When I was young, we all referred to Jim Thorpe as Jim Thorpe.
But it was different with the greatest football player ever–and one of the greatest all-around athletes on the planet–Jim Brown.
Perhaps as a testament to everlasting youth, we called him Jimmy Brown.
Jimmy Brown was a phenomenon and an enigma, in every sense of each word.
Good and bad, I’m afraid.
A native of St. Simons Island, GA, Brown died at 87 on May 18 in Los Angeles.
His football career came to a screeching halt in 1965 when he announced his immediate retirement while filming on the London set of The Dirty Dozen.
He was 30.
He was through with football.
Period, end of report.
Brown was a complicated dude.
His conduct could be inconsistent if not contradictory, and often unpredictable.
Author Dave Zirin, whose 2018 book, “Jim Brown: Last Man Standing,” offers an unflinching and unvarnished look at the legend, spent a week at Brown’s home in Los Angeles during a four- year stint of research and interviews.
“I really do believe that Jim Brown could have been even mightier than he was,” Zirin says.
“But he had these demons.
And because of those demons, the older he got, and the more society changed in terms of how we looked at issues like violence against women, in terms of how we looked at issues like male chauvinism, it prevented him from being a part of certain spaces where I really do think he would have excelled.”
Brown was loaded with character and integrity.
He made a mission out of trying to rehabilitate gang members, which in 1988 led him to conceive and create the Amer-I-Can Foundation for Social Change.
As greater LA braced for reaction in the wake of the trial of police officers seen on video beating Rodney King, Brown invited rival gang members to his home and negotiated a truce.
“There are no words for how against the current that was at the time, for him to lend his authority and gravitas to that,” Zirin asserts.
Yet over several decades, Brown also faced numerous charges of assault, many against women, including women of color.
He barely acknowledged the incidents, implying only that he had made mistakes.
In 1967, it was Jimmy Brown who coordinated what was to be known as the Cleveland Summit.
The Cleveland Summit convened a collection of 11 high-profile Black athletes–Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor (Kareem), Muhammad Ali, Willie Davis, Curtis McClinton, Bobby Mitchell, Walter Beach, Jim Shorter, Sidney Williams, John Wooten–and one Black politician, soon-to-be Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes, to examine Ali’s reasons for refusing to enter the Vietnam War draft.
In a press conference following the summit, the participants expressed support for Ali’s decision.
William C. Rhoden of The New York Times described the Summit in 2014 as “the first–and last–time that so many African-American athletes at that level came together to support a controversial cause.”
It took guts.
Thank you, Jimmy Brown.
But this was the same man who, later in life, chastised Colin Kaepernick for peacefully protesting racism and inequality.
Further, when late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis was critical of then-President Donald Trump, it was Brown who somehow rose to Trump’s defense.
Incongruent and discrepant, bordering on bizarre.
Between his reputation as someone to be feared by women and his curious politics, Brown sullied and diminished–beyond reproach–his status as a civil rights legend.
His gridiron exploits–9 seasons; 9 Pro Bowls; 8-time All-Pro; first-ballot Hall of Famer; retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher–remain etched in stone.
And that was all.
Jimmy Brown went out as…Jimmy Brown.
[Editor’s note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in June 2023.]