Jim Brown is as determined to gain ground today as he was when he dominated
the NFL 40 years ago.
His advancements these days, however, mean more to him than all those many records he established in nine seasons (1957-65) with the Browns. To Brown, being considered a citizen equal with anyone in mainstream America is more important than being called the greatest player in pro football history.
"I'm still alive, still healthy and still relevant," Brown, 66, said from his home in Los Angeles. "I still relate to young people."
And still making a difference in their lives.
Brown said he tries to instill in young Americans, especially African-Americans, the same confidence he had in facing the NFL's roughest, toughest defenders. He knows first-hand how much that meant to his success against formidable foes like Sam Huff, Ray Nitschke and Joe Schmidt and tries to apply it in his quest for equality.
"Growing up without a father, being taken care of by my great-grandmother, I learned to be self-reliant," he said. "I had to learn to be self-motivated and extend myself on the football field, in the classroom, in business. Along the way, I met some good people like my high school coach, Ed Walsh. They made a difference.
"What I have come to realize is that life is all about people. I don't know if there will ever be a day when everybody is equal, but the power of education, of unity and of community brings progress."
In the 1960s, Brown helped form the Negro Industrial Economic Union to assist black-owned businesses. In 1988, he created the Amer-I-Can program, an effort to turn gang members from destructive to productive members of society.
Everyone knows the superhero legend of Brown as perhaps the greatest NFL player ever, the movie actor, and the activist, but before all that he was among the most dominant multi-sport athletes in America.
At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, he was bigger, faster and stronger than many 1950s linemen. In high school, he averaged 14.9 yards a carry in football, 38 points a game in basketball, was offered a contract to play baseball by the New York Yankees and also ran track.
He was recruited by Syracuse University to play lacrosse. He led the nation in scoring as a senior with 43 goals in 10 games and is the only man enshrined in the college lacrosse, college football and pro football halls of fame.
In his final regular-season football game at Syracuse, a 61-7 rout of Colgate, he rushed for 197 yards, scored six touchdowns and kicked seven extra points for 43 points. Then in the Cotton Bowl, he rushed for 132 yards, scored three TDs and kicked three extra points. A blocked extra point after his third TD led to a 28-27 loss to Texas Christian.
Cleveland's first-round draft choice at No. 6 overall, Brown was the NFL Rookie of the Year in 1957, leading all running backs with 942 yards.
"When you have a thoroughbred," coach Paul Brown said at the time, "you run him."
Brown played only nine seasons for the Browns -- and led the NFL in rushing eight times. He averaged 104 yards a game, a record 5.2 yards a carry. He ran for at least 100 yards in 58 of his 118 regular-season games, never missing a game.
"Oh, there was a lot of media attention on me when I reported to training camp," Brown recalled. "Everybody wanted to know if I could make it, including myself. There was a lot of mystery to me about the pro game, but I had the attitude I was going to give it my best shot.
"I drove all night to report to camp ahead of the other running backs. I believe showing that enthusiasm made a big impression on Paul Brown. He had said he wanted a running back. I wanted to prove he had one."
It took only until the Browns' second preseason game, against Pittsburgh, to prove it.
"I broke a long run in a game at the (Akron) Rubber Bowl that helped us win (28-13)," Brown said. "I don't even remember who we played, but I was able to split two defensive backs and go all the way. I think they underestimated my speed. Afterwards, Paul Brown came over to me and said, 'You are my running back.'
"That was probably the greatest thing anybody ever said to me my entire career."
Brown said that particular run remains among his most memorable, but admits he does not actually think back and try to rank plays.
"I like the ones where I got in the open and split defenders, that was always fun," he said. "But sometimes those plays were not the most valuable. I remember one that was special, though.
"Gary Collins had caught a ball and taken it to the 1-yard line. We were losing and called time out. There was time for just one play and everybody in the stadium knew who was going to get the ball. I told Frank Ryan I wanted an option play to run wide so I could make a decision. I didn't want to just pound it in the middle. I made it and we won. So a run like that is much more memorable than a long one in some other instance."
Brown said he will always cherish his only championship. Collins caught three touchdown passes from Ryan in the Browns' shocking 27-0 victory over the favored Baltimore Colts and Johnny Unitas in the 1964 NFL Championship Game -- but Brown rushed for 114 yards that day, too.
"That game was very rare because everybody played exceptionally well," he recalled. "The defense was just sensational. Walter Beach shut down the great Raymond Berry. Galen Fiss made a great tackle on Lenny Moore.
"We were the underdogs and played the ultimate team game."
Like so many Browns fans, he yearns for his team to win another NFL title and likes the Browns' chances in the next few years.
"I love the situation there now," he said. "I think Butch Davis is a good man and a great coach. I like what the organization has done in trying to build a team. I'm proud that the Browns are back and that Cleveland has a good stadium and a good team.
"The Cleveland fans are the greatest in all of football and deserve the best."