SI 60: 1954-94 How We Got Here Chapter 4: The Long, Hard Run
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the greatest stories the magazine ever ran. They will appear each weekday for the next 12 weeks. First up: Steve Rushin's magnum opus, How We Got Here, a five-part feature published in the Aug. 16, 1994 issue that celebrated SI's 40th anniversary and is, at 22,000 words, still the second-longest piece in the magazine's history.
"Got a pencil?'' Jim Brown asks when you call to arrange a visit.
''Here's what you do. Call 310-652-7***. Ask for Rockhead Johnson. He has my calendar. You two work out the date.''
''I'm sorry,'' you respond. ''What was the first name?''
''Rockhead. Rockhead Johnson.''
So you dutifully dial the number and wait for Rockhead to answer, but instead you get a receptionist at Amer-I-Can, Brown's public-service organization. Summoning the most businesslike voice that circumstances will allow, you ask, ''May I please speak to Rockhead? Rockhead Johnson?'' A long and awkward pause follows, after which you're told that Rock is out of the office. Rock will be back in an hour. Can Rock return your call?
''This is Rock,'' Rock says when he phones back later. ''Rock Johnson.''
By now the full horror has hit you: You've been had -- suckered, as Brown likes to say. The man's name isn't Rockhead at all. Only one person calls him that, and only one person gets away with it. You've just been juked by Jim Brown.
He is still a familiar presence on television, an imposing bust on the small screen: His square head sits on square shoulders, a square hat sits on his square head. At 58 he remains an enormous Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot of a man. His arms are crisscrossed with scars, his fingers veer off at each joint in unexpected directions, remnants of the cartoon-violent NFL of the 1950s and '60s.
But that vision of a massive, muddied Brown begins to evaporate in your head while you drive, high above Sunset Boulevard, on a serpentine street that runs like a stream through the Hollywood Hills, Benzes and BMWs docked bargelike on both curbs. You turn off and plunge down into Jim Brown's driveway, where a young, besuited chauffeur, who has been dispatched by a local television studio, takes it upon himself to try to shoo you and your sorry blue Pontiac from the premises.
Moments later you are rescued, and Brown is amused. ''I live in a boolshit world,'' he says of Hollywood. ''But that's cool. When I go out, it's like, 'Put on your suit, baby, you're going down into the circus.' You go to Roxbury's, you know what you're going for: To see the stars and the girls and the boolshit -- 'Hey, what's goin' on, babe?' 'Aaaaay, Big Jim, what's happenin', man?' There's a time and place for that, as long as you don't buy into it. My way to cut through the boolshit is with simplicity. And when I stay here, everything is simple.''
Jim Brown tolerates no boolshit. It is practically his credo. Ask him why he so unabashedly admires Muhammad Ali, and Brown tells you straight up: ''He has the heart and courage to stand up for beliefs that are unpopular.'' Bill Russell? ''Exceptionally smart, exceptionally principled, no boolshit.'' Conversely, in his autobiography Brown calls O.J. Simpson a ''phony'' and adds: ''The Juice likes to pretend he's modest, but that's just the Juice being the Juice. O.J. is extremely smart, man knows how to make a buck, and his 'aw shucks' image is his meal ticket. He's not about to jeopardize it by being honest.'' And: ''I never look at him the way I
do a Bill Russell, or a Walter Payton. I talk to those guys, see them speak, I know what I'm hearing is the real man. Too often, I can't say the same about O.J.'' The book was published five years ago.
Today, just down the hill, lies the circus, Los Angeles, a scary riot of Simpson hearings and Menendez shootings and King beatings -- an apocalyptic place of fire, earthquake, mudslide and pestilence that only four decades ago was an Eden to Walter O'Malley. But up here at the Brown residence, all appears to be placid and predictable simplicity. He has lived in the same house, driven the same car, had the same telephone number since 1968.
