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Jim Brown: Transforming sports, movies, activism


NFL Hall of Famer dies at age 87

“If ever there was someone I tried to imitate it was The Great Jim Brown.”

—Former Heavyweight

Champion George Foreman

“…what he did socially was his true greatness.”

—LeBron James

Once upon a time, in a forgotten urban neighborhood in the middle of America, a social outcast stood apart from his peers as they gathered around a flickering black and white screen broadcasting the national pastime of football. Like most outsiders, the intricacies of this activity were lost on him, but two basic tenets of the sport were embedded in his mind: 1) the Green Bay Packers, under the guidance of Vince (God) Lombardi were the greatest team in the world; and 2) the greatest single player was Jim Brown.

As a professional Brown was named the 1957 rookie of the year, led the league in rushing and was an first-team all pro eight times, and was a nine time pro bowler during his career.

Given his legacy of never missing a game in nine seasons (118 consecutive games) with the Cleveland Browns in the brutal position of fullback from 1957 to 1965, he seemed indestructible. James Nathaniel Brown (b. Feb. 17, 1937) finally embraced his mortality at 87 by dying at his Los Angeles home of natural causes on May 18.

Audacious beginnings

“A liberal will cut off your leg so he can hand you a crutch”.

—Jim Brown

Brown prescribed to a philosophy of self-sufficiency, which meant straddling the political spectrum between conservative and liberalism. This came from his upbringing on St. Simon Island, just off the coast of Georgia, part of the Gullah-Beecher Culture. This ethnic group is notable for retaining much of their African linguistic and cultural heritage due to their geographical isolation.

His athletic prowess became apparent with his transitioning to New York City, where he accumulated an enviable high school record of 13 varsity letters before moving on to Syracuse University, where his legend began in earnest.

In college, Brown put on a ridiculous display of multi-sport prowess by excelling at basketball, football, track, and especially lacrosse, where he equaled or surpassed his achievements on the gridiron.

Years later he said, not immodestly, that “..lacrosse is probably the best sport I ever played.”

Enduring racist taunts and being roomed apart from his teammates, he became an All-American in football and lacrosse, lettered in track, and earned a ROTC commission, rising to Captain before his discharge. His exploits on the Orange men gridiron resulted in his number 44 jersey being retired, and eventual induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.

But professional football is where he attracted the national spotlight. Drafted by the Cleveland Browns, he shattered nearly every record imaginable and became the first to reach the landmark 100-rushing-touchdown barrier. A perennial Pro Bowler, he led the league in rushing eight of the nine seasons he played, and he and the Browns won the NFL championship in 1964 (before the Super Bowl was initiated in 1966). His 5.2 yards per carry still ranks second in NFL history, behind Jamaal Charles with 5.38 yards.

Brown’s explorations into film industry opportunities resulted in his casting in “The Dirty Dozen (1967).” Rainy conditions at the film location in England delayed his return to training camp for the 1967 season, and Browns owner Art Modell issued an ultimatum: Return or endure a suspension or outright firing. Brown then made the unprecedented decision of retiring at the peak of his abilities to concentrate on civil rights and his blossoming acting career. He was 30 years old. To this day he is regarded by many to be the greatest individual player in the history of football.

Reversing field: drama on the west coast

“When I was doing “100 Rifles” and I found out I’d be working with Jim Brown, I was more concerned with whether he could act, because he was primarily known as a football player. But he was great.”

—Raquel Welch in a 2012

interview for Men’s Health

Brown stirred up controversy by organizing what became known as “the Cleveland Summit” on June 4, 1967, a dozen prominent African Americans, made up of athletes and politicians who met in that city to show solidarity for Muhammad Ali, who faced a prison sentence for refusing induction into the armed forces and participation in the Vietnam War. These included NFL linebacker Sidney Williams, later U.S. Ambassador to the Bahamas and husband to U.S. Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA), whom he met at Brown’s Los Angeles home.

