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Wednesday, December 18, 2002
Updated: December 27, 3:01 PM ET
Nobody else is Jim Brown

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Once upon a time, more than three decades ago, a 20-year-old boxer shook up the world by outclassing the fearsome Sonny Liston.

Jim Brown
Jim Brown was intimidating, even to giants.
This newly crowned heavyweight champion of the world, Cassius Marcellus Clay, then changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

Soon after, he was summoned to an audience by an even higher athletic authority at the time. The best African-American athletes of then expressed a desire to know if the controversial and indeed widely loved and widely despised Ali was sincere in his religious beliefs and his conscientious objection to participating in the war in Vietnam. Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor and many other prominent black athletes attended the audience to question Ali's sincerity, and also to test his veracity, before they offered any moral support.

Who'd preside over this summit? Where would it be held?

That was easy. Jim Brown. At Jim Brown's spot. In Cleveland.

So Muhammad came to the Mountain. The Mountain was Jim Brown, superstar runner of the Cleveland Browns. It was Jim Brown who authenticated even The Greatest. "We've questioned him, and we believe him to be sincere," said a curt, nattily dressed, square-jawed Jim Brown, at the press conference from his small suite of offices in Cleveland. So the Era of Ali was green-lit. If Jim Brown judged Ali sincere and authentic, then so he was. Period.

You didn't question Mother Nature, Father Time ... or Jim Brown.

Everyone knows the legendary figure of folklore, John Henry. Like Paul Bunyan, John Henry is a part of U.S. cultural sensibility; bare-chested, heavy-muscled hard-working Negro with the mighty Arm & Hammer, who could drive home a railroad spike with three mighty swings. John Henry was "a Steel-drivin' man," who in epic song outworked, outmuscled and outdrove a steam-engine, working himself to death in the process. Creative endeavors have spun out of this myth, not least of which is "John Henry Days," a novel by Brooklynite author Colson Whitehead.

I recommend it to you.

Almost as much as I recommend Jim Brown.

Jim Brown was John Henry in the live, hard flesh, John Henry in full football pads, only instead of being a Steel-drivin' man, he was a Pill-haulin', Stiff-jabbin', Ground-shakin', Trail-blazin' man.

He not only intimidated opponents on the gridiron of the NFL -- the Sam Huffs, Gino Marchettis, and Night Train Lanes (Frank Gifford breaks into an epic song until this day if you so much as mention the name Jim Brown). Even his teammates like Bobby Mitchell and Paul Warfield, were intimidated by him, as were all NFL players. Well, maybe not Chuck Bednarik. You'd have to ask Chuck. He'd be the only one, and these were tough, tough guys.

Jim Brown even had Muhammad Ali looking around for him and his approval, wondering what he thought of him. John Henry, in the guise of Jim Brown, was intimidating even to the giants.

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali was "The Greatest," but he sought approval from Brown.
So, of course, he was going to make a talk-show host a little uneasy. Jim Brown was stoic, never falsely obsequious to make everybody more comfortable, the better to grease and mollify them, the more to be rewarded in return. No, that little game wasn't Jim Brown.

Heckfire, Jim Brown even intimidated me, when I first met him at Rockefeller Center, in 1989. Jim fixed me with a level gaze and that granite mug and wanted to know, "What's your story, little (expletive)?" In order to thaw out my suddenly frozen intestines, I said, "Well, what kind of story would you like to hear, Jim?"

Jim smiled that little half-smile and laughed that slow but sincere laugh: "Heh-heh-heh." I joined in. His laugh always implied real amusement, not fake butt-kissing. He is complex, though; you never really knew what exactly was so funny to him.

At the time, the late 1980s, he was 50, on the cover of the Illy, in pads, in a Raiders uni, No. 32. With tongue in cheek -- I think his tongue was at least partially in his cheek, but then again, maybe it wasn't -- he'd said he could come back then and play in the NFL.

At 50!

Of course he never tried to do it. He was beyond the vagaries of the mathematical probabilities within the AFC Central by then.

Hell, he was beyond that by the time he was 30. After nine terrific years only the old video clips and interviews can ever adequately explain, the NFL bored him. We're in another century (he retired after the 1965 season, to film "The Dirty Dozen"), and he still has records that are being broken, he is still the Standard by which all NFL backs are judged. At 6-foot-2, 232 pounds with a 32-inch waist, he left the League at 29, following that Ali summit (Cleveland hasn't played host to a summit of any kind since).

