Jim Brown was both extraordinary and extraordinarily complicated.
A man. Many versions.
His greatness on the football field is beyond doubt. For generations, Brown, who died peacefully at his Los Angeles home Thursday night, has been the benchmark of excellence among running backs, a maddened blend of raw power and blistering speed that in many ways changed the NFL forever.
Cleveland’s No. 32 is in a class by itself.
“He’s (No.) 1,” said Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, the league’s career rushing leader. “(Walter) Payton, two. I fall at three
But there’s so much more than broken tackles and broken records for Brown, who left the game at the peak of his physical condition to pursue a film career and help break down the hurdles for black actors in Hollywood.
There’s the social activist and civil rights leader who used his platform to drive change in one of the most turbulent decades in US history.
And there’s a much less flattering personal side to Brown, who has been accused of domestic violence at a time when women’s cries for help were often completely ignored or quelled.
Despite being arrested more than half a dozen times, Brown was never convicted of a felony, as many of his accusers refused to testify or he was acquitted in court. However, these violations tarnished his image and made it difficult for even the most devoted Browns fans to support him.
As a soccer player, he was almost flawless.
An All-American at Syracuse, where he also competed in lacrosse, the six-foot-tall, 220-pound Georgia-born and Long Island-raised Brown was like nothing the NFL had ever seen when he appeared on the scene in 1957.
As a rookie, he led the league in rushing as a rookie, flattening tacklers with a deadly stiff arm, stuttering them to the mark, or simply outrunning them. He didn’t stop there.
Over the next eight seasons, Brown rushed for 12,312 yards, hit 126 touchdowns, and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Despite playing just 118 games — he’s never missed a single one — he’s still among the all-time leaders in his career for average (3rd), rushing TDs (6th), and rushing yards (11th).
But perhaps more significantly, Brown, who hit a career-best 1,863 yards in 1963, became a sporting icon of black excellence at a time when the US was starting out.
“Jim Brown was truly an achievement for the black community and he was so good that no matter what their race they had to recognize him as the best in his field,” said NBA superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “And that meant a lot to black Americans in the ’60s, when everything a black man could achieve was being questioned.”
“There were no question marks with Jim Brown.”
They would come later.
After rushing for 1,544 yards, scoring 17 touchdowns and winning his Third Division MVP in 1965, Brown retired and briefed the Browns on the set of The Dirty Dozen in England. While his decision stunned the team and shocked the sports world, it was a classic Brown.
He always did things his way.
At a time when athletes, especially black athletes, have been reluctant to speak out for fear of backlash or worse, Brown has come forward.
While he was still playing, Brown founded the Negro Industrial and Economic Union, an organization focused on creating jobs and supporting black entrepreneurs.
In 1967, Brown invited some of the country’s top black athletes, including Boston Celtics stars Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor (later known as Abdul-Jabbar), to the Economic Union’s Cleveland office to support the sacked Muhammad Ali his title for refusing to be drafted in protest of the Vietnam War.
It was this sense of power and fearlessness that drove Brown and empowered generations to come.
“I hope every black athlete takes the time to educate themselves about this incredible man and what he has done to change all of our lives,” LeBron James posted shortly after Brown’s death. “We all stand on your shoulders, Jim Brown.” If you grew up in northeast Ohio and were Black, Jim Brown would be a god.”
James has emulated Brown, perhaps more than any other top athlete in the last 60 years. Growing up in northeast Ohio, he met Jim Brown, the football player, before realizing he was so much more.
“I honestly thought he was the greatest Cleveland Brown that ever played,” James wrote on his Instagram page. “Then I started my own journey as a professional athlete and realized that what he was doing socially was his true greatness. Whenever I choose to speak up, I always think of Jim Brown. I can only speak because Jim broke down those walls for me.”
As he prepared for the opening tip of Game 3 of the 2015 NBA Finals in Cleveland, James noticed that Brown was sitting in a courtside seat. He turned to the football icon, put his hands together and bowed respectfully, only to nod to Brown in response.
A year later, the two legends stood side-by-side on a stage after the Cavaliers ended the city’s 52-year championship drought. Brown symbolically presented James with the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
He had already given him everything else.
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