Jim Brown: Better Than All the Rest
By JOHN WIEBUSCH
They said he was arrogant. They said he was a loner. They said he was difficult. They said his blocking was suspect.
He was guilty on all charges.
You do what Jim Brown did game after game, on play after play. Then you try not being a little arrogant.
You imagine yourself as Jim Brown then, a black man in the mostly white world of pro football. The NFL was not as seamlessly integrated four decades ago as it is today.
You are intelligent and sensitive and cautious. So you pretty much stay to yourself. You question things. You don’t always go along with the program.
You are a running back with talents never before seen in the game; you have teammates and opponents literally shaking their heads in disbelief at your abilities. Jim Brown block? Did Sinatra tune the instruments? Did Baryshnikov sweep the stage?
I point out these things about Jim Brown only to prove that he was mortal, that even though he seems like Zeus descended from Olympus in a Greek god’s body that he was really just a man ... just an extraordinary one.
An All-American running back at Syracuse University, he was drafted in the first round by coach Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns in 1957. To say that he hit the ground running is to make a dusty metaphor literal. Jim Brown hit the ground at full, bone-crunching speed and he never slowed down until he called a halt to it nine brief seasons later. He had just turned 30 when he hung up his cleats, went on to a new life in Hollywood, and left a trail of numbers unmatched before or since.
A week ago in this space, I detailed the wonderful life and exceptional deeds of running back Emmitt Smith, a Dallas Cowboy for 13 years, now with the Arizona Cardinals. Emmitt has gained more yards (17,354 and counting) and scored more touchdowns (154) than any runner ever to play the game. It also should be noted that there are no numbers to measure what he has meant as a role model.
But in this Gordian knot for truth in running back brilliance, Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, or Barry Sanders are the arguable answers to the question: Who was the second-best ball carrier in the history of the NFL.
Jim Brown is the answer to: Who was number one?
His nine seasons included just 118 regular season games because the league played only 12 games a year through 1960, and, with Dallas and Minnesota in the league, 14 games from 1961 to 1965.
Over those 112 games, Brown’s average per game was a record 104.3 rushing yards. Sanders’ career average was 99.8, Payton’s 88.0, and Smith’s 84.3. To get to 12,243 yards, a mark that stood until Payton eclipsed it nearly two decades later, Brown averaged a record 5.2 yards a carry. Sanders averaged 5.0, Payton 4.4, Smith 4.2.
In nine years, Brown never missed a game. Sanders, Payton, and Smith were towers of strength, too, but each has a handful of games missing from his career resume. Not that Brown ever got injured (he had a broken toe, a broken finger, and gouged eyes, among other things); it’s just that he seemingly never hurt. It added to the mystique.
He was Rookie of the Year in 1957 when he led the league with what would be his lowest single-season total, 942 yards. He would lead NFL in seven of the next eight seasons, with totals ranging from 1,257 in 12 games in 1960 to 1,863 yards in 14 games in 1963. He was on top of the rushing world every year except 1962. Brown had 996 yards that season, second to Green Bay’s Jim Taylor, and then spurred a post-season insurrection against his head coach. The running back felt he wasn’t being used properly -- a straight-ahead lack of imagination had resulted in his lowest average per carry, 4.3 -- and he went to new owner Art Modell, who replaced Paul Brown with Blanton Collier.
Under Collier, Brown responded with three epic years, averaging more than 1,600 yards a season and 5.6 yards a carry. Cleveland won the 1964 NFL championship over Baltimore 27-0, and almost repeated as champions, falling to Green Bay 23-12 in the 1965 NFL title game. In 1965, Brown was given his second NFL MVP award, adding to the one he won in 1958.
And then the man who was a perfect nine-for-nine in Pro Bowl selections, the man who truly was the game’s lone ranger, shouted a hearty 'High-o-Silver' and rode off into the Hollywood sunset.
He was making a movie, "The Dirty Dozen," in London in the summer of 1966 and, because of a delay in the movie's shooting schedule, was late for Browns training camp. Modell announced that Brown would be fined for every day of camp he missed. Offended, Brown called a press conference to announce he was quitting the game.
"Biggest mistake I ever made," Modell says, "And he was such a man of principle that once he made the decision there was no going back."
Brown says now that he had no regrets about his decision -- he was only 29 when his MVP season in 1965 ended -- but that he had been thinking about playing one or two more years before Modell’s ultimatum. "I'd always been sensitive to the master/slave aspects of the game," he says,"and that offended me deeply. I was in great shape. Missing any part of training camp would not have hurt me."