That was the spring when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. A framed portrait of King hangs in Brown's foyer. But nowhere on display in the house is a single personal memento of Brown's own varied careers -- as a football superstar, as a film actor, as an activist in what he calls ''the movement for dignity, equality and justice.''
Toward that end Brown has opened his immaculate home through the years to an astonishing cross section of humanity. Recently, Brown says, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp and the head of the Nation of Islam shared the couch on which we now sit. ''I can have Louis Farrakhan here, you, 15 Jews,'' he says. ''It don't make no damn difference.''
Never has. As a child he was thrown in with all races and generations, almost from the time his father, Swinton (Sweet Sue) Brown, a fighter and a gambler, abandoned him at birth. Jim Brown was raised by his great- grandmother, whom he called Mama, on St. Simons Island, off the coast of Georgia. He went to school in a segregated, two-room shack, went to the toilet in the backyard. When he was eight, Mama gave him a box lunch, buttoned him up and put him on a train for Manhasset, N.Y., where his mother worked as a domestic. In that white and wealthy community Jim Brown became an athletic prodigy. At Manhasset High he was a kind of ward of a group of white professional men, doctors and lawyers and teachers, who demanded that he study and run for student government.
''Without Manhasset, without Dr. Collins and Ken Molloy and Mr. Dawson and Ed Walsh, it would've been impossible,'' Brown says of his remarkable existence. ''These people actually saved my life, man. I would never, ever have been anything without them. And it was so pure. If kids can see honesty and interest from people of that age, that's what builds, man. So you can't fool me with all of the other boolshit, 'cause I've got an example for the rest of my life. You wanna see what goodness is? I look at those people. I know what love is. I know what patience is. I know what consistency is. I know what honesty is.''
Ken Molloy was a Manhasset attorney and a former Syracuse lacrosse player who insisted that Brown select Syracuse over the dozens of schools that were recruiting him for football, basketball and baseball. It was only after Brown arrived on campus, housed in a different dorm from the rest of the football team, eating on a different meal plan, that he first fully encountered discrimination. It made him miserable in that freshman year of 1953-54.
You have asked Jim Brown to look at his remarkable life. You are seated in his living room, which overlooks the pool, which overlooks the yard, which overlooks Los Angeles. You have come to take in the view: of race, celebrity, the real world and the star athlete's obligations therein these last four decades. Brown has seemingly lived every issue in sport and society since he left home for Syracuse so long ago. He continues to work in places like South Central and San Quentin. You ask Jim Brown to assess this public life he entered 40 years ago, and he says, ''I am oh, so tired.''
Just before 1 p.m. on May 17, 1954, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States began to read the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Legal segregation was ending. In Harlem that year Malcolm X was appointed the leader of Temple Seven for the Nation of Islam. And across the river in the Bronx, the great New York Yankees of Mantle and Berra and Stengel had still not dressed a black player.
''I came up at the crossroads of segregation,'' says Brown. ''There were still colleges where black players couldn't play. There were teams that would go south and black players had to stay in private homes. These were very difficult times. It was a blessing on the one hand because there were opportunities, but it was demeaning because you were still looked on as inferior. It was almost as if you'd been given a favor. And you always felt you had to perform much, much better.''
And so Jimmy Brown, the only black on the freshman football team at Syracuse, went from fifth-string halfback to the best player in the nation in his four years of playing for a coaching staff that -- save for an assistant named Roy Simmons -- initially begrudged his presence there.
But by the time Brown graduated in 1957, Syracuse was eager to recruit black halfback Ernie Davis and then Floyd Little, both of whom wore Brown's number 44. Syracuse won a national football championship in 1959 and now regularly fills that dome named for Willis H. Carrier, and much of that is directly attributable to the heroics of James Nathaniel Brown. It is more indirectly attributable to Simmons, the kind assistant football and head lacrosse coach who took Brown under his wing; with Simmons's guidance, Brown used his spare time to become, many would say, the greatest lacrosse player in history before going on to do the same, many more would say, in football.
