It took just nine years in his football career as a running back for the NFL Cleveland Browns for Jim Brown to become known as the greatest professional football player ever. Actually, he is widely considered the greatest American athlete of all time. From 1957 to 1966, Brown set records as the first NFL player to reach the 100-rushing-touchdown milestone, achieved in 93 out of the 118 games he played (and he never missed a game). In 1963, he was 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).
“For mercurial speed, airy nimbleness, and explosive violence in one package... there is no other like Mr. Brown,” Red Smith, Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist, wrote.
Brown was chosen Most Valuable Player four times in his brief career, including his first year in football in 1957, and was elected to Professional Football’s Hall of Fame in 1971. His record of scoring 100 touchdowns in 93 games stood for 45 years until 2008 when New York Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson topped it.
It was clear in his high school and college years that Brown was headed for greatness in sports. He earned 13 letters playing football, baseball, basketball, and lacrosse in high school in Manhasset, New York, and played basketball and lacrosse as well as football at Syracuse University, making All-American first teams in all three sports and earning a letter in track. Brown is the only athlete in his lifetime to have been elected to three Halls of Fame, one each for Pro Football, College Football, and Lacrosse. He never missed a football game because of injury. The target of many pile-ons, he always seemed to get back up fighting. As he said, “Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts.”
Astonishingly, with that record-breaking football career, Brown left the game when he was 29 (scoring three touchdowns in his last game with the Cleveland team). At the time, he told Sports Illustrated, “I quit with regret but not sorrow. I’ve been able to do all the things I wanted to do, and now I want to devote my time to other things. And I wanted more mental stimulation than I would have had playing football.” Fans would always wonder what heights Jim Brown might have reached if he had stayed in football. But he had other ideas. First he signed a contract with Pepsi-Cola to promote the soft drink, then moved to Hollywood seeking out movie roles and a full-time movie career. He starred first in Rio Conchos, in 1964, then in movies like The Dirty Dozen (1966), Dark of the Sun (1968), and 100 Rifles (1969) with Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch, which featured the first interracial love scene in film.
Convincing as an actor, Brown had a 35-year career in film, with roles in 41 movies and in television movies and specials. He was a commentator on NFL for CBS and made appearances on many television programs, including The Flip Wilson Show and I Spy.
Brown may have helped introduce “blaxploitation” films made for the urban black audience in the 1970s. The genre name was coined by the head of the Los Angeles NAACP, which would also organize to protest these films as perpetuating stereotypes of blacks. Nonetheless, these movies were popular across racial and ethnic lines and were the first to feature funk and soul music on sound tracks. The genre has had a far-reaching effect not only on film but also on hip-hop and rap music culture. The classic blaxploitation film was Shaft produced in 1971 and remade with Samuel L. Jackson in 2000. Jim Brown’s role in many of his films showed him as the stereotypical black stud, but he made a successful parody of the entire genre in the movie, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka in 1988. He had also played in the 1987 film Running Man, an adaptation of a Stephen King story. He took the role of a coach in Any Given Sunday and also appeared in Sucker Free City and Mars Attacks!
Described as “ruggedly handsome,” Brown at 6’2” and 230 lbs. was attractive and intimidating, often cast as a black macho icon and sex symbol. Stephen Holden, reviewing Spike Lee’s documentary film, Jim Brown: All American, in a 2002 New York Times article, makes the point that “Mr. Brown has had to confront racism head-on at every turn in his life and that the amount of resentment and fear he stirred up simply by standing up for himself cannot be underestimated.” But as Holden commented, “It is impossible not to be awed by the power and grace of one of the greatest natural sportsmen of modern times.”
At one point, Brown threatened to go back into football. He was 47 and it looked like Francis Harris of the Pittsburgh Steelers was about to break Brown’s all-time rushing record. He did not, and Brown did not. The next year, 1984, Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears did. Brown continued in film roles and on television and established several philanthropic ventures, including the Negro Industrial and Economic Union, a black capitalist organization that used professional athletes to coach black-owned businesses, and the Amer-I-Can program working with inner-city kids caught up in gangs in Los Angeles and Cleveland. Los Angeles Times columnist Mike Downey said, “Brown doesn’t offer gang members dispassionate advice to be better citizens, to be cool, to go out and get decent jobs. He gives them a way. Brown doesn’t counsel prison inmates to get themselves straightened out, to lead more productive lives. He shows them how. He does something.” In 2008, Brown became an executive adviser to the Cleveland Browns, working with players and NFL-sponsored programs.
All along the way, Brown was a target off the field as well as on it in a game, and he had been bedeviled with accusations of assault in his relationships with women, none of which ever resulted in any legal action. However, he was convicted in 1999 of misdemeanor vandalism for smashing the windows of his wife Monique’s car. Saying that “the conditions of my sentence were ridiculous,” Brown spent several months in prison for refusing domestic violence counseling and probation.
James Nathaniel Brown was born on February 17, 1936, on St. Simons Island, Georgia, to Swinton Brown, a professional boxer, and Theresa Brown, a housekeeper. He was raised by his grandmother on the island, an all-black community at the time where he never encountered the racism he would confront when his mother took him with her when he was eight to Manhasset, New York, a wealthy Long Island town where she had found work as a domestic. His sports career became legendary while he was at Manhasset High School, both on the football field and in basketball where he set records. He was recruited by 45 colleges and universities but chose Syracuse University. A family friend collected funds from Manhasset businesses to help pay his tuition, in hopes Brown would get an athletic scholarship to foot the bill. But Brown was passed over in his first year in favor of a white player. By his sophomore year, Brown was setting records in football and other sports, and Syracuse came through with the scholarships. He would go on to earn three letters in football, three in lacrosse, and two each in basketball and track. Brown qualified in the decathlon for the 1956 Olympics though he did not go, and in his senior year was a unanimous first team All-American. Upon graduation from Syracuse with a degree in physical education in 1957, Brown was recruited as a first-round draft choice for the Cleveland Browns. Already making pro football history in his first year, Brown was chosen as Rookie-of-the-Year. Many years after his brief nine-year football career, he remains the standard for performance on the field.
Brown and his first wife Sue James were married in 1959 and had three children, daughter Kim and two sons Kevin and Jim Jr. They were divorced and Brown has since remarried. Several books have been written about him, and he has written two autobiographies.
Brown, Jim, with Myron Cope. Off My Chest. New York: Doubleday, 1964.
Brown, Jim, with Steve Delson. Out of Bounds. Los Angeles, CA: Zebra Books, 1989.
Freeman, Michael. Jim Brown: The Fierce Life of an American Hero. New York: HarperCollins It Books, 2007.
Holden, Stephen. “Jim Brown as Football Legend, Sex Symbol, and Husband.” The New York Times, March 22, 2002. http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9A04E1D71138F931A15750C0A9649C8B63 .
Toback, James. Jim: The Author’s Self-Centered Memoir on the Great Jim Brown. New York: Rat Press, 2009.