His great flaw was his relationships with and treatment of women, and occasional mistreatment of them. If there is a subtext of Spike Lee's HBO doc (a production which I participated in) that shouldn't be missed, or just ignored, it is this subtext, revealing where this flaw originated, with Jim beating his own temples as his father and mother screamed mercilessly at each other, fought like cats and dogs, tried to hurt each other, brazenly cheated, and, after they broke up, flaunted their other relationships to each other, and, worse, to Jim. So they drove each other crazy -- and Jim out of the place he shared with his mother, down the street from his father's temporary digs, which were then on Long Island.

Jim moved in with his coach, physically ... or rather he put his little bit of stuff and laid his head there; mentally he never moved in anywhere or felt comfortable trying to sustain any kind of long-term relationship again. Jim intimidated his own kids, and his sons suffered his neglect in turn. If this was his parents' way of loving, it wasn't a good way to pass on. Jim hated it, yet took it to heart. The apple never falls far from the tree. Unless it gets a good roll.

Jim Brown got a lot of roll and is still getting it today. Like John Henry, he seems ageless, invulnerable. He's rolled through turf that makes the NFL seem like recess at preschool. He's been in the bloodhole belly of places such as Compton and hung with different brands of young punk gangbangers, invited them into his home, tried -- and in many cases succeeded -- in getting them to quit killing themselves and others and to make a real life out of 15 cents. He's tried to make it right from his own nearly rootless childhood. He did this and he didn't have to. He did it easily and fearlessly.

Jim Brown
His exploits are a dim, grainy, black and white memory, but Brown's records, such as 5.2 yards per carry, are still being chased.
He just did nearly five months in prison solitary, "protective confinement" -- as if John Henry needed any -- even though he is eligible for Social Security. For what was he in prison? Very good question, taken at length. For "making terroristic threats," it said on the original domestic dispute charge, and then for refusing to perform the kind of community service that calls for picking up trash alongside the freeways. Jim Brown refused to do it, because (1) he said he hadn't done anything wrong; (2) he figured he was already doing more fitting community service than that, and had been, for a long time; and (3) he simply felt it was humiliating. So he did the time. At 64. Without a peep. Without anybody in jail giving him any trouble. Even in stir, nearly 40 years after he played pro football, the prisoners still know Jim Brown is John Henry. They are inmates, in a kind of "asylum," but they ain't that crazy.

Yes, he's overbearing when he says the athlete/bums should look back, give back, speak up, turn out, show up. He's whistling in the wind, but we all vent, one way or another. The thing about Jim is he walks it like he talks it. I'd rather listen to Jim scolding African-American athletes than Trent Lott pining for an anti-integrationist presidency of Strom Thurmond in 1948, which, no matter how you slice it, would have just been an updated version of the same Nazi Germany that "you people" helped America defeat in WWII. Trent Lott said if Strom and demagogues had been elected, we'd have had a lot less trouble. God, is disingenuousness now an airborne virus? Yes, Trent, you'd be richer, even richer than you are now.

Myself, personally, no offense, none taken, but I'd recommend taking John Henry and Jim Brown over Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott, and giving the points. I'd bet on the fact that Time won't go backward.

I'll take John Henry over Juice any day. Frankly, you probably would too, at this point. You had to come to it, didn't you, coming grudgingly to it, if at all. You'd probably just rather not think about it. You'd say you'd rather take nobody. True -- compared to Jim Brown, there's no other football player worth taking. Not with the same sense of purpose, and not as legend, the real-life John Henry. O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Earl Campbell, Franco Harris, Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes were or are great or good running backs. Jim Brown was more than that.

Jim Brown was a state of mind where anything was possible. All he was missing was humility. He had an inextinguishable attitude of do, an expression of self that went far beyond self. He was, like Strom X, a man of his times. But he was much more, too. He was beyond time, a legend, whispered about around the NFL campfires, never to fall dismissible as outdated, lunatic, criminal, or a two-faced, duplicitous, dependent, self-indulgent fraud. In football, he was the most unstoppable force I ever saw. But he also wanted and did help young people (young men, mostly, like he'd been once) find work, and value, and realize their potential. He had no taste for favored, pampered "superstars" who failed to exercise theirs.

