Jim Brown, Hall of Fame Running Back and Actor, Dies at 87

REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File Photo
Retired Hall of Fame NFL Fullback Jim Brown speaks to members of the news media following the announcement of U.S. President Trump’s pardon of Edward DeBartolo Jr., former San Francisco 49ers owner convicted in a gambling fraud scandal, at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 18, 2020.

Spend five minutes around Jim Brown, and you would swear he was the baddest man on the planet. There was no way to prove it, of course, but you didn’t dare question the feeling, not while being near him.

Talk about presence. When he shook your hand, it felt like he was cracking open a walnut. For so much of his life, he seemed to age without weakening, an enduring vision of strength. Even though he spoke slowly, he commanded attention because of all the wit, insight and audacity flowing from his deep voice. He had a growl as he searched for the right words. And when he found them, he delivered his thoughts with his signature, unmistakable trait: conviction.

Brown, who died Thursday at age 87, was an immovable star. He thought he was right even when he was wrong, and he was wrong a lot – abusively wrong and unforgivably wrong at times. As a football legend, actor and civil rights activist, Brown enjoyed a life full of iconic moments, but when considering all of him, he wasn’t really an icon. He was Jim Brown. Jim. Brown. And there was little anyone could do to stop him.

He was one of the 10 most important athletes ever to put on a jersey. It doesn’t do Brown justice to consider him only the most dominant running back in NFL history because, in college at Syracuse, he was also a lacrosse superstar in addition to lettering in basketball and track. He went to the NFL in 1957 and won three MVPs in nine record-breaking seasons with the Cleveland Browns, flashing his athletic collage of speed, power, agility and fearlessness. And then he left after the 1965 season, retiring from football officially at 30 years old, to focus on his acting career and to fight harder for African Americans seeking equality during a volatile period in American history.

“I could have played longer,” Brown told Sports Illustrated of his decision, which he announced while filming “The Dirty Dozen” in London. “I wanted to play this year, but it was impossible. We’re running behind schedule shooting here, for one thing. I want more mental stimulation than I would have playing football. I want to have a hand in the struggle that is taking place in our country, and I have the opportunity to do that now. I might not a year from now.”

And that was it. Brown was done. He didn’t attempt a comeback. He didn’t entertain the idea, except for when he talked about the possibility in 1983 because Franco Harris was getting close to his rushing record. Brown was 47 at the time. Those who watched him win eight rushing titles probably wouldn’t have doubted his ability to play at that age. He was from another time, and even though the game has evolved from the run-dominant era that he owned, Brown still looks on film like the rare player who could transport to today, 60 years later, and be a premier player without overhauling his style.

At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Brown would be a slightly smaller Derrick Henry with even more game-breaking, big-play ability and a hand-eye coordination that also would have made him a dangerous receiving threat in a pass-happy league. Consider that Henry, in seven seasons, has three receiving touchdowns. In his nine seasons, Brown had 20. In 1962, in addition to his customary production running the football, Brown led Cleveland in receptions and receiving touchdowns. And he played on a broken toe the whole season. He did whatever he wanted on a football field.

He wanted to be just as free away from the game, and in pursuing such liberties for himself, he wanted to uplift his entire race, too. His approach was different from others’, which led to controversy when Brown embraced Donald Trump after he became president. He believed in self-empowerment and didn’t spend much energy on protest. He spoke his mind, but he tried to leverage his celebrity to persuade civic leaders to support his causes, including the Amer-I-Can organization that he founded in 1988. For more than 30 years, the program has made an impact in the United States and abroad by helping gang members and prisoners recast their lives, but as Brown grew older, it became harder to fund it. Now his wife, Monique, will be left to maintain a key part of his legacy.

In a 1979 interview with The Washington Post, Brown explained his goals and how he wanted to be known.

“I was a symbol of a Black man who wanted all of my freedoms,” he said. “It’s very difficult for White America to understand that if you are part of football’s elite why you are not satisfied with recognition and good money. . . . As an American citizen, I wanted the same rights as all Americans. Anyone who expected me to be overjoyed that I was doing well in football would be disappointed.”

From the famous 1967 Cleveland Summit with Muhammad Ali and several prominent Black athletes of that era to his persistence in fighting for what he believed in, Brown did plenty to challenge and better society. But he shouldn’t be remembered in the same way as Bill Russell, who died last summer. Brown’s history of domestic violence, mostly against women, tarnishes any perception of him as a hero.

He was arrested at least seven times for assault. In 1968, police suspected that Brown had thrown his girlfriend, Eva Bohn-Chin, off his second-story balcony in Hollywood. Bohn-Chin claimed that she fell accidentally and declined to testify, leading to the dismissal of an assault charge.

Despite numerous incidents and vile accusations, Brown avoided significant jail time. This is a difficult period in which so many revolutionary sports figures are exiting the world, and in Brown’s case, parts of his life were as ugly as the bigotry he overcame. His defiance was necessary and toxic all at once. There’s ample evidence that the strength many admired in his celebrity transformed into a violent temper in private. It’s a wicked juxtaposition that makes everything about Brown, even appreciating him as a cultural figure to be reckoned with, difficult to capture.

Throughout his 87 years, Brown kept making people uncomfortable. It was entertaining. It was courageous. And it was dishonorable. In one famous life, every facet of celebrity was twisted into the most confounding knot.

Now Brown is gone, an exit that feels as sudden as his departure from the NFL. Before the Super Bowl in February, I can’t remember ever looking at Jim Brown and thinking he was old. Then there he was at the NFL Honors, appearing frail. He wasn’t a specimen or a symbol anymore. He was vanishing.

The immovable, complicated star finally budged.