Any debate about the greatest player in NFL history is incomplete if Jim Brown’s name isn’t included.
Brown, whose name is still synonymous with greatness at the running back position more than 50 years after his final NFL game, died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles, his wife told the Associated Press and the Cleveland Browns confirmed. He was 87.
Jim Brown Forever 🧡🤎♾️
Legend. Leader. Activist. Visionary.
It’s impossible to describe the profound love and gratitude we feel for having the opportunity to be a small piece of Jim’s incredible life and legacy. We mourn his passing, but celebrate the indelible light he… pic.twitter.com/F2rrTUnsc1
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) May 19, 2023
Brown had a nearly immaculate NFL career. He played nine seasons for the Cleveland Browns and led the league in rushing eight times. He was a Pro Bowler all nine seasons and a first-team All-Pro eight times. Before he abruptly retired in 1966, he had the most rushing yards and touchdowns in NFL history. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
Brown’s legacy included civil rights advancement
Brown was more than a football player. He was a civil rights activist, putting together the famous “Ali Summit” of 1967 that included Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell. The New York Times said, “the moment itself would be remembered as the first — and last — time that so many African American athletes at that level came together to support a controversial cause."
Brown founded the Black Economic Union in the 1960s as a way to assist businesses owned by African Americans. Brown also founded the Amer-I-Can Foundation in the 1980s in an attempt to stop gang violence in Southern California. He often spoke out about a wide range of social issues, including educational reform, and continued to speak out after he turned 80 years old. Brown was critical of Black athletes like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods for not doing more to enact social change.
“They are the beneficiaries of our struggle,” Brown said about modern Black athletes in a 2002 interview with Sports Illustrated. “But they don't recognize that because they're inundated with agents, managers, lawyers and [team] owners who don't want them to do anything but play ball and hopefully keep themselves out of trouble and just be physical freaks of nature with no [awareness] of decision-making power.”
Brown was involved in politics into his 80s. He campaigned for Barack Obama, but later expressed disappointment with Obama’s time in office. Brown offered public support to Donald Trump after his presidential election in 2016, saying Trump “really talks about helping Black people.”
“When he went through what he went through to become President, he got my admiration,” Brown told CNN. “No one gave him a chance.”
Like many things about Brown, his political views were complicated. Brown, who was a key figure in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, was outspoken against Colin Kaepernick and others kneeling during the national anthem to bring attention to social injustice.
“He's always had this strain of conservatism in his politics that Black people do not achieve advancement through the politics of protest, but through the politics of earning as much money as possible, and trying to get out of the capitalist system whatever they can for the purposes of building economic self-sufficiency,” author Dave Zirin, who wrote a biography about Brown in 2018, told NPR. “And protest is an impediment to that in the mind of Jim Brown. And those have always been his politics.”
Movie star career
Brown was an actor, too. His sudden retirement was over a movie.
In 1966, Brown was filming “The Dirty Dozen” in London, and there were production delays due to bad weather. When Browns owner Art Modell threatened to suspend Brown if he showed up late to training camp, Brown informed Modell he was retiring at age 30.
In Brown’s final NFL season, he rushed for 1,544 yards and 17 touchdowns, leading the league in both categories. Yet he was content to walk away in his prime. Brown appeared in 55 movies or television shows as an actor, according to his IMDB page.
The most notable moment of Brown’s acting career might have come in the 1969 movie “100 Rifles,” when he and Raquel Welch had what is cited as the first interracial love scene in a mainstream movie.
Brown and issues of violence against women
Brown also made headlines for problems away from the field. He had a series of legal issues, most of which involved allegations of violence against women. According to the Los Angeles Times, Brown was accused in five cases of violence against women, including one in which he was accused of throwing a woman off a second-floor balcony. Those charges were dropped when the woman refused to name Brown as her assailant.
Brown was not convicted in any of those cases until he was sentenced to a six-month sentence in jail for smashing his wife’s windshield in 1999.
Superior athlete from lacrosse to football
Brown started his rise to fame as a standout athlete at Syracuse. Not only was he an All-American running back, he starred in basketball, lacrosse and track as well. He averaged 13.1 points in two seasons with Syracuse’s basketball team. He was so good at lacrosse, he’s in the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame and some argue he’s one of the greatest lacrosse players ever.
Cleveland took Brown with the sixth pick of the 1957 NFL Draft. He was an immediate star, leading the NFL in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns as a rookie, winning the Associated Press’ Most Outstanding Player award his first year. He won the Most Outstanding Player (renamed the MVP award in 1961) in 1958 too. Brown won MVP his final NFL season as well, in 1965.
Brown was bigger than almost any running back before him, with good speed to match. He was 6-foot-2, 232 pounds, which was almost as big as some of the top offensive linemen of his era, with more power and speed than the defenders who would try to bring him down. He finished his career with 5.2 yards per carry. Among retired players, only Marion Motley’s average of 5.7 yards per carry is better. Brown’s 12,312 rushing yards stood as the NFL record until Walter Payton broke it in 1984. Brown owned NFL record with 126 total touchdowns until 1994, when Jerry Rice scored his 127th touchdown.
Brown still holds some records that might never fall. He has eight rushing titles. No other player in NFL history has more than four. He rushed for 104.3 yards per game, and is the only player in NFL history who averaged more than 100.
NFL records — and football in general, for that matter — are only part of Brown’s legacy. More than 50 years after his sudden retirement, we’ve still never seen a running back quite like him.