Many observers consider him to have been one of the greatest NFL football players of all time. Moreover, he is generally considered to have been one of the greatest athletes ever. Even more than that, in stark contrast to many other famous athletes who avoid controversial social issues, after his playing career he became a leading advocate for civil rights for African Americans and other less fortunate persons. More on that later.

James Nathaniel Brown was born on February 17, 1936 on St. Simons Island, Georgia. His father was a professional boxer, and his mother was a homemaker. At the age of eight his family moved to Manhasset, Long Island where his mother worked as a domestic. In high school Brown was a star athlete in football, basketball, baseball, lacrosse and track. Most sports fans are aware of his prowess in football and lacrosse, but few know that he averaged 38 points per game on the basketball court, a record which stood until it was broken by another multisport star you may have heard of – Carl Yastrzemski.

Brown attended Syracuse University. Astoundingly, he did not receive an athletic scholarship. Remember, it was the mid-1950s, and Syracuse, like many other universities were not exactly welcoming to minorities, athletes or otherwise. Luckily for Brown, the school, and perhaps the sports world in general, Kenneth Molloy, a prominent alum and attorney who had been a star lacrosse player at the school became Brown’s benefactor and persuaded the powers-that-be to enroll him as a non-scholarship athlete.

His freshman year Brown was the only AA on the football team. Basically, the school treated him as a second class citizen. He was placed in a separate dormitory away from the other athletes; initially, the coaching staff played him at other positions in lieu of running back; and he was warned against dating Caucasian women.

Eventually, Brown’s otherworldly talent gave them no choice. He became a multisport star. His senior year he was a consensus football All-American, finished fifth in the 1956 Heisman Trophy voting, and almost won the Cotton Bowl singlehandedly. The Cleveland Browns drafted him seventh in the 1957 draft. You might be wondering which players finished ahead of Brown in the Heisman voting and which ones were drafted ahead of him. I wondered also. Hindsight is 20X20, and most of these players went on to fine NFL careers, but none was at Brown’s level. See answers below.

In addition, he was an All-American in lacrosse, and a star on the basketball and track teams. He was so unstoppable in lacrosse that the rules were changed to require a player to keep his stick in motion when carrying the ball. It was aimed specifically at Brown, and that rule is no longer in effect.

Also, Brown was a member of ROTC. He served four years in the Army Reserves and attained the rank of captain.

Brown became an instant star in the NFL. In an era when running backs were king he was, simply, the best. During his tenure the Browns were perennial contenders and won the championship in 1964, the last one the team has won. The whole Browns team was built around him, and he was virtually unstoppable. His numbers were impressive, but one had to actually see him play to really appreciate his prowess. Tacklers bounced off him; he could use his power to run over them or his speed to run around them. Often, he would congratulate a tackler on a particularly hard hit. He always got up slowly as if he were hurt, but he never was. It was just a ruse. Hall of Famer, John Mackey said Brown once told him: “Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts.” I believe that summed up Brown’s credo.

Brown played nine years in the NFL. He was so dominant that when he retired he held the records for single season rushing (1,863), career rushing (12,312), rushing touchdowns (106), and career all-purpose yards (15,549). These records were all the more remarkable because Brown only played nine seasons and 12 or 14 games per season. They lasted several years until they were broken by players who had the benefit of 16 game seasons.

Brown retired in his prime at the age of 30 to pursue a movie career. He had been planning to play one more year, but his retirement was hastened by a contract dispute with Browns’ management. At the time some questioned his decision, but in retrospect it was the right decision.

Brown enjoyed a very active and productive post-playing career as an actor, civil rights activist and spokesman. His forte was action movies. Biographer Mike Freeman characterized him as “the first black action star.” My favorite movie was “The Dirty Dozen, a WWII action movie in which Brown was part of an ensemble starring Lee Marvin and a host of other stars. Perhaps, his most notable role was in the movie 100 Rifles in which he took part in a very controversial by-racial love scene with Raquel Welch, the first one in a major Hollywood movie. Even though such scenes are routine now, at the time it was shocking. He also guest starred on several tv shows, such as TJ Hooker, Knight Rider and CHiPs.

The most significant part of his post-athletic career was probably his propensity for speaking out against what he perceived as racial injustice. As I said above, many minority athletes are reluctant to do so, but not Brown. For example, he was an ardent early supporter of Muhammed Ali when Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title for his refusal to accept induction into the US Army. Additionally, in 1966 he founded the Negro Industrial Union, which helped to promote and support minority-owned businesses. Furthermore, he worked extensively with minority prisoners and gang members. In 1988 he founded the Amer-I-Can Foundation, which sought to teach them life skills to enable them to break the cycle of violence and become productive members of society. In 2008 he and Kanye West met with President Trump to discuss the status of minorities in America. He was roundly criticized by some for meeting with President Trump, but he retorted that he was the “sitting president,” “accessible” and “not a racist” as some say. Many people criticized him for his strong advocacy, but regardless of one’s personal opinions I feel one should respect Brown’s and his right to espouse them.

On the negative side, Brown was arrested several times for physical violence against women. He was never convicted of a major crime, but this remains a dark stain on his reputation.


The list of Brown’s sports accolades and awards is too extensive to mention all of them here. For instance, in 2002 The Sporting News selected him to be the greatest football player of all time. In 2014 The NY Daily News followed suit. The NFL Network’s NFL Films selected him as the second-best NFL player ever (behind Jerry Rice). Finally, in 1999 as part of the celebration of the New Millennium a panel of sports journalists and observers voted picked the “Top 100 American Athletes of the 20th Century.” The list was published by ESPN. Brown was voted #4 behind Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth and Muhammed Ali. I don’t want to quibble. All of them were outstanding athletes and deserving of the honor, but one could make a case that Brown should have been ranked higher. He was the only one of the top 5 who was outstanding in multiple sports.

Brown was married twice and fathered five children. His second wife, Monique, was with him when he died. Brown passed away on May 18 at the age of 87.

Many tributes have been pouring in. A sampling:

  1. Emmitt Smith – “He is and was a true legend in sports and in the community using his platform to help others.”
  2. LeBron James – “We lost a hero today….I hope every Black athlete takes the time to educate themselves about this incredible man and what he did to change all of our lives.”
  3. Barack Obama – “One of the greatest football players ever, he was also an actor and activist – speaking out on civil rights and pushing other Black athletes to do the same.”

Rest in peace Jim. You were one of the best all-around athletes ever, but, more importantly, you boldly used your platform to advocate for others not as fortunate.

Trivia answers:

1956 Heisman voting: Paul Hornung, Johnny Majors, Tom McDonald, and Jerry Tubbs

1957 draft: Hornung, Jon Arnett, John Brodie, Ron Kramer and Len Dawson.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s