Deacon Jones, a classmate of Brown’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and one of pro football’s legendary defensive linemen, says, "I'll tell you, man, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. This guy was so good, so strong, and so fast that it made our jobs miserable when we played the Browns. You couldn’t measure his impact. No one man could stop him. I was 6-5 and 260 and I scared most people. Not him, and he was 6-2, maybe 230."
Three other Hall of Fame defenders, each of them tough-as-nails linebackers, offer similar testimony.
"He was in a league all by himself," says Sam Huff. "He was just about as close as they come to sheer perfection. There was no intimidating the man, either. I’d hit him with all my might and he’d say, 'Nice tackle, Big Sam.'"
"No matter what you did to the guy," says Chuck Bednarik, "if you gang-tackled him or gave him what we called ‘extracurriculars,’ he’d get up slow -- he always got up slow -- and he’d look at you and he wouldn’t say a word and he’d walk back to the huddle. Then he’d come back at you again and again and again and you’d say, 'What the hell’s wrong with this guy? How much more can he take?' I don’t think he ever ran out of bounds."
(Of the latter, Brown says, "Not deliberately. If I’d run out of bounds it just would have built the ego of the guys who were chasing me. And as for getting up slowly and walking slowly back to the huddle, well, I did that for a reason, too. I never wanted opponents to know how I felt. I never wanted to let them know if they had hurt me.")
The late Ray Nitschke told NFL Films a few years ago. "He was the best I ever played against. He had it all, too -- size, power, speed. But his greatest asset was that he was so smart. He knew where everyone on the field was. He was simply unreal."
Jim Brown is 67 years old today and it has been 38 years since he last wore number 32 on a football field. A proud man who is active in the African-American community with an outreach program for gang members and other disenfranchised people called Amer-I-Can, he is in remarkably good shape -- "only a few pounds over my playing weight."
Paul Hornung, the Green Bay running back whose NFL career paralleled Brown’s, says, "Jim Brown could have played football at 50 and still gained 1,000 yards -- seriously."
Brown smiles. "Paul might be right. I was built for this game."
Jim Murray, the best writer ever to grace a sports page, once wrote of Brown in the Los Angeles Times, "I’d like to borrow his body for 48 hours. I know three guys I’d like to beat up and four women I’d like to make love to."
Brown smiles again. "Yes," he says, "I did have the perfect body. I loved this game ... I still do, and I follow it passionately. It’s a game that over and over allows you to test yourself, to push yourself to the brink, to validate your manhood."
Brown’s Hollywood career had considerably less patina than his football career, although it lasted much longer. He was the first black sex symbol in movies, but Hollywood and its typecasting system quickly had Jim Brown pigeonholed. The unflattering term for many of the forgettable movies he made was "Blaxploitation." "I’m Gonna Get You Sucka," "I Escaped From Devil’s Island," and "Slaughter’s Big Rip Off" hardly seem worthy of someone whom many people believe may have been the best man ever to put on a football jersey. In a 1999 documentary, NFL Films named him "Player of the Millennium."
Over the years, there also have been encounters with the criminal justice system, but his supposed transgressions will not be detailed here because with a couple of minor exceptions charges either were not filed or were dismissed.
"I’ve been accused of being a violent person," he says, "but I abhor violence. I’ve been accused of being racist, but I hate racism. All I want is fair play."
And so the legend endures. He lives in Los Angeles with his second wife and their young son (he has three adult children from an earlier marriage). He is a happy man. "At Syracuse,” he says, "the best course I ever had was philosophy because it taught me that the mind has no limits. You’ve got to go beyond what society says is correct because there is no limit to where you can go if you allow yourself to go there."
In the NFL, the indelible measures of Jim Brown were 5.2 and 104.3. The numbers made him Paul Bunyan then ... and the legend endures.
Forty years later his are big shoes to fill.
If you look at the numbers, it's hard to argue with. He played in all 12 and 14 game schedules, and in 9 years, still ran for over 12,000 yards. He had a combination of speed, power and smarts that has rarely, if ever, been matched. I shudder to think what he would have done had 1. He stayed around, and not gone into "acting", 2. Had he played against the thinned-out competition of an expanded NFL, and 3. Had he played in 16 game schedules.
But it's so damned hard to compare era's, styles, and different back. The others I put up there.
-Walter Payton. Wasn't called "Sweetness" for nothing. An incredible competitor. And a clutch runner.
-Emmit Smith. A far better role model than Brown ever will be. A workhorse. A powerful runner with halfback speed.
-Eric Dickerson. The single-season record holder. Had incredible speed and strength. Might be second to Brown in the minds of many people.
-Barry Sanders. Along with the next guy I'll name, the most amazing running back I ever saw. His peripheral vision was astounding. Made moves that defy the laws of physics.
