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Why Jim Brown Matters

To his football heirs—from Barry Sanders to Adrian Peterson—he’s the one player by which their own greatness is measured. To those who played with and against the Cleveland Browns legend, his prowess, intensity and intellect remain awe-inspiring. Fifty years after walking away from the game at his peak, he still towers over the NFL. Yes, he was just that good

Portrait photographs by Robert Beck for The MMQB

LOS ANGELES — The end came suddenly, and from an ocean away. Fifty years ago, in the 1965 season, Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown led the NFL in rushing with 1,544 yards in a 14-game season, an astonishing 677 yards more than runner-up Gale Sayers, the phenomenal Chicago Bears rookie. Brown had been voted the Associated Press most valuable player for the third time in his nine-year career and had helped lead the defending-champion Browns back to the NFL title game, a 23-12 loss to Vince Lombardi’s Packers in mud and sub-freezing temperatures at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field. There were other stars in the pre-merger, pre-Super Bowl, 14-team NFL, a professional league that was still in the nascent stages of its climb to multibillion-dollar conglomerate: Colts quarterback John Unitas, Packers running backs Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor and defenders Willie Davis and Herb Adderly, Rams linemen Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen, Lions pass-rusher Alex Karras and Bears rookies Sayers and Dick Butkus. But Brown towered over the league, a physical and intellectual force like none other in American sports history, at the peak of his powers.

Brown won his third MVP award and eighth rushing title in 1965, then left the game on top. (James Drake/Sports Illustrated)

Brown won his third MVP award and eighth rushing title in 1965, then left the game on top. (James Drake/Sports Illustrated)

In late November of that year, Time magazine had featured “Jimmy” Brown on its cover. The accompanying story was burdened by the awkward, race-tinged prose of the time, including the headline—“Pro Football: Look at Me, Man!”—and a description of Brown as “…. a fire-breathing, chocolate-colored monster...” Beneath all that, however, the story pushed forward an earnest agenda: to establish that Brown was the best football player in the world and quite possibly the best in history. “There is only one player in the game today whose ability on field commands almost universal admiration, and that is Jimmy Brown.” In the previous three seasons Brown had rushed for 4,853 yards, averaging 5.64 yards per carry and 115 yards per game. He was 29 years old, punished by a violent game but scarcely diminished. In fact, he was better than ever. He was also finished.

The Browns convened training camp the following July at Hiram College, outside Cleveland, as they had every summer since 1954. They remained a viable threat to Lombardi’s budding dynasty, along with the Colts and the Cowboys, a six-year-old expansion franchise with an innovative young coach named Tom Landry. But they were preparing without their star. Brown was in London filming The Dirty Dozen, a big-budget (for its time) movie that had been beset by production delays. This was Brown’s second film role; he had acted in Rio Conchos during the 1964 offseason and received mostly positive reviews when the movie hit theaters in the fall of that year. Brown was also embroiled in a public dispute with team owner Art Modell, who was fining Brown $100 for every day that he did not report to camp.

In retrospect, what happened next could have been foreseen. Yet it was shocking nonetheless. On the night of July 13, eighth-year guard John Wooten, received a phone call in his Hiram dorm from Brown. They were close friends. Wooten heard a strong yet weary voice on the other end of the line. “He wanted to tell me what was going on,” says Wooten. “He told me to let the guys in the locker room know that he was going to announce his retirement. He felt he had given his all. He didn’t want to go through all this stuff.” Brown also made his decision known to coach Blanton Collier and Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Hal Lebovitz, who broke the story in his paper.

On the set of The Dirty Dozen, 1966. (Photo: AP)

On the set of The Dirty Dozen, 1966. (Photo: AP)

On the morning of July 14, 1966, Brown conducted a press conference on the set of The Dirty Dozen, wearing military fatigues while sitting in a tall director’s chair placed in front of a tank. “My original intention was to try to participate in the 1966 National Football League season,” Brown said, reading from a piece of paper. “But due to circumstances, this is impossible.”

One day later Brown met with esteemed Sports Illustrated pro football writer Tex Maule on the set of the movie. Their remarkable exchange formed the basis for a single-source story in the July 25, 1966, issue of SI. In it Brown lays out the blueprint for an activist life beyond football, a life that had already begun with his formation of the Negro Industrial Economic Union (again, the language of the times), in which he involved many of his teammates. His movie career and his dispute with Modell accelerated his movement into a life he was already seeking.