Is there an athlete or former athlete today who had the same impact on his peers as Jim Brown did on the other athletes in the late '50s, '60s and even the '70s, '80s and '90s? Well, there is at least one, no doubt; and that would be His Airness, Michael Jordan. Only he today could bring together a Summit over any issue, like the one in Cleveland in '66. The difference being, of course, Air would not do it. Why? "Republicans buy sneakers, too," MJ supposedly said, when asked why he didn't endorse a candidate, Harvey Gantt, who opposed a wink-wink racist, Jesse Helms, in a senatorial race in his home state of North Carolina in the '90s. Imagine the plain-spoken Jim Brown speaking in Topspin like that. If you don't care enough for Harvey Gantt's policies to support him, then say so. Obviously, people don't have a problem with the word "Republicans," as long as it's not a word used as a synonym for "war-mongering racists." People of good will have a problem with bigots, not Republicans.

Would Jordan ever publicly express displeasure over chilling statements like the one Trent Lott made about Strom Thurmond? I don't know if he would or not, but deep down, he can't like it.

Jim Brown would say so.

Jim Brown was that most unsettling of men -- an honest one.

Jim Brown
His eyes have some bags and the jaw isn't as square, but Brown still has a presence with that steely stare, little half-smile and slow but sincere laugh.
There are different ways to judge great athletes/legends. ("Most of these guys think like athletes, like commodities; Jim thinks like a legend," someone said.) Who would you want with you if you all were barehanded, except for a sledgehammer, and trapped in an alley with four of whatever it is you fear most -- four Gestapo or Aryan Nation skinheads with billy clubs and hob-nailed Doc Martens, four Bloods with lead pipes and shanks, four Klan bullies with lit torches, four tatted Crips with bicycle chains, four of the Sopranos, four very angry hairdressers. Four whatevers.

Who, in his prime, would you want with you then?

Still ... fighters, brawlers and killers are common, aren't they?

For all his strength, and weaknesses, for all his Alpha-maleness, for all his legendary athletic accomplishment and intimidation, Jim Brown was at bottom, a man; and better, a man of conscience.

Who, in his prime, without firefighting equipment, would you want to rescue you child from the fourth floor of a burning building?

Muhammad Ali, along with Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Bruce Lee, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Wayne Gretzky, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Joe Montana, John Elway, Henry Aaron, Cal Ripken Jr., just take your pick, lately Barry Bonds and Shaquille O'Neal, are considered to be the greatest or most impactful athletes of the post-World War II half-century, Ali getting the most mental votes, not necessarily because of athletic accomplishment as that in concert with his times, his choices, his persona and his principles. How many of those became movie stars and still showed a conscience?

I know. Everybody can't be Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King.

Everybody can't be John Henry, either. Nobody else is Jim Brown.

***** ***** *****

Jim Brown
Brown's great flaw was his relationships with and treatment of women, and occasional mistreatment of them.
In 1974, at the very moment of Ali's most incredible victory, in Kinshasha, Zaire, Ali kept looking outside the ring, as he slowly, scientifically, and with great panache dispatched his Grendel, his steam engine, the Dark Lord of Physical Death, George Foreman. In the clinches, between being buffeted by Foreman's killing blows, Ali kept looking over and winking at a man working a microphone at ringside, a man who, along with his partner in his venture, David Frost, had purchased a portion of the video rights to the promotion for his video production company. A man who had given cogent analysis in the pre-fight moments, along with Frost, and who welcomed Joe Frazier in to speak, as well. Joe regarded this man with something resembling awe. Ali kept looking at him too, and nodding and winking throughout the fight, for Ali knew this man had actually thought Foreman would win -- as did most.

When it was over, and Ali had KOed Foreman and won the title, once again, and had become the world's most famous and revered athlete, once again, and would go on to star in a movie of his own life, fight more fights, inspire another movie and the civilized world by shakily lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta 22 years later, slowly becoming joke fodder for the young who mimicked his trembling while wondering how such a man could have ever been great, with all these dreams-come-true and nightmares-yet-to-come ahead of him, Ali looked over for approval from one man.

"See, Jim?!" Ali said. "Told you! Believe me now, Jim!?"

Jim nodded. Ali nodded back, and gave Jim a look of satisfied relief. Not often do you live to see, judge, and then be judged by, let alone get the approval of, John Henry. Or of Jim Brown.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."