Jim Brown scored 38 points a game as a high school basketball player. He was drafted by the Syracuse Nationals of the NBA in 1957 even though he had stopped playing basketball after his junior season in college. He received a letter of inquiry from the great Stengel of the Yankees -- even though, by Brown's own admission, ''I wasn't that good.''
On his final day as an athlete at Syracuse, Brown won the discus and shot put in a varsity track meet, returned to the dressing room to change for a lacrosse match and was called back to the track by a student manager. Could he throw the javelin? Brown threw the javelin 162 feet on one attempt. Syracuse won the meet.
The man belonged to a higher species. Jim Brown was built like a martini glass, with a 46-inch chest and a 32-inch waist; he was an exceptionally fast man who looked slow in motion on the football field: gracefully slow, a man running in a swimming pool.
Pulling out of his stance and bursting through the line, he accumulated would-be tacklers, men hopping a moving train, until he slowed and finally collapsed eight or 10 or 12 yards upfield, buried beneath a short ton of violent giants. One didn't really try to tackle Brown; one tried only to catch him, as one catches the 8:05. ''All you can do is grab hold, hang on and wait for help'' is how Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff put it.
Brown rose slowly from the scrum after every carry and hobbled back to the huddle in apparent pain before bursting through the scrimmage line on the next play for another eight or 10 or 12 yards. This was the earliest hint of Brown's acting aspirations, for he wasn't really hurt, or at least not hampered. No, in his entire nine-year professional career, he never missed a game. He played all of the 1962 season with a severely sprained wrist just this side of broken. He did not wear hip pads, ever. And so it finally became apparent to opposing defenses that Brown wasn't ever going to be hurt by conventional malevolence.
He was simply that rarest kind of competitor, who made men and women gape, whose performances each Sunday displayed the pure athlete in his prime. Jim Brown is why we love sports in the first place, the reason we tolerate the big dough, the crybabies, the boolshit.
He joined the Cleveland Browns in 1957, a year before pro football came of age with the Baltimore Colt-New York Giant overtime championship game. His coach, the progressive Paul Brown, just gave him the ball and let him run, which is all Jim Brown really wanted. ''But you could never just play and not be cognizant of the social situation in the country,'' he says. ''Every day of your life, that was in your mind. You had to question why they only put black players at certain positions, why there were positions that blacks weren't smart enough to play. They had a whole bunch of rules. You always had an even number of blacks on the team so they could room with each other. You always had six or eight. You couldn't have . . . five.'' Brown laughs, then immediately turns stern.
''So I was very conscious of the civil-rights movement,'' he continues, ''and very active in what I call the movement for dignity, equality and justice. In fact, it superseded my interest in sports. Sports gave me an opportunity to help the cause. And so I did that.''
He made certain that his black teammates wore suits and ties, urged them to be fiscally responsible and saw to it that they were at all times protective of their own dignity. Whenever Brown uses the word, as he does often, he says it slowly, carefully enunciating all three syllables: DIG-ni-ty.
In the mid-1960s he enjoyed trolling the black community of Cleveland in his Cadillac convertible or walking the streets of Philadelphia with the former Cassius Clay, greeting the people in barbershops and record stores, the two greatest athletes of their time just saying hello to folks, their very presence bestowing DIG-ni-ty on a depressed and unsuspecting neighborhood.
The night Clay beat Sonny Liston in Miami for the heavyweight championship in 1964, Brown sat with him for two hours afterward in Clay's hotel, with Malcolm X waiting in the next room, as Cassius confided to Brown that he had embraced Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam and had taken the name Muhammad Ali.
Brown was in London two years later, filming The Dirty Dozen, when Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army. ''A Muslim who was managing Ali told me that they wouldn't mind him going into the service,'' recalls Brown, ''but they couldn't tell him that.'' So Brown flew to Cleveland, where a group of fellow black athletes were gathering to hear Ali out in a much-publicized summit meeting. Brown, Lew Alcindor, Willie Davis, Bill Russell and John Wooten listened as Ali said, ''My fate is in the hands of Allah.'' The group then announced support for their friend, whose religious convictions were all they had to hear. . . .
