The Cleveland Browns probably lost the championship of the Eastern Conference of the National Football League on the playing fields of Beechwood Park School for Boys near London last week. That is where Jim Brown, the best running back in the game for the past nine years, announced his retirement.
Brown was on location for his role as Robert Jefferson in the movie The Dirty Dozen. Dressed in combat fatigues, Brown called a hurried press conference, read a brief, rather formal statement during the lunch break at the studio, then answered questions for a few minutes before returning to the business of making a movie.
The next day, working outdoors in a stockade, which is the set for part of the motion picture, Brown was relaxed and genial as he discussed his decision. He sat slouched in a canvas folding chair with his name on the arm and on the back, while the movie crew worked on shots involving other actors.
"It was the right time to retire," he said thoughtfully. "You should get out at the top. And in the last three years, with Blanton Collier and Art Modell, I have been able to do all the things I wanted to do. Now I want to devote my time to other things."
July 24, 1966
"Do you want to be an actor?" he was asked.
"I am an actor," Brown said irritably. "What does it take before you are an actor? One picture? Ten? Twenty? I have one picture under my belt, and I'm working on this one. I am being paid for it. I belong to the union. What the future holds for me as an actor depends on my producers.
"I've got a lot to learn," he continued, "but I'm working on it. I'm lucky. I've had two real good directors, and directors are everything to me. First Gordy Douglas and now Bob Aldrich. Gentlemen. They do things quiet and easy. And I'm fortunate to be working with what you might term the big boys, starting with Lee Marvin. But I've got a lot of the little things to learn on my own. When you're in a scene with another actor, it's competition, baby. You're competing with him. The oldtimers know all the tricks, and they'll do things to surprise you or to take the attention away from you."
The scene was completed and a new one was begun. Brown turned the conversation back to football.
"I think the Browns will be all right." he said. "They may be even better without me because they will have a more diversified attack. Leroy Kelly will get a chance to play more now, and that's all he ever needed. And Ernie Green is a fine back. I'll be in touch all the time. Most of them are my boys, anyway, so I'll know what is going on. I may miss the action on Sunday afternoon, watching and thinking of the things I could be doing, but that's all. It would be different if I were out of touch, but they are my friends, and Mr. Modell and I are still friendly."
Robert Ryan, who plays a colonel in the movie, was on camera now. He is a heavy in this picture, and he delivered a short, ominous speech, which Brown listened to with admiration. "Now what I want to do." he said when it was over, "is spend time with my organization. That's the Negro Industrial and Economic Union. I'm chairman of the board, and John Wooten [an offensive guard for the Browns] is president.
"I got this idea about two years ago," he went on. "After the Pro Bowl Game in Los Angeles. There was a group of young, talented Negroes out there who had started a magazine they called Elegant. It was a good magazine and a good idea, but they didn't have enough money. They were in debt to the printer, and they needed help. In my travels around the country with the Browns and when I worked for Pepsi-Cola, I ran into that situation a lot. I helped personally whenever I could, but it was too big a project for one man to handle. So I got the idea of forming an organization that would provide financing and technical help for Negroes. We formed our corporation about a year ago."
Brown was very earnest now, and for the first time he disregarded the movie activity going on around him.
"I worked it out with John Daniels, who was the editor of Elegant," he said. "Our attorney is Carl Stokes, who ran for mayor of Cleveland and only missed by a couple of thousand votes. But the officers and the executives are mostly athletes like me or Bill Russell or Mudcat Grant, and for a good reason."
A gentle rain began to fall, interrupting the shooting, and Brown got up to move his chair into a shed built as a prop in the stockade. He settled himself on the outskirts of a poker game going on among a group of extras.
"If everything opened up wide tomorrow, that is, if any position in the United States were available to a Negro, it still wouldn't be the end of the dream," he said. "You have to be qualified to fill the position, and that's what we want to do. We want to help the Negro from the beginning, open up schools and maybe even trade schools for the ones who do not want to go to college. The middle-class Negro does not need help, and the guy with a Ph.D. doesn't need it, either. We want to help the ghetto Negro, and we think maybe we can do it, because as athletes we can reach them.
"Look, to the Negro in Harlem the Urban League doesn't mean anything. To the Negro in the ghetto, Whitney Young is a name he hasn't heard. But he has heard of Bill Russell and Mudcat Grant and Jim Brown, and he feels like he knows us. So he'll trust an organization we're in, and he'll come to us and maybe we can help him. We are sure going to try."
The rain had stopped and from outside an assistant director yelled, "You must all be bloody stone deaf! Will you be quiet? We're shooting!"
When the shooting ended, Brown resumed.
"We're getting cooperation from business men and professional men, and we'll get more," he said. "Arnold Pinkney is a big insurance man in Cleveland. He sold a million dollars worth of insurance himself last year. He's put on four or five guys to train in his business. We will have men who own garages and stores, attorneys, everything—so that when someone comes to us and wants training, we can send him somewhere. And we're working on building up capital so that we'll have money available for Negro businesses, too."
A man put his head in the shed and said, "Forty-five-minute break for lunch." Brown got up and moved slowly toward the dining tent.
Someone asked him about Main Bout, Inc., the closed circuit television organization that handles Cassius Clay's fights.