-Gayle Sayers. Injuries cut short the career of a guy who could have been the best ever. He was even better than Sanders at cuts on a dime, and seeing things no one else could.
-Earl Campbell. Again, injuries cut short his carrer, but show me a more punishing back in NFL history?
KROC From , joined Dec 1969, posts, RR: Reply 2, posted (10 years 2 months 3 hours ago) and read 1806 times:
I would have to say Walter Payton is the bet back.
Followed by Gayle Sayers (going by what other people have said, and the highlights I have seen) then Barry Sanders. Emmitt Smith role in at number 4, and I think I would have to include Bo Jackson somewhere up here, only because the only thing that slowed this guy down was a career ending injury.
Alpha 1 From , joined Dec 1969, posts, RR: Reply 5, posted (10 years 2 months 2 hours ago) and read 1797 times:
and I think I would have to include Bo Jackson somewhere up here, only because the only thing that slowed this guy down was a career ending injury.
KROC, one thing that made me temporize on Earl Campbell and Sayers was the fact that their careers were shortened because of injuries. Had either of those guys played at least 9 solid years like Jim Brown, or longer, both of those guys, like Bo Jackson, would undoubtedly be mentioned as three of the greats. But injuries keep them, in my mind, from being in that top echelon.
I'll still take Jim Brown. He played in shorter seasons, didn't play in a watered-down league due to expansion, and still has the highest yard-per-carry average. He had the speed of a Payton, the toughness of a Campbell, and the smarts of Emmit Smith. He was the total package.
Cptkrell From United States of America, joined Sep 2001, 2855 posts, RR: 13 Reply 7, posted (10 years 2 months 2 hours ago) and read 1792 times:
One can only imagine what the two "Detroit B.S.'s" could have accomplished if they had carreered at a more worthy team than the Lions. Billy Simms was pretty spectacular; Barry Sanders even more so. I had the pleasure of watching Jim Brown years ago in person several times...truely a great back, maybe the best, as is mentioned above...jack
KROC From , joined Dec 1969, posts, RR: Reply 9, posted (10 years 2 months ago) and read 1782 times:
My bad Alpha 1. I would have Brown in my top 5 as well, but not the best.
The injury thing is tough to call. But those that completely dominated, Bo, Sayers etc, they IMO warrant serious consideration.
Oh, and just cause Brown didn't 'play' in a 'watered down NFL' does not mean he would have fared better today. The game is much faster, much harder, and even different. You can't say that Jim Brown in his prime would have been the same back today.
Alpha 1 From , joined Dec 1969, posts, RR: Reply 10, posted (10 years 1 month 4 weeks 1 day 15 hours ago) and read 1765 times:
Oh, and just cause Brown didn't 'play' in a 'watered down NFL' does not mean he would have fared better today.
Maybe not-we'll never know. But consider this: he was 6'2", weighed about 235lbs, and ran like a 4.5 40. Christ, that's as big, if not bigger, and as fast, if not faster, than Jamaal Lewis of the Ravens. I think he'd be every bit as good today. He had size, speed, agility, and smarts. He could be punishing, but he could outrun entire defenses, too.
Alpha 1 From , joined Dec 1969, posts, RR: Reply 13, posted (10 years 1 month 3 weeks 6 days 16 hours ago) and read 1736 times:
Payton by a mile, met the guy in London after superbowl XX. Invited me and my son up to his room.
Yes, have an NFL player invite you up to his room, and he's the best by a mile.
Seriously, I can't argue with you, because of Payton's numbers, but he did it over 14 yars, in 14 and 16 game schedules. Let a healthy Jim Brown play into the early 70's, when 14 game schedules came along ,and he would still hold the record today, I imagine.
Alpha 1 From , joined Dec 1969, posts, RR: Reply 15, posted (10 years 1 month 3 weeks 6 days 15 hours ago) and read 1733 times:
AA61hvy, grow up, will you? You're acting like a little kid.
I think Clarett is a fine college runner, but I don't have a clue if he's really big enough for the pro game. He's got the weight-about 235, but he's not big as in tall, and he doesn't seem to have the elusive speed of a Jamal Lewis, or even a William Green.
Missing a year of ball because of his idiocies isn't going to help him. It may, in the long run, cost him a chance at a good pro career.
JetService From United States of America, joined Feb 2000, 4798 posts, RR: 12 Reply 20, posted (10 years 1 month 3 weeks 5 days 20 hours ago) and read 1717 times:
I am a bias Bears/Walter fan, but one thing I've always admired about Walter sooo much throughout his glorious career is that he played for such terrible teams in the Bears. Yes, they got got good toward the end, but before that, it was all Walter. (Of course, Bob Avelini had a mean handoff)