The story continues, but Brown cannot be heard over the whine of a weed whacker, wielded by a man trimming the lawn out back. ''See that man right there?'' Brown asks when the noise recedes. ''He's a gardener, and he's one of the best men I've ever met. I respect that man as much as I respect anyone. He does his job. He's fair. He doesn't complain. He's considerate. He's a family man. He's got principles.''
The weed whacker is wailing again, but no matter. You already know how the Ali story ends: Brown flies back to London from Cleveland, never to return to football. In nine seasons he had gained a record 12,312 yards and won a championship. He got out at his peak, just before the epochal 1966 season, just before the NFL-AFL merger and the Super Bowl and the hype. His final salary in football was $65,000.
The Dirty Dozen established Brown as an actor. And while Gloria Steinem called him ''the black John Wayne,'' his thespian talents were better described by Lee Marvin, who said that Brown was ''a better actor than Olivier would have been a fullback.'' Brown always played the same character, essentially himself; even the names didn't change much: Fireball, Slaughter, Gunn, Hammer, Pike. After five years the Industry tired of Brown, and Brown tired of the Industry -- ''I began to wonder,'' he says, ''Do I have to be called nigger in every script?'' -- and he fell back on the work he'd been doing all along.
In the late 1960s the Ford Foundation had given more than a million dollars to the Black Economic Union (BEU), an organization that Brown had helped form to promote black entrepreneurship through a network of athletes and MBAs. More than 400 businesses were touched by the union, whose motto is splayed across the top of a battered newsletter that Brown fishes from a file in his den: PRODUCE, ACHIEVE, PROSPER, declares Volume I, Number I of the publication, dated April 1968. Among the items inside is a photograph of eight black high school students in Cleveland. The BEU would be funding their college educations, much as those men in Manhasset had done for Brown 15 years before.
''It's only a drop,'' says Brown, suddenly putting away the file, ''because what's happened is, there has been no follow-through with black athletes today.''
''If I had the participation of the top 20 athletes in this country, we could probably create a nationwide gang truce,'' Brown is telling you, as well as a professor from the University of Iowa who is visiting Brown's house while researching a book on gangs. ''These athletes represent such a great amount of resources and influence. These kids would be flattered to have their lives changed by them.''
It may be little more than an accident of geography, but a trip to Brown's hillside home, up the winding drive that requires one to climb and climb, has the quality of a visit to some mountaintop guru, a man offering solutions to intractable problems. And among the most intractable of those problems -- a fly in the rich soup du jour of sports and TV and money -- is the notion that sports is now eating its young.
''You give the kids athletes to follow, and you give them false hope,'' Brown is saying. ''You take the emphasis off just being a good student, getting a job and having a family. Instead, it's 'I want to be Michael Jordan. I want to have those shoes.' Kids in this area also look to the drug dealer, the gangster, the killer as a hero, which is something we didn't used to have. So these are the two sets of heroes, and both of them are bad.''
Which is something we didn't used to have. Ask Brown what happened in the 1970s and '80s to create these problems, and he'll tell you it was the '70s and '80s themselves. The '70s, the Me Decade, the Decade
of Free Agency, and the '80s, with its alliterative icons, Michael Milken and Gordon Gekko, and its alliterative mantra, Greed is good. Back-to-back decades of decadence.
''The rich got richer, didn't they?'' Brown says. ''Well, who suffered? If you've got all the money, I'm gonna suffer. When executives are paying themselves $500 million, that's tyin' up a lotta dough. Take anything to an extreme, it will self-destruct. That's why the destruction of the Soviet Union was inevitable. . . . And this country has festered; there's an underbelly: Prisons are overcrowded, recidivism is at an alltime high, the education system is going downhill, there's this new culture of drugs and gangsters and killing without any thought. Kids are shooting each other at 13 and 14, and all of a sudden it's not gonna stay in the inner city.''
