Jim Brown was hard to bring down
"I'm not interested in trying to work on people's perceptions. I am who I am, and if you don't take the time to learn about that, then your perception is going to be your problem," said Jim Brown on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
After being tackled, he would pick himself off the grass painfully and slowly, looking like a man who had just been hit by a bus.
Jim Brown is to running backs what Superman is to cartoon heroes. Standing 6-foot-2 and packing 230 hard pounds on his square-shouldered frame, he was an explosive fullback, combining outstanding speed with awesome power. He played only nine seasons for the Cleveland Browns - and led the NFL in rushing eight times.
He averaged 104 yards a game, a record 5.22 yards a pop. He ran for at least 100 yards in 58 of his 118 regular-season games (he never missed a game). He ran for 237 yards in a game twice, scored five touchdowns in another game, and four times scored four touchdowns. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards seven times, scorching opponents for 1,527 yards in one 12-game season and 1,863 in a 14-game season.
"For mercurial speed, airy nimbleness, and explosive violence in one package of undistilled evil, there is no other like Mr. Brown," wrote Pulitzer Prize winner Red Smith.
"And he played at a time when defenses were set against the run first and the pass second," said Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers.
And football might not have been Brown's best sport. There are those who say he was a more talented lacrosse player.
Brown was born on Feb. 17, 1936 on St. Simons Island off the southern coast of Georgia. He was abandoned by his father about two weeks after his birth, and his mother left when he was two to take a job as a maid on Long Island, New York. His great-grandmother raised Brown, and they shared a house with his grandmother, who was an alcoholic. When he was four, he attended school in a segregated two-room shack. At eight, his mother sent for him; it was the first time they saw each other in six years.
At mostly white Manhasset High School, Brown earned 13 letters playing football, basketball, baseball, lacrosse and running track. As a senior, he averaged 14.9 yards a carry as a running back and 38 points a game as a basketball forward. While in high school, Brown and several other athletes created a gang called "The Gaylords," and Brown was elected president. He said the gang was involved in some fistfights, but nothing too dangerous, and nobody ever did jail time.
As a sophomore at Syracuse, Brown was the second leading rusher on the team. That winter, he was Syracuse's second leading scorer in basketball, averaging 15 points. He also earned a letter in track that spring.
As a junior, he rushed for 666 yards (5.2 per carry), averaged 11.3 points in basketball and made second-team All-American in lacrosse. In his senior year, Brown was first-team All-American in both football and lacrosse (43 goals in 10 games to tie for the national scoring championship). He averaged 6.2 yards in running for 986 yards (third most in the country despite Syracuse playing only eight games) and scored 14 touchdowns.
In the regular-season finale, a 61-7 rout of Colgate, he rushed for 197 yards, scored six touchdowns and kicked seven extra points for 43 points. Then in the Cotton Bowl he rushed for 132 yards, scored three touchdowns and kicked three extra points. But a blocked extra point after Syracuse's third touchdown was the difference as TCU won 28-27.
Brown, Cleveland's first-round draft choice at No. 6 overall, was the NFL's Rookie of the Year in 1957, leading all running backs with 942 yards. "When you have a thoroughbred," coach Paul Brown said, "you run him."
The next year the fullback was MVP after leading the league in rushing with 1,527 yards and touchdowns with 18. But his season ended in disappointment when the Browns lost the regular-season finale 13-10 to the New York Giants, leaving the teams tied for first in the East, and then 10-0 the following Sunday. Brown was held to just eight yards on seven carries in the playoff game.
Brown's 1,329 and 1,257 yards in 12-game seasons led NFL rushers the next two seasons. In 1961, in the first 14-game season, Brown was No. 1 for the fifth straight season with 1,408 yards. But the Browns again failed to make the postseason and tension with Paul Brown intensified. In 1962, for the only time in his career, Brown failed to win the rushing title, gaining just 996 yards.
Differences with Paul Brown worsened as Cleveland fell to 7-6-1. After the season, the outspoken fullback headed a players revolt and told owner Art Modell "either Paul Brown goes or I quit." Paul Brown was fired.
In 1965 - in what would be his final season - Brown won his second MVP after leading the league in rushing with 1,544 yards and scoring 21 touchdowns (17 running). The Browns made it back to the title game, but this time they lost - 23-12 to the Packers.
While working on "The Dirty Dozen" in London, Brown stunned the sports world by announcing his retirement. He said he wanted to devote more time to his movie career and race relations. Brown went on to appear in some 32 movies, with "The Dirty Dozen" and "Ice Station Zebra" being the best.
In the 1960s, Brown helped form the Negro Industrial Economic Union to assist black-owned businesses. In 1988, he created the Amer-I-Can program, an effort to turn gang members from destructive to productive members of society.
He has been an outspoken critic of the modern African-American athlete for what he perceives as a lack of involvement in the African-American community. "A Charles Barkley, a Magic Johnson, and a Michael Jordan are basically prima donnas," Brown said.
Brown has been inducted into the Halls of Fame of Pro Football, College Football and Lacrosse. No other player has accomplished this triple.
But for all Brown's good deeds and athletic prowess, there appears to be a dark side to him as well. He has been frequently accused of violent crimes, primarily toward women.
An 18-year-old accused Brown of forcing her to have sex after giving her whisky, but a jury found him innocent of assault and battery in the 10-day trial in 1965. He was accused of throwing his girlfriend from a balcony in 1968, but when the 22-year-old woman refused to name Brown as her assailant, the charge of assault with intent to murder was dropped. He was fined $300 for resisting a deputy.
Brown was acquitted of assaulting a man after a traffic accident in 1969. He was fined $500 and spent a day in jail after beating up a golfing partner in 1978. He was charged with rape, sexual battery and assault in 1985, but the charges were dropped when the 33-year-old woman gave inconsistent testimony.
The next year, he was arrested for allegedly beating his fiancée after accusing her of flirting. He spent three hours in jail, but three days later the 21-year-old woman said she didn't want to prosecute.
In October 1999, Brown was convicted in Los Angeles of smashing the window of his 25-year-old wife Monique's car, but was acquitted of making terrorist threats against her. The judge sentenced him to three years' probation, stripped him of his driver's license for a year, fined him $1,700 to be paid to a battered woman's shelter and a domestic abuse fund, and ordered him to attend special counseling for domestic batterers.
When Brown refused counseling, he was given a six-month sentence. He was released from jail in Ventura County (California) in July 2002 after serving less than four months.