Brown told Maule: “I could have played longer. I wanted to play this year, but it was impossible. We’re running behind schedule shooting here, for one thing. I want more mental stimulation than I would have playing football. I want to have a hand in the struggle that is taking place in our country, and I have the opportunity to do that now. I might not a year from now.”

And later this: “I quit with regret but not sorrow.”

In summer training camps around the league that year, players were stunned. “I heard it and I didn’t believe it,” says Dick LeBeau, at the time a Pro Bowl defensive back with the Lions. “He was much too good and much too young to retire. But I will also say that we weren’t sorry to see him go.” Ed Khayat, then 31, had come into the league with Jim Brown in 1957 and played against him 18 times in nine seasons with the Eagles and Redskins. He heard about the retirement while working out for one last season with the Boston Patriots of the AFL. “I thought it was impossible that Jim Brown was going to retire,” said Khayat. “His play hadn’t dropped off at all. I just couldn’t imagine it.”

Adrian Peterson would have to average 1,900 yards per season for the next three full seasons to match Brown’s per-game rushing mark, the 56-game hitting streak of NFL records.

Yet the sport moved quickly forward, as it does. The first season without Brown, the Packers defeated the ascendant Cowboys in Dallas to win the NFL title and represent the NFL in the first Super Bowl. The Browns remained an annual contender for nearly a decade after Brown’s retirement but famously have not win a title since 1964. Stories surfaced regularly hinting at a comeback, even as late as an absurd cover piece in SI in 1983 with Brown wearing a Raiders jersey. But he never did come back. He finished his career with 12,312 rushing yards in 118 games, a record that wasn’t broken until 1984, when Walter Payton went past him in 18 more games and 451 more carries. Brown’s career record of 104.3 rushing yards per game remains the 56-game hitting streak of NFL records. (Adrian Peterson, 30, would have to average almost 1,900 yards per season for the next three full seasons to tie Brown’s mark; it would take more than 2,500 yards for Peterson to do it in one year).

And all of this comes with a bold-faced ellipsis. On a summer morning at the Vikings complex in the suburbs southwest of the Twin Cities, Paul Wiggin, 79, sat grading videotape in the office where he works as personnel consultant for the team. Wiggin and Brown came to Cleveland the same year, 1957. “Jim retired two years before I did,” said Wiggin. “He could have played 10 years beyond me if he wanted.”

AT HOME

To reach Jim Brown’s house in Los Angeles, you drive uphill from the hustle of Sunset Boulevard on perilous, serpentine roadways that sweep past fabulous homes nestled into the hillside bramble, where a person’s address alone conveys a certain kind of success. Brown’s house is protected by a hulking metal gate—a relatively recent addition to the property—and sits at the bottom of a steep driveway. He lives here with his second wife, Monique, 41, and their two children, son Aris, 13, and daughter Morgan, 12.

Brown comes into the living room wearing Cleveland Browns sweatpants and a black Under Armour t-shirt. He is 79 years old, with graying stubble on his chin and cheeks, yet he retains the physical and emotional presence of his youth. His voice is deep and purposeful, though weakened and slowed by age, with the same hints of his Georgia roots that have always been present. He wants to know what route you drove to get here. You explain: Sunset to Laurel Canyon to Kirkwood, and then, frankly, it was too scary to recall the street names and there was this one time where you had to back down 200 yards to let a garbage truck pass. Brown laughs, a slow, halting series of Heh…Heh…Hehs. He does this often, the weary chuckle of a man who has seen and heard everything. “Ooooo,” he says. “That’s the hard way. When you leave here, just turn right and follow the yellow line down to Sunset.” You sense this is a message he has delivered frequently.