As if on cue, a 13-year-old boy from Brown's neighborhood appears at the front door. Brown says hello, asks the boy how his father has been, asks him where his mother is, then lowers the boom. ''I heard you got a beeper now. You got a beeper?'' he asks the kid, referring to the new totem of the urban street criminal. The boy nods shyly.
''For what?'' demands Brown.
''Messages? What do you need messages for?''
By now two other kids have arrived with a parent, and the whole group walks through the open house and out back to the pool. Brown sighs tremendously, and it sounds like the air brakes decompressing on a city bus.
''The other culture's taken over,'' he says. ''The gangsta culture. Everything is gangsta rap, the gangsta attitude, gangsta body language. Car- jackings. Drive-bys. Red, blue, Disciples. Snoop Doggy Dogg has more influence on kids than Bill Clinton does.'' Brown yawns enormously, like the MGM lion.
''So the teacher no longer gets any respect,'' he continues. ''The teacher used to get respect. Athletic programs on the lower levels no longer have an effect on the general populace of schools. It used to be that athletic activity was healthy. You played, but you weren't playing to become a pro. Now, if you don't have pro potential, sports are a waste of time. Agents are now looking down to high schools to find potential prospects. So it's no longer fun. Even the Olympics are no longer fun.
''When I was playing, you weren't gonna make a whole lotta money. But you were playing the game, and playing the game at the highest possible level. And you liked that. That's why the greatest sporting event I see today is the Ryder Cup. It's about nothing except caring about competition. You can see that it means something to those guys. You can see them choking on short putts, it means so much. I don't see that in other sports.
''Now, money, period, has become the game. So the game suffers. An individual will go anywhere. The day after a team wins the World Series, the team is changed. Sure you gotta make money, but how much money, and at what cost? A person couldn't buy my house right now for any amount of money. Because it's my home. I'm comfortable here. Quality of life is what's most important.''
This much is certain: By 1994 too many athletes, teams, entire franchises have long forgotten the concept of home, and too many children have never known it. As the millennium nears its end, home is just that place where you pause and pose after hitting a baseball out of the park.
''When I was growing up in Georgia, I guess we were supposed to be poor,'' Brown says. ''But we weren't poor. We had all the crab and fish and vegetables that we could eat. The house was small and weather-beaten, but hell, I lived well. Because there was so much family there, a whole community of people who cared about each other. See, that was my foundation. I'd hate to have to come up without that.''
And so, in places like Trenton and Canton and Compton, Brown teaches rudimentary life skills to gang members and soon-to-be-released convicts through his Amer-I-Can program. He directs a staff of 50 street-credentialed ''facilitators,'' who help people learn to do things like read and get a job and manage their personal finances -- which isn't to say that Brown's role is hands-off.
A visitor to one symposium on gangs in Brown's home tells the story of a punk who kept disrupting the host's efforts to establish a dialogue. After Brown repeatedly asked the young man to excuse himself, the young man challenged Brown to step outside with him. Well, Brown and the gang-banger wound up rolling out the back door in a comic-book ball of dust. Shortly thereafter they reappeared and shook hands, and the meeting resumed.
One of Brown's charges -- ''one of my gangsters,'' as Brown calls them -- recently got out of his gang, got a job and got married. The wedding was held at Brown's house.
O.J. Simpson was himself a gang member made good. He now stands charged with double homicide, having been cheered by ''fans'' on live television while fleeing police on the L.A. freeways. It's said we like to build our stars up just to tear them down, and in fin de siecle California, the state may deem it necessary to execute one of the greatest athletic stars it has produced. When Simpson was charged in June, Brown unbecomingly appeared on national TV to offer the opinion that Simpson was a cocaine user. In football they call what Brown did ''piling on.''
