Jim Brown Was a Force on the Field and for Change

Many consider the running back the NFL's greatest player
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted May 19, 2023 5:35 PM CDT
Jim Brown Seemed Unstoppable
Jim Brown in 2014.   (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

Jim Brown, a multisport college star, Hall of Fame running back in the NFL, high-profile actor, and consequential civil rights leader, has died. He was 87. Brown's wife, Monique, made the announcement in an Instagram post, ESPN reports, saying that he died peacefully at home in Los Angeles on Thursday night. "We lost a great fighter," said John Wooten, who roomed with Brown when they played for the Cleveland Browns, per USA Today. Many consider Brown the greatest player in the history of the NFL. He led the league in rushing in eight of his nine seasons. He was selected for the Pro Bowl every year and was a first-team All-Pro eight times. When Brown retired after the 1965 season, he had the most rushing yards and touchdowns in league history, per Yahoo Sports.

"I have never again seen a running back who was so much better than everyone else who did what he did at the time he was doing it," David Halberstam wrote in 2001, per the Washington Post. "He dominated his field in his era like few athletes ever have, perhaps matched only by Babe Ruth and Bill Russell." One of his coaches, Paul Brown, wrote: "As a pure runner he stands alone. Jim combined power, acceleration, speed and great balance with an inner toughness that never conceded the slightest edge to anybody." Cleveland won the 1964 NFL championship with Brown in the backfield. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, 1971. Brown is also considered one of the greatest lacrosse players of all time; he starred in the sport, as well as basketball and track, at Syracuse.

His football career ended when filming of the Dirty Dozen overlapped the beginning of training camp. Brown left with 15 NFL records and was league MVP three seasons. He was critical of Black athletes who didn't do enough as role models, and he organized a 1967 summit that included Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Russell and increased athletes' racial awareness, per the New York Times. He founded the Black Economic Union to help businesses owned by Black people, then Amer-I-Can, an organization to build self-esteem and ease tension among prisoners and gang members and prisoners. "The young Black male is the most powerful source of energy and change we have," he said. "My hope is to start a direction where these young men will be given respect and taught how to utilize it."

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Brown's personal life was tumultuous, troubled, and sometimes violent. He was arrested at least seven times for assault, usually after women accused him of attacking them. Brown was never convicted of a major crime, but he was tried. In 1968, police suspected he'd thrown his girlfriend off a second-floor balcony; she refused to testify. "I have had anger, and I'll probably continue to have anger," he once said. "I just have to not strike out at anyone ever again." On the football field, his drive made him seem unstoppable. An opposing defensive back was asked his strategy for tackling Brown. "Hold on and wait for help," he said. (More obituary stories.)

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