"My role with Main Bout is a simple one," Brown said. "I am one of the officers. I own stock, and I am the individual who, more or less, put Main Bout together. Main Bout is not associated with the union, but it is an example of what Negroes should do and of what the union stresses. We have always been the gladiators in the ring, the men who were throwing the punches and getting a pretty good share of the money, but not the share of the money we would get with closed-circuit TV or network TV.
"We were able to get a company together that had both black and white, and it was the first time that black men were involved in that particular phase of the business. If you know anything about closed-circuit TV and that type of thing, you know that when you're talking about a big fight, you're talking three or four million dollars."
As for managing Clay when his contract runs out, Brown said, "That's very flattering, but it's the first I have heard about it. It's not in the plans as far as I know. I like the champ, and he stays with me in my apartment here sometimes, but I never heard anything about managing him. He is a gentleman. He thinks about people's feelings more than almost anyone I know."
Brown walked into the mess tent and sat down at a long table with several other actors. A waiter brought him a dish of turkey, with potatoes and cauliflower. He listened to an argument going on between some American and English actors on the difficulty of playing cricket and agreed he would play on an American side in the vague future. But his mind was still on the union as he left the mess tent.
"One thing you learn in football." he said, "one thing I learned: you must have respect. Liking does not matter, but you must have respect. Once you are on equal footing, then the rest can develop. Once you respect me and I respect you, then we can begin to regard each other as individuals. I don't look at you as white or black but as a man, and the individuality stands out. If liking comes after that, it is because of what you are as a person, and it all starts with respect. That is what we want to give the ghetto Negro—the opportunity to earn respect."
Bobby Phillips, who is one of the Dirty Dozen, walked beside Brown. Phillips was once a defensive back for the Chicago Bears and the Washington Redskins. He is now a good actor and has spent time coaching Brown.
"You looked good," he said to Brown. "Did you see the rushes?"
"No," Jim said. "I was worried about the first part. I didn't like the 'Who?' Made me sound like an owl."
They turned into the stockade, an enclosure about half the size of a football field, with a barbed wire fence surrounding it and three green, wooden structures inside, plus a welter of photographic equipment. Someone tossed Brown a football, and he caught it easily and threw it back.
"I used to get upset watching rushes," he said. "If I didn't like what I had done, I'd stay awake all night worrying about it. But you have to get over that. You have to be a little cocky to be an actor, same way you do to be a football player. When you get up before all these people and go through a scene, you have to feel sure that you are good, or you can't do it at all. And if you are doing a dramatic scene, you may have to do it over and over and bring it up from inside you each time. Sometimes after I have been working all day on a scene like that, I'm more tired than I would have been if I had played 60 minutes of football."
The ball came back to him, and he threw a wobbly pass to Phillips, who caught it and faked by another actor.
"Come on," Bobby said. "We got a game, Jim. We're playing against John and Stuart."
Brown grinned and ambled across the lot to Phillips. They huddled briefly, then Phillips came out with the ball and snapped it back to Brown. John Cassavetes, another member of the Dozen, rushed the passer, and Stuart Cooper, a tall, thin red-bearded American actor who lives in London, covered Phillips, who slipped in his GI shoes when he tried to make his cut. Brown's pass sailed ingloriously over his head.
They tried again, with Phillips throwing and Brown receiving, and this time Jim ran a short hook and dropped the hard pass from Phillips to hoots from the other actors. The game went on for some 20 minutes before Brown caught a pass that gave his side at least a moral victory.
The cameras were set up again by now, and Brown, most of whose scenes had been shot earlier in the week, returned to his camp chair.
"I could have played longer," he said. "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."
He sat quietly for a moment, his strong face intent. Earlier, another actor had said that Brown was a formidable competitor in a scene because of an intangible presence, due in part to his size but even more to the strength and dignity in his face. It was apparent now.
Phillips, who had gone off to appear in a brief scene, returned.
"You know a runner who reminded me of you?" he said to Brown. "He didn't look like you, and he wasn't as big, but somehow I thought of him watching you. Ray Nolting."
"Yeah?" said Jimmy, his face brightening. "I don't think I ever saw him, but he must have been close to the ground when he ran. I mean these babies," he said, looking down at his feet. "Most good runners run that way," he went on. "You have to keep your feet close to the ground so you can maneuver. If you lift your legs high and take a long stride, you get in this position and you can't move." He got out of his chair and demonstrated, taking an exaggeratedly long and high stride and keeping obviously off balance.
"Jim Taylor, Lenny Moore, runners like that, they stay close to the ground," he went on. "Lenny looked like he had high knee action, but that was just at the beginning, when he was looking for a hole. Later it was low. The thing you have to learn in the pros is to do what you want to do right now. Say you're running a sweep. Get on out there as fast as you can so you don't get caught by some big tackle busting through. Then when you get on the outside, you float a second to let the guard come out ahead of you. Then you make your move quick again. You do it ahead of the guard's block, not after."
He was demonstrating the moves, his powerful body graceful in the familiar patterns.
"You think you might change your mind and go back?" he was asked.
"No," he said, "I quit with regret but no sorrow."
It is possible, of course, that Brown will change his mind and that, when the Browns open their season on September 11 at Washington, No. 32, Jimmy Brown, will be in the starting lineup. In fact, some skeptics say it is probable, that Brown is simply getting valuable publicity for his movie. But watching him on location at the Beechwood Park School for Boys outside London, such a possibility seemed very remote.