Jim Brown, Football Great and Civil Rights Champion, Dies at 87
Jim Brown, the Cleveland Browns fullback who was acclaimed as one of the greatest players in pro football history, and who remained in the public eye as a Hollywood action hero and a civil rights activist, though his name was later tarnished by accusations of violent conduct against women, died on Thursday night at his home in Los Angeles. He was 87.
His family announced his death on Friday on Instagram but did not cite the cause.
Playing for the Browns from 1957 to 1965 after earning all-American honors at Syracuse University in football and lacrosse, Brown helped take Cleveland to the 1964 National Football League championship.
In any game, he dragged defenders when he wasn’t running over them or flattening them with a stiff arm. He eluded them with his footwork when he wasn’t sweeping around ends and outrunning them. He never missed a game, piercing defensive lines in 118 consecutive regular-season games, though he played one year with a broken toe and another with a sprained wrist.
“All you can do is grab, hold, hang on and wait for help,” Sam Huff, the Hall of Fame middle linebacker for the Giants and the Washington team now known as the Commanders, once told Time magazine.
Brown was voted football’s greatest player of the 20th century by a six-member panel of experts assembled by The Associated Press in 1999. A panel of 85 experts selected by NFL Films in 2010 placed him No. 2 all time behind the wide receiver Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971, the Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1984 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995.
Brown was still in top form and only 30 years old when he stunned the football world in the summer of 1966 by retiring to pursue an acting career.
He had appeared in the 1964 western “Rio Conchos” and was involved in the shooting of the World War II film “The Dirty Dozen” in England, with plans to attend the Browns’ training camp afterward. But wet weather delayed completion of the filming. When he notified Art Modell, the Browns’ owner, that he would be reporting late, Modell said he would fine him for every day he missed camp. Affronted by the threat, Brown called a news conference to announce that he was done with pro football.
When the modern civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1950s, few elite athletes spoke out on racial issues. But Brown had no hesitation.
Working to promote economic development in Cleveland’s Black neighborhoods while playing for the Browns, he founded the Negro Industrial and Economic Union (later known as the Black Economic Union) as a vehicle to create jobs. It facilitated loans to Black businessmen in poor areas — what he called Green Power — reflecting his long-held belief that economic self-sufficiency held more promise than mass protests.
In June 1967, Brown invited other leading Black athletes, most notably Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor (the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), to the office of his Economic Union to hear Muhammad Ali after Ali had been stripped of his heavyweight boxing title and faced imprisonment for refusing to be drafted in protest over the Vietnam War.
In what came to be called the Ali Summit, viewed as a watershed for the development of racial awareness among athletes, Brown and the others at the session publicly voiced their support for Ali.
By the early 1970s, Brown’s Economic Union had largely faded. But in the late 1980s he founded the Amer-I-Can Foundation to teach basic life skills to gang members and prisoners, mainly in California, and steer them away from violence. The foundation expanded nationally and remains active.
Handsome with a magnificent physique — he was a chiseled 6 feet 2 inches and 230 pounds — Brown appeared in many movies and was sometimes cited as a Black Superman for his cinematic adventures.
“Although the range of emotion Brown displayed onscreen was no wider than a mail slot, he never embarrassed himself, never played to a demeaning stereotype of the comic patsy,” James Wolcott wrote in The New York Review of Books in his review of Dave Zirin’s 2018 biography, “Jim Brown: Last Man Standing.” He called Brown “a rugged chassis for a more self-assertive figure, the Black uberman.”
One of Brown’s best-remembered roles was in “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), in which he played one of 12 convicts assembled by the Army for a near-suicide mission to kill high-ranking German officers at a French chateau in advance of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. He next played a Marine captain in the Cold War thriller “Ice Station Zebra” (1968).
In 1969, his character was shown having sex with Raquel Welch’s character in the western “100 Rifles,” the first major Hollywood film depicting a Black man making love to a white woman.
Brown was “becoming a Black John Wayne; or maybe John Wayne with just a hint of Malcolm X thrown in,” Gloria Steinem wrote in New York magazine in 1968. She quoted him as saying: “I don’t want to play Negro parts. Just cool, tough modern men who are also Negroes. And not good guys all the time.”
But Brown had a problematic personal life.
He was arrested more than a half-dozen times, in most cases when women accused him of violent behavior, at a time when prominent men like athletes, actors and political figures were generally not held accountable for purported transgressions against women.
Brown was never convicted of a major crime. In some instances the accusers refused to testify, and in others he was exonerated by juries.
The first accusation against Brown was lodged in 1965, when an 18-year-old woman testified that he had assaulted her at a Cleveland motel. Brown denied the allegation and was found not guilty in a jury trial. A year later, the woman filed a civil paternity suit claiming that Brown had fathered her baby daughter. The jury found in his favor.
In June 1968, the police, arriving at Brown’s Hollywood home after a neighbor phoned to report a disturbance, found his 22-year-old girlfriend, Eva Bohn-Chin, a model, lying bloodied and badly injured on his patio. They suspected that Brown had thrown her off his second-story balcony. He said she had fallen. Ms. Bohn-Chin refused to testify, which resulted in the dismissal of an assault charge. Brown paid a $300 fine for interfering with a police officer who had been seeking entrance to his home.
Brown’s wife, Sue Brown, with whom he had three children, obtained a divorce in 1972.
When Spike Lee released his documentary “Jim Brown: All American” in 2002, Brown was in jail in the Los Angeles area, having lost an appeal over a misdemeanor vandalism conviction in 1999. Brown’s wife at that time, Monique Brown, had called the police to report that he smashed the windows of her car with a shovel after an argument.