They are both former running backs and actors who make their homes 10 miles apart in Los Angeles. Simpson eclipsed Brown's single-season NFL rushing record in 1973. Both men have histories of domestic-violence allegations. The Los Angeles Police Department has released tapes of a 911 call that Nicole Brown Simpson made when her enraged ex-husband broke down a door to her home and entered, screaming obscenities. Brown has been accused at least four times of violence against young women, most notably in 1968, when he was accused of throwing his girlfriend from a balcony. None of the charges were proved in court, and Brown denies them all. ''I like sex. . . . I mess with young women,'' he says. ''I know it's bad, but I'm bad.''
Riinnnnnngg. An end-table telephone springs to life.
''Hello?'' says Brown. ''Mm-hmm? Oh, I'm sorry, but I'm finished. Yeah, I can't explain anything anymore. Well, I'm so sorry, but I can't. Mm-hmm . . . I wish I could. . . . No, I don't have anything to say. . . . Yeah, but I'm not interested in all that. I've said my piece, and I'm gonna let that roll. I'm gonna watch and see what happens. See, the public has to get educated. I'm already educated. I know what's goin' on. I deal with real life. I don't get into things that I don't know about. But thank you. Thanks for calling.''
Yet another caller asking Brown to handicap the upcoming Simpson preliminary hearing? ''Yeah, because I brought the whole cocaine thing up,'' says a weary Brown, who claims somewhat dubiously that he was just trying to bolster an insanity plea, that cocaine could provide a devil-made-me-do-it defense for Simpson. ''They criticize me. They say I'm against O.J. I'm for him. I'm for truth. You and me and O.J., we all have our negatives and our positives. I know this is America and we like to have our heroes, but hell: Martin Luther King screwing around -- people are still in denial about that. The Kennedys, Bobby and John, they womanized. I look at the good and at the bad. Do I like a lot of women? Hell, yeah. What bothers me is when people hold on to the falseness of something.
''Did you hear the  tapes?'' he asks, by way of explaining why he has no interest in the elaborate pas de deux of the courtroom. ''There's this whole emphasis on who leaked the tapes, not on the truth, not on whatever is real, not on resolving this in a real manner. Everyone is interested in the courtroom and what happens there. Well, hell, all kinds of crazy things can happen in the courtroom, and this is not necessarily going to get resolved.
''I looked at the Rodney King beating and said he got the crap kicked out of him, and I don't care what you say, I'm finished with it,'' says Brown. ''But they turned all that around in court.'' Brown laughs. ''Y'all can go on and talk all that boolshit; I saw the beating. That thing was ridiculous.'' Brown's laugh gains momentum, a ball rolling slowly downhill. ''Those guys suckered that case so bad, they got everyone in doubt.'' Brown imitates himself watching the King tape on TV, stroking his chin reflectively: ''Well, maybe he didn't get beaten. . . .''
And Jim Brown sputters one more tired laugh.
Ask him how he will be remembered, and Brown offers his own epitaph. It isn't much: ''On the popular level, they'll say, 'He was a football player. Controversial. Threw a girl out the window.' I don't care. Maybe they'll say, 'He was honest.' ''
But he does care, all of us do, and so Brown tells one final story. When his friend Huey Newton, the former Black Panther leader, was shot to death on an Oakland street in 1989, Brown was asked to read a memorial poem at the funeral. Standing at the podium, Brown had a look at the faces sprouting from the pews: H. Rap Brown, William Kunstler, a whole team photo of '60s revolutionaries. He had an epiphany: ''That these people were just like me,'' Brown recalls. ''Different methodologies, but the same goal: to make this a better country.''
His body creaks massively as he rises from the sofa and says goodbye. As you're leaving, as you approach the drawing of MLK in the foyer, you sense again that little has changed in this house since 1968. There is one thing, though. ''I'm stiff,'' you hear Brown saying, with a laugh, as you exit the room. ''I'm gettin' old.''
And then Jim Brown heads for the patio, still looking for daylight.