Brown, James Nathaniel ("Jim")
BROWN, James Nathaniel ("Jim")
(b. 17 February 1936 on Saint Simon Island, Georgia), famed college and pro football running back and all-around outstanding athlete who later became a film actor and social activist.
Brown was the only child of Swinton Brown, a professional boxer and itinerant worker, and Theresa Brown, a domestic. His father deserted the family soon after his birth, and his mother left him when he was two for a job as a house-maid on Long Island, in New York. He was raised by his great-grandmother, Nora Peterson, until he was eight years old. Brown recalled that "even though my mother and father weren't around, I had the undying love of my great-grandmother and lived on a beautiful southern island."
In 1944 Brown joined his mother in Manhasset, Long Island, where he attended public schools. At Manhasset High School, he demonstrated extraordinary athletic ability and found mentors in football coach Ed Walsh and local attorney Kenneth Molloy. Brown earned thirteen varsity letters in football, basketball, lacrosse, and track and maintained a B average in academics. During his senior year, he averaged 14.9 yards per carry as a halfback and earned All-State honors. In basketball he averaged thirty-eight points a game. Brown received more than forty college scholarship offers and chose to attend Syracuse University at the urging of Kenneth Molloy, a Syracuse alumnus. In fact, Brown did not have an athletic scholarship at Syracuse, but was given a one-year trial period to earn one. Molloy withheld this information from Brown and decided to raise the money for the first year. "Coming from a small town where everyone knew and loved Jim, I passed the hat," said Molloy. "However, that only met half the requirement, so I picked up the rest."
Brown entered Syracuse in 1953 and immediately ran into difficulties on the freshman football team. "The first thing my football coach attacked was my talent. He said I couldn't run the ball and that I wasn't any good. I would fight it every day, but finally I thought, 'Maybe he's right; maybe I can't run.'" Brown decided to quit school, but Raymond Collins, Manhasset's superintendent of schools, drove to Syracuse and convinced Brown to stick it out. After a series of injuries thinned out the Syracuse backfield in 1954, Brown finally got a chance to play. He was a starting halfback for the next two seasons and amassed 2,091 total yards, 25 touchdowns, and 187 points. In his senior year, he set a major college record (which lasted thirty-four years) by scoring forty-three points against Colgate University. Amid racial tension, Brown led Syracuse against Texas Christian University at the 1957 Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Brown dominated the game, scoring three touchdowns and rushing for 132 yards in a narrow Orangemen defeat. Recalling the racial climate of that era, Brown later remarked, "Everyone looks back on my problems because I am well known, but the situation in America at that time hurt all blacks." Brown was selected as an All-American in football and lacrosse in 1956 and earned letters in basketball and track. He is considered among the greatest lacrosse players to ever play the game and is an inductee of both the Lacrosse Hall of Fame (1983) and the College Football Hall of Fame (1995). Brown also excelled at basketball and was drafted by the Syracuse Nationals of the National Basketball Association. He did not play on the college team during the 1956–1957 season partly because of racial policies enacted by the Syracuse University coaching staff. He graduated in 1957 with a degree in physical education.
The Cleveland Browns selected Brown in the first round of the 1957 National Football League (NFL) draft. After playing in the college All-Star game in Chicago, Brown became the starting fullback for Cleveland under the tutelage of Coach Paul Brown. At six feet, two inches and 228 pounds, Brown immediately showed the power, quickness, and speed that would make him the most dominant back in NFL history. He was named NFL Rookie of the Year in 1957 and led the Browns to the league championship game, which Cleveland lost to the Detroit Lions. Although opposing teams targeted Brown during his nine-year NFL career, he never missed a game because of injury, often playing while hurt. Few NFL players could tackle Brown single-handedly. The San Francisco 49ers coach Red Hickey told how he dealt with the challenge: "I drilled into our guys that Brown was likely to pull away from one, two, or even three tacklers. I told them to figure on being maybe the fourth, fifth, and sixth tacklers, and it worked." Chuck Bednarik, a Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker, agreed that Brown was the most difficult NFL back to bring down: "I've wrapped my arms around him and locked my hands together. I'm six-three and 235 and have fair strength, but he's broken my hands apart like Samson and run away." Brown married Sue Jones in 1958. They had three children and were divorced in 1972. Brown continued to record remarkable offensive performances during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1958 he rushed for 1,527 yards, breaking Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren's 1949 NFL record. Earle ("Greasy") Neale, a pioneer professional player and later the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, said that Brown was without question the best power runner in the history of professional football. In 1961 Brown carried the ball a league-record 305 times while gaining more than 1,400 yards, including a single-game effort of 237 yards against Philadelphia that tied his own NFL record. Despite Brown's impressive performance, Cleveland failed to win the division title and the chance to compete again for the league championship.
In 1962 Brown had a subpar season. For the first time since entering the NFL, he failed to lead the league in rushing. Despite playing with a painful toe injury, Brown refused to make excuses. "I'm no superman," he said. "I had a good season—not a great one, though. Do I have to lead the league every time for it to be a good year?" During the 1962 season Brown and other Cleveland players were critical of their coach, Paul Brown. They complained that he was too rigid, sending in every offensive play from the bench. He used Brown mainly as a straight-ahead runner between the tackles. Some of the coach's critics thought Brown could be used more effectively by letting him catch more passes and run more sweeps. When Cleveland owner Arthur ("Art") Modell fired Paul Brown in early 1963, many sportswriters accused Brown of orchestrating the move to oust the team's founder and the only coach it had known. Brown was clearly frustrated by Paul Brown's rigid coaching style, but he also admired the man who had displayed confidence in the fullback by putting him in the starting backfield upon his arrival in Cleveland and giving him ample opportunity to display his talent.