Brown had been offered community service and anger management counseling, but he refused to accept that and was jailed for nearly four months. But the marriage endured.
“I can definitely get angry, and I have taken that anger out inappropriately in the past,” Brown told Sports Illustrated in an interview at the jail. “But I have done so with both men and women.”
In 1978, Brown was sentenced to a day in jail and fined $500 for beating and choking a male friend during their golf match in Inglewood, Calif., evidently after an argument over the spot where his friend had placed his ball on the ninth green.
“So do I have a problem with women?” Brown added in the interview. “No. I have had anger, and I’ll probably continue to have anger. I just have to not strike out at anyone ever again.”
Brown maintained over the years that he been victimized because of his race or his celebrity status. In an interview with Judy Klemesrud of The New York Times in April 1969, in which he spoke about the balcony incident, he said, “The cops were after me because I’m free and Black and I’m supposed to be arrogant and supposed to be militant and I swing free and loose and have been outspoken on racial matters and I don’t preach against Black militant groups and I’m not humble.”
James Nathaniel Brown was born on Feb. 17, 1936, on St. Simons Island, off the Georgia coast, a rural area where the Black populace lived off the land. When he was a few weeks old, his father, Swinton Brown, who had a reputation as a gambler and womanizer, abandoned him and Jim’s teenage mother, Theresa Brown. When he was 2, she took a job as a domestic in Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island, an overwhelmingly white but politically liberal community, leaving him in Georgia in the care of a great-grandmother, a grandmother and an aunt.
She sent for him when he was 8, and they lived together for a while, she continued to work as a housekeeper. By his account he felt that she was more interested in her boyfriends than in attending to his needs; he eventually moved in with the family of his girlfriend in nearby Manhasset.
At Manhasset High School, he became a brilliant running back and lacrosse player, and also competed in basketball and baseball and ran track.
The second Black player in the history of Syracuse football, Brown became an all-American in football and lacrosse. In his final regular-season football game, a 61-7 victory over Colgate, he scored six touchdowns, kicked seven extra points and ran for 197 yards. Syracuse went to the 1957 Cotton Bowl, where Brown scored three touchdowns and kicked three extra points in a 28-27 loss to Texas Christian.
Cleveland selected Brown as the No. 6 pick of the 1957 N.F.L. draft. He won the first of his three Most Valuable Player Awards, as selected by The Associated Press, when he ran for a league-leading 942 yards as a rookie.
After the 1962 season, Brown led a group of players who complained to Modell, the team owner, that Paul Brown, the franchise’s founder and head coach, was too rigid in continuing with conservative offensive schemes that were being bypassed by other N.F.L. teams using wide-open offenses.
Blanton Collier was named coach in 1963, and Brown had his greatest season, running for an N.F.L. record 1,863 yards. The Browns defeated the Baltimore Colts for the N.F.L. championship in 1964. Brown won his third M.V.P. award in 1965, when the Browns again played for the league championship, this time losing to the Green Bay Packers.
Brown led the N.F.L. in rushing in eight of his nine seasons. He also set N.F.L. records for career yardage (12,312), total touchdowns (126), touchdowns by running (106), and average yards rushing per game (104) and per carry (5.22). He ran for more than 1,000 yards seven times when teams played only 12 and then 14 games a season (they now play 17), and at a time when the rule book favored the passing game over running plays. He caught 20 touchdown passes, and he returned kickoffs.
Brown credited his offensive linemen with springing him into the secondary, and then, as he told Alex Haley in a 1968 interview with Playboy, “I was on my own.”
“Then I had a man-to-man situation going me against them; that’s when I’d go into my bag of stuff,” he said. “They’re in trouble now; I’m in their territory; 55 things are happening at once; I’m moving, evaluating their possible moves, trying to outthink and outmaneuver them, using my speed, quickness and balance.”
“But sometimes it got down to out-and-out strength and brute force,” Brown said. “Some guys, if they were small enough, I’d just run over them.”
Brown seemed perpetually battered, getting up slowly after running plays, but he said that was a psychological tactic. As he put it in his 1989 memoir “Out of Bounds,” written with Steve Delsohn, “By getting up with leisure every play, every game, every season, they never knew if I was hurt or if I wasn’t.”
Most of Brown’s especially significant records have been eclipsed. But he was accorded tributes long after his football career ended.
In 1994, he was named to the N.F.L.’s 75th anniversary all-time team. In 2015, Syracuse University unveiled statues of Brown and the star running backs who succeeded him, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little, all of whom wore No. 44, on a patio called Plaza 44. The second Browns franchise dedicated a statue of Brown outside its FirstEnergy Stadium in 2016.
Seeking support for his Amer-I-Can Foundation’s efforts to curb gang violence, Brown and the former star N.F.L. linebacker Ray Lewis met with president-elect Donald J. Trump at his Trump Tower office in Manhattan in December 2016. Brown and the musician Kanye West had lunch with Mr. Trump at the White House in October 2018.
“This is the president of the United States,” Brown said after the White House meeting. “He allowed me to be invited to his territory, he treated us beautifully, and he shared some thoughts, and he will be open to talking when I get back to him.”
He married Monique Gunthrop in 1997, and she survives him. Brown is also survived by their son, Aris, and their daughter, Morgan; a daughter, Kim, and a son, Kevin, who were twins, and another son, James Jr., from his marriage to Sue (Jones) Brown.
At least one defensive player looked at the bright side in describing an encounter with Brown. Remembering the first time he faced him, the Dallas Cowboys’ Pro Bowl linebacker Chuck Howley told Life magazine: “I had one of my best days. I made almost as much yardage as he did — riding on his back.”
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