His activism led to the formation of the Black Economic Union to promote, in his words “...our own sustaining economic base,” and later the Amer-I-Can Foundation to help reduce issues of gang dysfunction in South Los Angeles.

Around this time he made headlines during a domestic dispute in which German-Jamaican model Eva Bohn-Chin was allegedly thrown from the balcony of his second story West Hollywood apartment (the charges were dropped when she refused to cooperate with prosecutors). This was the start of a series of incidents involving physical abuse, culminating in a 1999 incident in which he damaged his wife Monique’s car with a shovel, for which he served three months in jail after refusing the court-ordered domestic abuse counseling.

Jim Brown’s entry into cinema came at the start of the “blaxploitation” era of the 1970s, from which he profited financially and set a precedent for uncompromising Black action figures. A lightning rod for controversy, he tweaked societal norms with his interracial linkup with iconic sex symbol Raquel Welch in “100 Rifles.”

Brown purchased a house in the exclusive Sunset Plaza section of the Hollywood Hills, where everyone in the progressive Black community eventually came. Ever the agent of conscientiousness, he encouraged anyone to come and discuss community and social issues, welcoming everyone committed to advancing the race. Pickup basketball games featuring Jesse Jackson, and other celebrities were a common occurrence.

Among those was Ayuko Babu, who met Brown in 1968 as they met at Los Angeles’ Second Baptist Church to plan a boycott of that year’s Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

“You could come in to see him. Any time,” Babu said, attesting to his open door policy.

Later, Brown would be instrumental in helping Babu launch the Pan African Film Festival, now in its 31st year. One year, retail giant Walmart attempted to backpedal on its pledge to sponsor a festival related art show featuring the work of the Gullah-Geechee, of which Brown is a descendant. The dispute was over Brown’s reputation as a woman batterer, but his ethnic clan refused to participate without the inclusion of “their son,” regardless of his perceived infamy. The conflict was resolved, and native son Brown appeared in the company of another “bad boy,” heavyweight champion “Iron Mike” Tyson, as Babu recalled.

Eager to put a negative spin on his persona, Esquire Magazine commissioned filmmaker/writer James Toback to do a scathing hatchet job article on the man who was perceived by the general public as a fetishized, hyper-masculine symbol of America’s deepest fears about Black men. To his surprise, the Harvard educated Jewish Toback actually bonded with Brown, leading to an extended stay at the jock-turned-actor’s home.

Manifested into 1971’s “Jim: The Author’s Self-Centered Memoir on the Great Jim Brown,” this slim 161-page volume is a provocative look at mid-century swinging Hollywood, as it follows the two womanizers on an odyssey of orgies and wild parties through the heart of tinsel town, abetted by the celebrity elite (Brown’s low key performance in Toback’s 1978 feature “Fingers” gives us an inkling about how good he might have been had he been give the opportunity and motivation to take his acting seriously).

Both sides against the middle

“Nobody is correct in everything they do. I have access to the president, and anytime I have access to the president and he will listen to my thoughts, that’s all I can ask of him.”

—Jim Brown on meeting with Donald Trump

Befitting his larger-than-life persona, his time on this earth was filled with contradictions. In direct opposition to his track record of physical abuse and maltreatment of women, he had a documented relationship with feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Perceived as a militant figure in the volatile 1960s, in the new millennium he seemingly reversed field by making a point of condemning Colin Kaepernick’s practice of kneeling before the National Anthem.

More recently he openly supported Donald Trump (he and fellow NFL Hall of Famer Ray Lewis made a point of meeting him right after his 2016 presidential election), and Richard Nixon before him. More recently in 2018 he boldly met Trump again in the company of rapper Kanye West

During his life, Jim Brown had numerous dalliances, trysts, and relationships. The more notable include pornographic actress Marilyn Chambers, singer Telma Hopkins (Tony Orlando and Dawn), photographer Suze Randall, model Ola Ray, and T. V. and film star Brenda Sykes.

He was married twice, to Sue Jones (1959-1968), and to his present wife Monique (1997) who was with him as he passed. He is survived by six children.