I was saddened to read today of the death of Jim Brown. He was an enduring figure for me and for many, both for his legendary exploits on the football field and for his leadership and fearlessness off the field.
In my view, Jim Brown was unquestionably the greatest running back in NFL history, and it isn’t really arguable. He routinely racked up 1,000-yard rushing seasons at a time when the NFL played far fewer regular season games and set the record of 1,863 rushing yards in a single season that endured for years. His career statistics are ridiculous: in only nine years in the league and 118 games, he rushed for 12,312 yards and 106 touchdowns and added 2,499 yards and 20 touchdowns as a receiver. His career average of 104.3 rushing yards per game remains an NFL record. With his size, power, and speed, he was perhaps the only player of his era who could play, and dominate, in the modern NFL.
But his achievements on the football field told only part of the story. Jim Brown was a force. In a great book, They Call It A Game, Bernie Parrish, a former Browns player, recounts Jim Brown coming into the room for the team’s breakfast on the morning of the 1964 NFL title game, the last time the Browns won the championship. “Jim Brown entered the room,” Parrish wrote, “and everyone felt his presence.” He had that kind of personal magnetism, and he took no guff from anyone. When the Browns owner insisted Brown come to training camp and leave the filming of The Dirty Dozen, Brown retired–at age 30, and at the peak of his career. Who knows what records he would have set if he had continued to play?
Jim Brown was active and outspoken about civil rights, racial injustice, and other causes, at a time when few athletes took that risk. He formed what would become the Black Economic Union to encourage black entrepreneurs. He wasn’t perfect, and he had a checkered personal life that was marred by accusations of violence against women. That part of his story shouldn’t be sugar-coated, but it also shouldn’t prevent people from admiring the positive contributions he made, on and off the field.
Just as Jim’s Brown presence was felt, his absence will be felt, too. He was 87.