Right then and there, almost anyone would have traded places with Jim Brown: Raquel Welch draped over his bareBack—possibly clad, possibly not—her face pressed up against his right cheek, peering seductively at the camera for the 100 Rifles movie poster.
And then there was the film’s steamy sex scene between the two, one of Hollywood’s first and most notable interracial love scenes. It was 1969 after all—a year after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a year after Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists for black power in Mexico City. But really, Brown made jaws hit the floor before: As a four-sport athlete at Manhasset High School, then at Syracuse University, then the NFL and then as one of Hollywood’s first black action stars.
There are great athletes who aren’t icons, and icons who aren’t great athletes. Jim Brown is both. He is arguably the greatest football player who’s ever put on pads, a hall-of-fame lacrosse player and inarguably the greatest pure athlete in Long Island history. “When I talk to kids, they don’t know who the heck I am, but somehow they get the feeling they do,” said Brown. Shortly before, he ambled into an empty room overlooking Hofstra University’s lacrosse stadium, dressed in a black pullover, workout pants and a black NY Lizards cap, a smile across his face, his two adult daughters following him in, smiling too. They were there to watch the New York Lizards, the local Major League Lacrosse team of which Brown is part owner.
Lacrosse is just one of his passions. Above all else, he was a legend for the Cleveland Browns in his 20s—9 seasons, 9 Pro Bowls, 8 rushing titles, 3 MVPS—yet he walked away at age 29 to take a role in The Dirty Dozen alongside Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine.
Brown later appeared in action films like Ice Station Zebra and El Condor. If anyone could perform the stunts in these flicks, wouldn’t he be the perfect combo of size and speed and toughness that is Jim Brown?
No matter how far Brown traveled on the football field—about eight miles—or as a film star, he credits the community in which he was raised as much as any coach or family member for steering him in the right direction. The racism that plagued the civil rights era was not evident to him on Long Island. “Manhasset was like being on Mars; what it was supposed to be, it was just the opposite,” Brown said. “Manhasset was a whiter-than-white community, and rich—and I mean rich—yet not a bone of prejudice did I ever feel. Not only that but people in the community conscientiously helped children develop their lives. You always hear about what somebody didn’t do for somebody. I’m here right now because of what Manhasset did for me.”
He felt the racism elsewhere, first in Syracuse, nearly causing him to leave school. Then around the country in the NFL, including in Cleveland. He spent all 9 of his seasons with the Browns, starting in 1957, just 10 years after Jackie Robinson broke the MLB color barrier. “You’d have 80,000 people cheering for Jim Brown and loving it. And then the game would be over and we would go into a restaurant in an Italian community and they wouldn’t serve us. That stuff will mess your head up. In the time that I came into prominence, I had to maneuver through those very complicated social attitudes.”
People went to bat for Brown, most notably Kenneth Molloy, a Manhasset attorney who encouraged him to play at Syracuse and insisted he stick it out after multiple threats to quit the freshman team. Because of Molloy, because of Manhasset, Brown has gone to bat for others. In 1967, when Muhammad Ali cited his religious beliefs in speaking out against the Vietnam War and the draft, Brown assembled prominent black athletes, including Ali, at his house in Cleveland to discuss the matter. At the grassroots level, he founded the Negro Industrial Economic Union, a black capitalist organization and in 1988 the group Amer-I-Can, which aims to curb inner-city violence and reform gang members in California and Ohio.
He isn’t an unabashed cheerleader for blacks or black athletes though, in his book everyone is held to the same standard. In a Syracuse Herald Journal story, Brown called today’s black athletes “the most embarrassing collection of individuals I’ve ever known,” scoffing at their celebrations after touchdowns or tackles. Politically, Brown is well to the right of the middle. He has even called Martin Luther King Jr., “misguided.”
According to Brown, individuals, no matter what their race is, must earn their keep. And he holds himself to these same very high standards. Despite all that he’s accomplished, he admits he’s far from perfect. Given the chance to do them over, he might do some things differently, chief among them would be to have been a better dad, something he’s catching up on now. “I don’t know what I could have done; the only thing I know is what I did do. I could sit up and dream and think I could capture the world, but I don’t know how this or that would have worked out.
But I’m here right now… and I’m a pretty good golfer. I don’t lose a lot.”
All along, throughout his larger-than-life life, Brown has said and done what he’s wanted. He could have dominated football for many more years but didn’t. He wanted to act and he did. He could have remained mum on hot-button topics but didn’t. Still, so much about the legend of Jim Brown revolves around what he didn’t or couldn’t do. What if he played 5, 7, 10 more years? Would he have dominated lacrosse the way he did football?
“Greatness doesn’t need validation,” Brown said. “It speaks for itself. It is or it isn’t. However you want to look at me, that’s up to you. But what I did can’t be changed.”