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Jim Brown, the legendary Browns Hall of Fame running back who was one of the NFL’s most prolific players and a civil rights icon, passed away. He was 87.
“Jim Brown is a true icon of not just the Cleveland Browns but the entire NFL,” Jimmy and Dee Haslam said. “He was certainly the greatest to ever put on a Browns uniform and arguably one of the greatest players in NFL history. Jim was one of the reasons the Browns have such a tremendous fan base today. So many people grew up watching him just dominate every time he stepped onto the football field but his countless accolades on the field only tell a small part of his story.”
Brown is the Browns’ all-time rushing leader with 12,312 rushing yards and 106 touchdowns across his nine-year career, which spanned from 1957-1965. He never missed a game in his career, led the league in rushing eight times and was voted MVP three times. Brown was an NFL Champion with the Browns in 1964 and helped lead them to the NFL Championship game three times (1957, 1964, 1965). He was also voted to the Pro Bowl every year of his career and was a first-team All-Pro selection in eight seasons.
Brown was considered the greatest running back in the history of the sport at the time of his retirement and remains one of the greatest rushers to ever play in the NFL. He sits 11th all time in rushing yards and sixth all-time in rushing touchdowns.
Born in St. Simons Island, Georgia, in 1936, Brown’s athletic feats began at Manhasset Secondary School, where he dominated in football, basketball, baseball, lacrosse and track as a high school athlete. His otherworldly talents led him to Syracuse, where he continued to excel as a multisport athlete in football, basketball, lacrosse and track.
Brown’s football career blossomed his senior year when he became a unanimous first-team All-American by totaling 986 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in eight games. He also broke the program record with six touchdowns in a single game.
The Browns selected Brown with the sixth overall pick in the 1957 NFL draft and instantly plugged him into coach Paul Brown’s offense, and he immediately flourished. He led the league his rookie season with 942 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, including a 237-yard performance in his ninth game that stood as the most in a single game in league history for 14 years and was a rookie record for 40 years.
Brown was named the league’s MVP that season and is still the only player to ever win the award as a rookie.
“(Coach Paul Brown) liked me,” Brown said in the NFL Network’s “A Football Life.” “He said to me, ‘You are my running back. You are my running back.’ It was the sweetest words I’ve ever heard as a professional football player.”
For seven of the next eight years, Brown led the league in rushing yards and became the first player ever to score 100 career rushing touchdowns, an accomplishment only eight other players have achieved despite the league expanding its season to 16 games in 1978 and 17 games in 2021. Brown’s accolades came when the NFL had 12-game seasons the first four years of his career and 14-game seasons in his final five years.
At 6-foot-2 and 231-pounds, Brown excelled not only as a running back but also as a receiver, kick returner and unstoppable athlete. He caught 262 passes for 2,499 yards and 20 touchdowns across his career and returned 29 kicks for 648 yards. He also passed for three touchdowns.
In July 1966, Brown shocked the sports world by announcing his retirement. He had led the league again in rushing yards (1,544) and touchdowns (17) in his final season, but Brown, who had started an acting career in 1964, wanted to focus his interests in the entertainment industry. He announced his retirement while on the set of filming “The Dirty Dozen” in London.
A day after retiring, Brown told Sports Illustrated pro football writer Tex Maule:
“I could have played longer. I wanted to play this year, but it was impossible. We’re running behind schedule shooting here, for one thing. I want more mental stimulation than I would have playing football. I want to have a hand in the struggle that is taking place in our country, and I have the opportunity to do that now. I might not a year from now.”
Brown was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995.
In 1965, one year after his pro football retirement, Brown founded the Negro Industrial and Economic Union, an organization that would later be known as the Black Economic Union. The goal of the organization was to guide black entrepreneurs, and the organization became the nucleus of Brown’s efforts to make the country a more equal place for African Americans.
On June 4, 1967, Brown participated in the Cleveland Summit, one of the most important moments in sports and civil rights history. He and several other prominent Black athletes gathered inside the Black Economic Union’s offices in Cleveland to interview boxer Muhammad Ali and decide whether to support his stand against being inducted into the U.S. Military during the Vietnam War. John Wooten, a former Browns player, and Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bobby Mitchell were among those in attendance.
Ultimately, the group decided to support Ali. The meeting and their decision stood as a powerful symbol of black athletes standing together to support another black athlete’s cause, and a picture of them standing together in the same room beside Ali and Brown became a defining photo of the civil rights movement.
“For me, that picture signifies the increasing willingness of Black Americans to come out of their comfort zone and confront the powers-at-be on issues that were important to us,” Abdul-Jabbar said on Brown’s “A Football Life.”
In 1988, Brown also founded Amer-I-Can, an organization that helps gang members and at-risk youths meet their academic potential, conform their behavior to acceptable societal standards, and improve the quality of their lives by equipping them with what they need to confidently and successfully contribute to society. In 1992, the organization helped initiate a truce between rival gangs in the Los Angeles area.
The organization is still in operation to this day.
“His commitment to making a positive impact for all of humanity off the field is what he should also be known for,” the Haslams said. “In the time we’ve spent with Jim, especially when we first became a part of the Browns, we learned so much from him about the unifying force sports can be and how to use sport as a vehicle for change while making a positive impact in the community. Jim broke down barriers just as he broke tackles. He fought for civil rights, brought athletes from all different sports together to use their platform for good.
“Many thought Jim retired from football too soon, but he always did it his way. From the football field, to Hollywood, to his work in athlete activism, Jim always played the leading role. His devotion to fighting racial injustice, improving education for youth and positively impacting the many lives he has through his Amer-I-Can Program has left a lasting legacy well beyond all he accomplished on the field.
“Jim Brown is the Cleveland Browns and our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Monique, his children and entire family as well as all those who mourn this immense loss.”
Browns’ acting career spanned over five decades, starting with his first appearance in “Rio Conchos” in 1964 and ending the role of him playing as himself in “Draft Day,” which was filmed at the Browns’ headquarters in Berea, in 2014. Brown starred in over 50 movies and television shows.
Since 2008, Brown had worked with the Browns as an executive advisor and special advisor for the Browns. A statue of him was erected outside Cleveland Browns Stadium in 2016.
In February, the NFL announced it had renamed its league rushing title as “The Jim Brown Award” in honor of Brown, who was in attendance when the announcement was made at the NFL Honors in Phoenix.
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