Blanton Collier, Paul Brown's assistant, became Cleveland's new head coach. Both the coach and the team got off to a fast start in 1963. Brown gained 787 yards and scored ten touchdowns in the first five games. After being in contention for most of the season, Cleveland failed to win the conference title, but Brown had his best season to date, rushing for 1,863 yards. Everything fell into place in 1964 when the Browns clinched their conference title with a convincing 52–20 victory over their archrival, the New York Giants. In that year's NFL championship game, Cleveland easily defeated the Baltimore Colts 27–0, with Brown's effective rushing allowing Browns quarterback Frank Ryan to mount a formidable passing attack. The following year, Brown scored twenty-one touchdowns, leading Cleveland to another conference title. The Green Bay Packers won the 1965 NFL championship game 23–12, holding Brown to only fifty yards rushing.
In the off-season Brown did public relations for the Pepsi-Cola Company. He initially planned to join the firm full-time when he retired from football. However, after appearing in the film Rio Conchos in 1964, Brown decided that he wanted to pursue acting. "I had played all of the football I wanted to and was ready to move on," he said of his decision. "Besides, there was more money in acting." During the summer of 1966, Brown was acting in another movie, The Dirty Dozen (1967), in London. When shooting took longer than expected and conflicted with the NFL's preseason training, Brown announced his retirement from professional football. In nine seasons with Cleveland, Brown gained 12,312 rushing yards and 15,459 all-purpose yards. He set NFL records for most average yards per carry (5.2), most seasons leading the league in rushing (eight), and most times leading the league in touchdowns (five). "Football is a whole other world; everyone is out for you," he said. "On the ground, they want to taunt you and knock you out. But they can't knock you out, because you want to win, so it's manhood time." Brown was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
Brown founded the Black Economic Union in 1966 in an effort to create more black-owned businesses. He was convinced that economic progress was more important for African Americans than social protest. Brown mobilized financial and moral support among prominent black athletes, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali, and borrowed the skills of successful black businessmen. After receiving a Ford Foundation grant in 1968, the organization helped to start more than 400 companies. Meanwhile, Brown was emerging as a major film star and a pioneer in breaking through racial stereotyping in Hollywood. He received top billing over established stars Raquel Welch and Burt Reynolds in 100 Rifles (1969), played a role originally scripted for a white male in Ice Station Zebra (1968), and played Jacqueline Bisset's lover in The Grass-hopper (1970). In 1968 feminist Gloria Steinem described Brown as "the black John Wayne." "I could play the John Wayne," Brown later agreed. "I could ride horses, shoot guns, rip the blouse off the girl, and mastermind the heist." Interestingly, Wayne began his film career after dropping out of the University of Southern California, where he played tackle on the football team.
In the 1970s Brown's acting career went into a tailspin. The liberal environment in Hollywood began to tighten, and statements Brown made concerning civil rights issues were viewed as controversial. He became an activist for racial equality and was not concerned what the public thought of his activities. "My fight was and is to get racism and inequality off the backs of others," he said. "I will complain strongly about the mistreatment of minorities in this country." Brown was convinced that his views and associations were the cause of his dying film career. He stated simply, "I was blackballed." Events in his personal life may also have tarnished his image. Between 1965 and 1999 Brown faced assault charges on a number of occasions, mostly involving women. In a highly publicized 1968 case, he was accused of throwing his then-girlfriend, Eva Bohn-Chin, from his balcony. "I have done things in my life that are definitely wrong and I'm not going to lie about them, but I never threw Eva out the window or off the balcony," Brown said in 1996. (The charges were subsequently dropped.) In 1999 he was charged with making threats against his wife, Monique Gunthrop, whom he had married in June of that year in Jamaica. He claims he has been the victim of harassment by the Los Angeles Police Department.
In the late 1980s Brown began a comeback as an actor, appearing in about a dozen films in a fifteen-year period. By 2000 he had appeared in more than thirty films altogether. Brown's social activism continued. In 1986 he founded Vital Issues, a project that provided personal growth and life-management skills to gang members. The program became Amer-I-Can in 1988, targeting at-risk youth and gang members in an effort to divert them from lives of crime and violence. Brown has helped establish Amer-I-Can programs in more than a dozen states. In numerous polls conducted at the end of the twentieth century, Brown was almost unanimously selected as the greatest football player of the last 100 years. Not only was he the greatest running back in football history, but he was one of the first truly transcendent black athletes.
Materials relating to Brown's career are in the Syracuse University Archives and in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Brown wrote two autobiographies: Off My Chest (1964), with Myron Cope, and Out of Bounds (1989), with Steve Delsohn. James P. Terzian and Jim Benagh, The Jimmy Brown Story (1964), covers his life and career in sports and Hollywood. Short profiles are in Current Biography 1964, and the Syracuse University Magazine (spring 1996).
John M. Carroll