Legendary NFL player and activist Jim Brown died Thursday, May 18th. He was 87.
Brown’s wife announced the news in an Instagram post, saying that he had passed away peacefully Thursday night. No cause of death has been released.
James Nathaniel Brown was born on Feb. 17, 1936, on St. Simons Island, off the coast of Georgia. Just two weeks later, his father (professional boxer Swinton Brown) left him and his mother Theresa. “Basically, we made a pact: It was never said, but understood,” he told Syracuse magazine, “that he wouldn’t do anything for me and I wouldn’t do anything for him.”
Theresa Brown moved to New York State in search of employment, leaving James with his great-grandmother. He was eight when his mother sent for him; he moved to Long Island with her. He went on to attend Manhasset Secondary School (a 7th-12th grade campus), where he excelled in multiple sports. He averaged 38 points a game as a forward and earned 13 varsity letters across football, basketball, and track. He also played lacrosse, a game in which athletes pass, carry and shoot a rubber ball using long sticks with a net at the end.
He continued to pursue sports when he began studying at Syracuse University in 1953. He was the only Black player on the football team, and promises of a scholarship were not honored. Brown briefly considered leaving, but was convinced to stay; he played running back on the school football team. During his sophomore year, he finished second on the team in rushing. And during his junior year in 1956, Brown scored 43 points in a single game against Colgate — an NCAA record. He ran for six touchdowns in that game and scored seven extra points as place kicker. He helped propel Syracuse to the Cotton Bowl, where he scored another three TDs. He rushed for 986 yards and 13 touchdowns that season.
He also flourished in lacrosse. “Lacrosse is probably the best sport I ever played,” Brown told the New York Times. And he excelled in it. As part of a 10-0 Syracuse team, he was 1st-team All-American. He scored five goals in just one half of the Collegiate All-Star Game. He finished the 1957 season with 43 goals, ranking second in the nation. “I coached this game for 46 years, and Jim Brown was the greatest lacrosse player I ever saw,’’ said Roy Simmons, the retired Syracuse coach.
He also earned letters in basketball (1956) and track (1957). Brown was voted University Athlete of the Year for the 1956-57 season. And he did it all while serving in ROTC. (He went on to serve four years in the Army Reserves before being discharged as a captain.) He graduated in 1957 with a B+ average. That same year, he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns.
Selected with the 6th overall pick by Cleveland, Brown made an immediate impression on the team. In November 1957, Brown rushed for 237 yards (a record) against the Los Angeles Rams, scoring four touchdowns.
Brown finished the season having rushed for 942 yards and 10 touchdowns. He was named Rookie of the Year and voted Most Valuable Player by the Associated Press. In 1958, he shattered single-season record for rushing, with 1,527 yards, and scored 17 touchdowns. At the end of the season, Brown was again named league MVP.
As his career flourished, Brown also started a family. He married Sue Jones in September 1959; they had three children, a girl and twin boys.
He went on to lead the league in rushing for five consecutive seasons (1957-61) and again from 1963-65. He had his best season in 1963, rushing for an NFL record 1,863 yards. He averaged a career high of 6.4 yards a carry that season. And after again leading the league in yards (1,446), he won a championship with the Browns in 1964. Powered partly by Brown’s strong running, the Browns defeated the Baltimore Colts 27-0 to capture the NFL championship.
Brown was voted MVP for a third time in 1965, after scoring a league-leading 1,544 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Browns again advanced to the NFL Championship but lost to the Green Bay Packers. Jim Brown was named to his ninth Pro Bowl (which he made every year he played) and scored three touchdowns in that game. It would be the last game he played.
Transition To Acting
While still in the league, Jim Brown made his film debut in Rio Conchos (1964). Then he scored a role in The Dirty Dozen (1967), playing one of 12 convicts sent to France during WWII to assassinate German officers at a castle. The production was delayed due to wet weather, so Brown was still filming in London when training camp began. Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell expected Brown to be at camp, but Brown was still in London. Modell fined Brown $100 for every day he missed.
Brown responded by holding a press conference to announce his retirement. “I am leaving the Browns with an attitude of friendliness and cooperation,” he said. “I’ll do everything I can to help the Browns — other than playing.” He retired with 12,312 rushing yards and 106 rushing TDs (126 in total), all of which were NFL records.
His transition to acting was also successful. The Dirty Dozen became the fourth-highest-grossing film of the year and won the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing. Brown starred in the hit films The Split (1968) and Riot (1969). He then starred in 100 Rifles (1969), playing a sheriff who becomes involved with a revolutionary (Raquel Welch). Together they appeared in one of the first interracial love scenes on film; 100 Rifles was the first major Hollywood film to depict a love scene between a black man and a white woman.
Brown went on to star in over 20 films, including The Running Man (1987) with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the blaxploitation parody I’m Gonna Get You Sucka (1988). He also appeared in Mars Attacks (1996) and Any Given Sunday (1999).
In 1966, Brown branched out into activism, founding the Black Economic Union (BEU) to promote Black businesses. The BEU helped secure loans and grants for Black business owners in poor areas. Eventually, the program would help build up over 400 businesses. And in 1967, he was part of what became known as the “Ali Summit.” After boxer Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War, Brown joined NBA players Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to rally support for Ali and his cause.
In 1988, Brown founded Amer-I-Can, a nonprofit which works with inner-city youth and young adults to improve life skills, self-esteem and self-reliance. The program took Brown into prisons to rehabilitate inmates and into meetings with gangs to help members get on a different path. In that capacity, he helped broker a truce between the Crips and Bloods in 1992. The rival gangs formed a peace agreement in Watts ahead of the 1992 L.A. riots. While he helped lead to a decrease in gang violence through the 1990s, Brown was unable to stop the violence in his personal life.
In 1965, Brown was acquitted of assault and battery against 18-year-old Brenda Ayres. In 1968, he was charged with assault to commit murder after allegedly throwing model Eva Bohn Chin from a second-story window. She later told police she fell; Brown said she jumped. That same year, Brown’s wife filed for divorce; they finalized the proceedings in 1972.
In 1978, Brown was fined and briefly jailed after beating and choking a golf partner. In 1985, he was charged with rape and sexual battery, but the charges were dropped after the woman gave inconsistent testimony. The next year, he spent three hours in jail after allegedly assaulting a live-in girlfriend. But Debra Clark, who identified herself as Brown’s then-fiancee, chose not to press charges.
In 1999, Brown was arrested for making terroristic threats against his new wife, Monique Brown. He smashed the window of her car with a shovel, and she told police he threatened to kill her. The 911 transcript reveals part of their fraught marital history:
Operator: “He didn’t hit you today?”
Monique: “Not today.”
Operator: “OK. But there is a history of domestic violence, right?”
Operator: “And he threatened to kill you today?”
Brown was convicted of vandalism and sentenced to three years probation, along with a fine and mandatory counseling for domestic batterers. When he refused the counseling, he was sent to jail, serving nearly four months. Monique Brown later recanted her story, claiming that she never felt endangered. She survives Brown, along with their children. “Our hearts are broken,” she wrote in the Instagram post announcing his passing.
Looking at Brown in totality reveals a complicated legacy. As USA Today columnist Mike Freeman noted: “You cannot discuss the life of Brown without looking at the total picture, and that picture is a kaleidoscope of barrier breaking and rules breaking; of remarkable firsts and horrid worsts; of historic feats in Hollywood, shattering racial ceilings, as well as the spirits of the women he physically abused over the years. Brown was everything. Brown was galactic. Brown was awful. Brown was beautiful. Mostly, Brown was unapologetically himself, for better and worse, and that fact made him a block of cement that could not be broken.”