Jim Brown: The best, on and off the field

National Football League flags flew at half-staff on May 19th upon news of the death of Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown. The Cleveland Browns legend was 87, but he still left the world far too soon. Even those unfamiliar with football could learn valuable lessons from Brown’s consequential life.


On the field, Brown was the greatest professional football player ever. Fans of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Jerry Rice may disagree, but Brown was the best. Brady and Manning played a protected position in a cocoon pocket. Defenders received penalties for barely touching them. Rice ran around in open spaces. Football is a collision sport. Those men smartly avoided collisions. Brown initiated collisions and won them. He had speed, but his raw power allowed him to dominate men dedicated to stopping him. Brown bowled over men in an era before many safety protocols were enacted. Others played football. Brown is football.


One famous incident occurred between Brown and superstar New York Giants linebacker Sam Huff. After tackling Brown for a loss, Huff yelled, “Brown, you stink.” On the next play, Brown blew past everyone for a 75-yard touchdown run. Upon reaching the end zone, Brown yelled out, “Hey Sam, how do I smell from here?”


Battles between these two competitors occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s against the backdrop of racial politics. Brown was the leading black athlete while Huff was white. Yet on the field, these men shared mutual respect. Whoever won on any given Sunday did so on merit.


Brown was keenly aware of the civil rights struggle for racial equality, but he separated politics from football. His coach Paul Brown (not related) drilled into his players the concept of meritocracy. Jim Brown remarked in an interview that “Paul didn’t talk to us about integration. He talked to us about excellence.”


Jim Brown was dedicated to excellence, which allowed him to be more vocal about political and social matters. The American white majority accepted and embraced Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan because of the groundwork laid by Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown.


After winning the 1964 NFL Championship, Brown became an international star. When Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell tried to rein Brown in, Brown simply retired from football in 1965 at the peak of his dominance. He then became even more relevant.


When society frowned about black men romancing white women, Brown shared a big screen romance with the biggest Caucasian female sex symbol alive. His kiss with Raquel Welch had every red-blooded American male wanting to be Jim Brown.


Yet conquering football and Hollywood was not enough. Brown stayed hungry, this time for political change and social action. Now he had more than power. He had moral authority. He counseled of thousands of young black men into bettering themselves. He straddled the fine line between demanding more for blacks from white America and more for blacks from themselves. Brown would often sit with rival gang members and get them to make peace. Very few people could get them into a room together. Brown demanded that the black-on-black gang warfare stop. Many gang members listened.


Brown also formed the Black Economic Union to help minority-owned businesses achieve more opportunities. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both worked with Brown on his economic and mentoring initiatives in minority communities. When Brown spoke, both of these loquacious political leaders listened silently. Brown did not want to hear political talk. He wanted from politicians what he delivered his entire life…results.


Brown demanded that the American government help level the racial playing field. He simultaneously demanded of young black men that once they are on their chosen field, that they strive for excellence. This dual track allowed Brown to be revered by black leftists and white conservatives alike.


The NFL lost a legend. The world lost a man of excellence who embodied the spirit of American exceptionalism.


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