America, one loved by America. The one before they stripped his title from them, he was broke, he was pure in his beliefs, really like all human beings, part of Nation of Islam, but they couldn't control him, and really loved people and was not afraid. Took tremendous chances. Money and his title didn't mean a doggone thing based upon his principles. That was the one I liked. Really respected.
"The other one I respected, but when he came back he had to compromise to get back into boxing to make a living. He didn't have any money. Joe Frazier did loan him money. And he came back a different guy, and then America started loving this guy. And it was understandable. They took away his ability to make a living. A lot of people kind of forgot about him [when he was out of boxing]. He made a deal to get back into boxing and he was a different guy. Both of them loved people, though.”
He admitted he underestimated the hurt Modell inflicted on fans by moving the franchise to Baltimore in 1996. It took him 10 years to realize it.
“About a month ago for the first time I realized what Art did to Cleveland,” Brown said. “I was just laying down and I thought of the fans. And then, the Baltimore game, when the team started to make big plays ... and the people erupted and the stadium was alive and they loved it. It made me recognize what he took away from the city. And I never felt it that way before. I was analytical and all of that, but I forgot about the heart. And that's all the fans had. And so whatever the problem was, for the first time I realized that Art let the people down to save himself. It just came to me truthfully. It was the first time I understood it.”
Of his outspokenness, Brown said, “I think people misunderstand my actions and my moves and sometimes my conversation because they don't recognize that I'm a part of education and I'm an educated person, so I rely upon facts and I study things. So sometimes my opinions are contrary to common belief. So I don't fit into the boxes. So it makes people sometimes uncomfortable because I don't fit into the boxes.”
On his history of domestic violence, he said, “I would consider the things that I did a weakness. There's things I did and things I didn't do, but all that is lumped together. The things I did are a weakness because what I found out is this: being right, taking revenge, all that stuff is a waste of time. When you really have some wisdom or become wise you realize that there's nothing that should ever allow you to become aggressive or violent or seeking revenge or trying to prove yourself or losing control of your emotions. So if someone allows someone to make you lose control of your emotions, it's a weakness in your character.”
Wooten said the greatest tribute to Brown was paid by LeBron James.
On Friday, James wrote on his Instagram account: "We lost a hero today. Rest in Paradise to the legend Jim Brown. I hope every Black athlete takes the time to educate themselves about this incredible man and what he did to change all of our lives. We all stand on your shoulders, Jim Brown."
“That’s what’s important,” Wooten said. “What have you done to help others? Youngsters need to hear that."
“Let me tell you," Wooten exclaimed, "I sat on the edge of the bed the other night and I can’t fathom not talking to him or sending him an email. We bounced so many things off of him because he paved the way for what we’re trying to do.”