NFL legend tells the Houston Chronicle's Anna Megan Raley about the NFL as he sees it.
James Nathaniel Brown (born February 17, 1936) is an American former professional football player who has also made his mark as an actor and social activist. He is best known for his exceptional and record-setting nine-year career as a Fullback for the NFL Cleveland Browns from 1957 to 1965. He is widely considered the best running back of all time; in 2002 he was named by The Sporting News as the greatest professional football player ever. Uniquely, Brown was every bit as good a lacrosse player, with the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame stating that he was "widely considered to be the greatest lacrosse player ever." Sportswriter Bert Sugar named Brown #1 in his book The Greatest Athletes of All Time.
Brown was born on St. Simons Island in coastal Georgia and grew up in a devoutly Baptist family.
He was raised for six years by his grandmother after his mother left him at age 2 to work on Long Island (his father left the family shortly after Brown's birth). At age eight, he moved to Long Island in the 1940s to live with his mother, who at the time was working as a housekeeper for wealthy homeowners. At Manhasset High School, Brown earned 13 letters playing football, baseball, basketball, and lacrosse, while also running track and playing on the high school water polo squad.
Brown received 42 scholarship offers, but matriculated at Syracuse University, where he earned All-American honors in both football and lacrosse.
Brown was taken in the first round of the 1957 draft by the Cleveland Browns.
Brown announced his retirement on July 14, 1966 after Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell insisted that Brown report to training camp instead of finishing his work on the movie The Dirty Dozen. He departed as the NFL record holder for both single-season (1,863 in 1963) and career rushing (12,312 yards), as well as the all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (106), total touchdowns (126), and all-purpose yards (15,549). He was the first player ever to reach the 100-rushing-touchdowns milestone, and only a few others have done so since, despite the league's expansion to a 16-game season in 1978 (Brown's first four seasons were only 12 games, and his last five were 14 games). Brown also set a record by reaching the 100-touchdown milestone in only 93 games, which stood until LaDainian Tomlinson reached it in 89 games during the 2006 season. He still holds the career record for yards per carry by a running back (5.2), and total seasons leading the NFL in all-purpose yards (5: 1958-1961, 1964), and is the only rusher in NFL history to average over 100 yards per game for a career. Brown was also a superb receiver out of the backfield, catching 262 passes for 2,499 yards and 20 touchdowns. Every season he played, Brown was voted into the Pro Bowl, and he left the league in style by scoring three touchdowns in his final Pro Bowl game. Perhaps the most amazing feat is that Jim Brown accomplished these records despite never playing past 29 years of age.
He told me, 'Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts.' He lived by that philosophy and I always followed that advice.
—John Mackey, 1999
Brown's 1,863 rushing yards in the 1963 season remain a Cleveland franchise record. It is currently the oldest franchise record for rushing yards out of all 32 NFL teams. While others have compiled more prodigious statistics, when viewing Brown's standing in the game his style of running must be considered along with statistical measures. He was very difficult to tackle (shown by his leading 5.2 yards per carry), often requiring more than one person to bring him down. His running evidenced a sort of graceful dance through the line and into the secondary which belied a fierceness that was difficult to capture on film. His style was part Bronko Nagurski, Gale Sayers, Ernie Davis and Walter Payton rolled into one.
Brown had begun his career as an actor with an appearance in the film Rio Conchos in 1964, then played a villain in a 1967 episode of I Spy called Cops and Robbers, went on to star in the 1967 war movie The Dirty Dozen (during the filming of which he announced his retirement from professional football), the 1970 movie ...tick...tick...tick..., as well as in numerous other features. In 1969, Brown starred in 100 Rifles with Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch. The film was one of the first to feature an interracial love scene. Brown acted with Fred Williamson in films such as 1974's Three the Hard Way, 1975's Take a Hard Ride, 1982's One Down, Two to Go, 1996's Original Gangstas and 2002's On the Edge. He also guest starred in a handful of television episodes of various programs with Williamson. In 1998, he acted the voice of Butch Meathook in Small Soldiers Perhaps Brown's most memorable role was as Robert Jefferson in the aforementioned 1967 movie, The Dirty Dozen, and in Keenen Ivory Wayans' 1987 comedy I'm Gonna Git You Sucka. Brown also acted in 1987's The Running Man an adaptation of a Stephen King story. He played a coach in Any Given Sunday and also appeared in Sucker Free City and Mars Attacks!.
In 1983, seventeen years after retiring from professional football, Brown mused about coming out of retirement to play for the Los Angeles Raiders when it appeared that Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris would break his all-time rushing record. Brown disliked Harris' style of running, criticizing the Steeler running back's tendency to run out of bounds, a marked contrast to Brown's approach to fighting for every yard and taking on the oncoming tackler. Eventually, Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears broke the record on October 7, 1984, with Brown having ended thoughts of a comeback.
Brown's memorable professional career led to his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971, while the The Sporting News selected him as the greatest football player of all time. Brown's football talents at Syracuse garnered him a berth in the College Football Hall of Fame. Brown also earned a spot in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame, giving him a rare triple crown of sorts as well as being one of the few athletes to be a Hall of Fame member in more than one sport.
In 2002, film director Spike Lee released the film Jim Brown: All-American; a retrospective on Brown's professional career and personal life.