I was a voracious reader growing up, mostly because I was in no shape, physically or mentally, to do much else. As I’ve previously shared elsewhere, my greatest “athletic” accomplishments were feted on the bulletin board in our public school library, which featured students’ namecards moving around a “diamond”, advancing a base for every book we’d complete. Our school carried a disproportionate number of books about sports, and I dare say I read every one in our inventory at least once. In that “league” I was Willie Mays, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron rolled into one and, yes, I read biographies of each of them.
One that left a particular mark on me was the story of Jim Brown, whose NFL career was already completed by the time I started first grade. So when the details of his storied, long-ago career were being retold upon the announcement of his passing at age 87 on Friday morning, my childhood memories and obsession to details were being prompted and rekindled with stories I knew extremely well. As the NEW YORK TIMES’ Kurt Streeter shared, his on-field accomplishments were virtually unparalled, stories that became all the more entrenched once I ventured to upstate New York for college:
In college at Syracuse, Brown dominated on the football field as few ever have. But that is not all. He lettered in track and basketball. And in lacrosse, he became an all-American and was considered one of the greatest to ever play the sport. As a running back for the Cleveland Browns, he racked up mind-bending statistics. In his nine seasons, Brown never missed a game. He won three league M.V.P. awards and an N.F.L. title. His average of 104.3 rushing yards a game is still a record.
Think about it: The Cleveland Browns last won an NFL title in Jim Brown’s next-to-last season. They’ve never even played in a Super Bowl, let alone won one. (Yes, I’m acutely aware that the original franchise, now known as the Baltimore Ravens, did win a couple. But we’re not talking about Jim Raven here.)
By the time I started my first of several reads of Brown’s life, he was already well into his second career as an actor and activist. His determination to live by his own rules actually drove his desire to leave the game, as Streeter further retold:
In 1966, as he pursued a budding career as a Hollywood actor during the off-season, he was filming “The Dirty Dozen” in England when poor weather slowed production. This was an era in which team owners in professional sports regularly sought to exert dominance over players. That such aggression so often fell on Black players with extra force was part of the reason that most did not push for their rights. But Brown was not like most players. When Art Modell, Cleveland’s owner, found out that the film delays would cause Brown to be late to training camp, he threatened to dole out fines to his team’s star running back for every day missed.
Brown did not take well to that threat. He considered it an insult so severe that he decided he would not allow Modell to benefit any longer from his services. He was still well in the prime of his career at age 30, coming off an M.V.P. season in which he had rushed for 1,544 yards and 17 touchdowns. But he refused to be treated like just another cog in the machinery of the N.F.L., which was rising in the mid-1960s into a new era of popularity. He called a news conference and retired. He was not going to be pushed around or disrespected.
I began to notice him when he would appear in provocative ads for some of his ensuing films, including the racy 100 RIFLES where he effectively seduced and conquered the incomporable (and, sadly, also recently deceased) Raquel Welch. Needless to say, adolescent me was exceptionally envious, and, frankly, intimidated. It was then I learned of his commitment to racial equality and social justice, much as other prominent black athletes of the era was. Continued Streeter:
There Brown was, in the winter of 1964, on the evening Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, meeting after the fight with Malcolm X, the singer Sam Cooke and Clay, who later became known as Muhammad Ali. The four men spent the night discussing the ways they could best battle racism.
There he was, in the summer of 1967, summoning Ali, Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor (the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and other prominent Black athletes to Cleveland. Ali had lost his heavyweight title and faced imprisonment for protesting the Vietnam War by refusing to be drafted into the military. Brown and the others listened to Ali explain his intentions, and then bathed the boxing champion in support.
Brown became a well-known spokesman for Black uplift. He founded an organization promoting Black economic mobility, which he saw as a more powerful way to make change than street protests. He started the Amer-I-Can Foundation, which helps people in gangs and in prisons straighten out their lives.
So it’s understandable that the reactions to his passing that the Associated Press dropped on Friday were as emotional and laudatory as they were, including some of these more prominent tweets and social media posts:
I was too young to remember Jim Brown’s playing days, but I knew his legacy. One of the greatest football players ever, he was also an actor and activist — speaking out on civil rights, and pushing other Black athletes to do the same. Our thoughts are with Jim’s wife Monique, his children, and everyone who knew and admired him.” — Former President Barack Obama, on Twitter.
My heart aches at this very moment after hearing of the passing of Jim Brown. He is and was a true legend in sports and in the community using his platform to help others. Thanks King.” — Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, on Twitter.
We lost a hero today. Rest in Paradise to the legend Jim Brown. I hope every Black athlete takes the time to educate themselves about this incredible man and what he did to change all of our lives. We all stand on your shoulders Jim Brown. If you grew up in Northeast Ohio and were Black, Jim Brown was a God. As a kid who loved football, I really just thought of him as the greatest Cleveland Brown to ever play. Then I started my own journey as a professional athlete and realized what he did socially was his true greatness. When I choose to speak out, I always think about Jim Brown. I can only speak because Jim broke down those walls for me.” — NBA star LeBron James, on Instagram.
And then there was this one:
“To the world, he was an activist, actor, and football star. To our family, he was a loving husband, father, and grandfather. Our hearts are broken.” — Brown’s wife, Monique Brown, on Instagram.
And that’s the one that I found the most surprising and disturbing.
Because as Streeter also retold, Monique Brown was very likely a battered spouse.
For all the times he refused to bend to power and all of his athletic conquest, Brown was also a flawed man. From the 1960s to the 1990s, he was arrested several times for violent behavior, with some of those cases involving allegations that he battered women.
He was never convicted of a major crime, but the accusations pointed to problems that shadowed him. “I can definitely get angry, and I have taken that anger out inappropriately in the past,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2002, before adding to the admission in a way that only underscored his faults. “But I have done so with both men and women.”