In 1967, Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and other black athletes gathered to support Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam. (Photo: Tony Tomsic/Getty Images)

In 1967, Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and other black athletes gathered to support Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam. (Photo: Tony Tomsic/Getty Images)

Brown’s home is a relatively modest two-story bungalow. But out through the tall windows in the living room is a sprawling, wooden deck that surrounds a swimming pool, and beyond the deck is a 270-degree panorama of Los Angeles, far below. On the right day you can see beyond the airport, beyond Long Beach and all the way to Catalina Island. Brown walked into the house in 1966 with his lawyer and a real estate agent, saw the view and bought it on the spot. “Told him, ‘I don’t even care what else is here besides the view,’” says Brown. “It’s a neat place. Served us well. A lot of history. A lot of people have been up here.” Muhammad Ali has been in this house. And Elvis. Louis Farrakhan. Huey Newton. Hugh Hefner. Johnnie Cochran. Michael Jackson. Jay Z. Gloria Steinem. Along with hundreds of troubled young men and gang leaders. A lot of people, indeed.

“Too many players stay too long. Too many players rely on the game. I retired because it was time to do other things.”

The guest list is a point of pride for Brown, but no more than this: “I came up here in 1966 and lived here since,” he says. “I never had to sell my house.” As if the world always sought to take away what he had earned.

You are here because Brown, on the 50th anniversary of his final season, and the end of a career unlike any other in the game’s history, has consented to an interview about that career. And let’s be frank, because each passing year moves us further from that career, so that one day it will be just numbers on a page, unseen by any living soul. But because this is Jim Brown, the discussion will veer off in many directions, much like the thick, gnarled fingers on Brown’s hands, the ones he once used to ward off tacklers. We will get there. But for now, there are the words he spoke to Tex Maule on a movie set in London in that summer of 1966. Words about regret, but no sorrow, and a harsh decision made at a young age.

Brown is sitting at a high glass table with tall chairs, like barstools. “I really wanted to leave on time,” he says. “Too many players stay too long. Too many players rely on the game. I retired at the peak of my career. I didn’t retire because I was broken down and slow. I retired because it was time to retire and do other things.”

You ask him about Art Modell and the $100 daily fines. Brown leans forward. “You want the real story?” he asks. “I had no bargaining power. But the only thing the Browns had over me was that if I wanted to keep playing football, I had to play for the Browns. But they couldn’t tell me I had to play football. Art was going to fine me for every day I stayed on the movie set? I said, ‘Art what are you talking about? You can’t fine me if I don’t show up. S---, I’m gone now. You opened the door.’”

Now you ask about the ellipsis. The what-if Jim Brown had played a few more years. Brown doesn’t like the question. He doesn’t like questions that lead him to answer in a certain way. He likes to frame his own answers into mini-speeches. “My ego is such that I did what I did on the football field,” Brown says. “If you like it, cool. If you don’t like it, that’s all right with me, because I can’t do it no more.”

THE PEERS’ PERSPECTIVE

Brown versus the Eagles in 1961. (Photo: Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated)

Brown versus the Eagles in 1961. (Photo: Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated)

In the summer of 1957, the best graduating (or eligibility-exhausted) college football players in the country gathered for a training camp in advance of the annual College All-Star Game, which pitted those collegians against the defending NFL champions at Soldier Field in Chicago. The concept seems preposterous now, but the game had been a tradition since 1934 and would be played until 1976. Brown had been the sixth player taken in the ’57 draft; two running backs were selected ahead of him: Paul Hornung of Notre Dame went first to the Packers, and Jon Arnett of USC went second to the Rams. Wiggin was there as the Browns’ sixth-round pick, a 242-pound defensive end. He was anxious to see Brown, and surprised at what he saw.

“He didn’t look like what I expected him to be,” says Wiggin. “I wondered if maybe [Browns coach] Paul Brown had told Jim to keep things under wraps.” (Brown would later write, in his 1964 autobiography with Myron Cope, Off My Chest, that he had been frustrated throughout the All-Star camp that coach Curly Lambeau had preferred Arnett to him. “[T]hat night Curly Lambeau made me,” Brown wrote). Wiggin saw a different player in Browns training camp. “We weren’t even scrimmaging, it was just thud [hitting without tackling to the ground],” says Wiggin. “But with Jim, you could feel the electricity of him going past you. You just knew that son of a gun was special.”

Wiggin remembers that Brown and some of the other African-American players were taunted by Lenny Ford, a 6-4, 245-pound defensive end who was nearing the end of his career and would later be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (and who was also African-American). “Lenny would stand in he middle of the locker room and say, ‘Come on boys, gather ’round. Big Jim Brown here is going to tell you all how he scored six touchdowns against mighty Colgate.’ Jim would just say, ‘Lenny, leave me alone.’ ”