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Jim Brown: The Fierce Life of an American Hero

Jim Brown: The Fierce Life of an American Hero

3.6 8
by Mike Freeman

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He intimidated people on and off the football field. He was brutal yet brilliant, narcissistic yet magnanimous, relentless yet unyielding. Most of all, he was the greatest football player of all time. He was Jim Brown.

Jim Brown was an astonishing physical specimen with tremendous skills and intelligence. An athlete who played a number of sports at Syracuse


He intimidated people on and off the football field. He was brutal yet brilliant, narcissistic yet magnanimous, relentless yet unyielding. Most of all, he was the greatest football player of all time. He was Jim Brown.

Jim Brown was an astonishing physical specimen with tremendous skills and intelligence. An athlete who played a number of sports at Syracuse University, he ultimately discovered that it was the violence of football that appealed to him most. The idea of physically dominating other men, surviving ferocious battles on the field against opponents who would just as soon call him a nigger as try to gouge out his eyes fueled an astonishing, record-making NFL career that led to the Hall of Fame. He battled his defenses, sometimes his teammates, and often the Cleveland Browns' legendary head coach Paul Brown.

But Jim Brown had ambitions greater than football. He used his athletic brilliance to launch a movie career, becoming Hollywood's first black action hero, culminating in a scandalous love scene with America's sweetheart Raquel Welch. He leveraged his popularity into helping the NFL's black players and becoming a civil rights activist. Never shy about expressing his opinions, Brown would become the subject of FBI investigations and surveillance throughout parts of his life.

Then there were the women. The patient wife who was essentially a single mother and who endured public humiliation. The girlfriends he ran through and the scandalous accusations of violence made by some of them.

A complex and fascinating story, Jim Brown is a towering biography of a living legend.

Editorial Reviews

Sports Illustrated
“[Freeman is] an excellent storyteller...what resonates most is Brown’s fierce determination to do things his way.”
Sometimes he evoked poetry: "For mercurial speed, airy nimbleness, and explosive violence in one package of undistilled evil, there is no other like Mr. Brown," wrote sports columnist Red Smith. Others put it more bluntly: "Jim Brown is to running backs what Superman is to cartoon heroes." Like Superman, Georgia native James Nathaniel Brown has led more than one life. Besides being a virtual one-man NFL offense, he has pursued successful careers in film and social activism. Mike Freeman's Jim Brown is the first biography of the outspoken Hall of Famer.
David J. Leonard
A sportswriter who formerly worked at The Washington Post and the New York Times, Freeman offers a complex narrative of a dynamic and contradictory man. He resists the familiar practice of constructing heroes as all good and villains as pure evil, revealing Brown to be "both heroic and flawed," a contradictory figure who was ahead of his time but whose personal failures continue to limit our ability to see his greatness.
— The Washington Post
Library Journal
Forty years after his retirement from pro football, Jim Brown is still commonly referred to as the greatest running back ever and sometimes simply as the greatest player in NFL history. Throughout, he has been a confident, intelligent role model, working intently for black economic independence and for the alleviation of urban gang violence. Yet, he had frequent run-ins with the law over his alleged violent treatment of women; he had no relationship with the children he fathered. Can this flawed man be a hero? Sports journalist Freeman (ESPN: The Uncensored History) attempts to answer in the affirmative while dealing honestly with all evidence to the contrary. He addresses Brown's football career only sporadically, jumping around and using quotes from other writers to serve as analysis. One of Freeman's key sources is an anonymous former FBI agent who spied on Brown in the 1960s and 1970s. This deep background adds much to the book, but the author gets a bit out of his league when he delves into the general ethics of spying. Overall, this study of an important figure in recent American sporting and cultural history is an engrossing read on several levels. It would be welcome in any library.-John Maxymuk, Rutgers Univ. Lib., Camden, NJ Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

Jim Brown

The Fierce Life of an American Hero
By Mike Freeman

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Mike Freeman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 006077682X

Chapter One

Paul Brown stood on a choppy practice field, hands on his hips, his eyes fixed on a player several feet away. The man many people called Jimmy Brown was stretching on the scruffy green canvas. Paul watched, showing a brief smile, his full cheeks fattening as Jim had moved from stretching to jumping jacks and then graduated to running sprints at half speed. His quickness, despite running at a lower gear, was more than evident. Paul was still stunned, even after months of watching Brown: how could a man his size be so fleet of foot?

Paul had an unremarkable face with thinning hair and a long chin. His personality was just as nondescript. He was an unemotional man, often distant from his players, and not prone to intense emotional outbursts or grandiose statements.

So the beginning of practice on August 1, 1958, was unusual because of something Paul said to a small group of reporters. "There," Paul declared, slightly nodding in the direction of the galloping Jim, "is the best draft choice we ever made. Can you think of a better football player we've drafted?"

Jim was within earshot and could not help but smile awkwardly. His relationship with Paul had started warmly but quickly cooled. Paul would later come to believe that Jim caused the team to divide along racial lines, and Jim felt strongly that Paul had little ifany emotional connection with the players who shed blood for him, particularly the black players. Jim appreciated Paul's strong will. A football team needs a leader. Yet Paul was sometimes too unyielding and uncompromising. "If I ever coach one day," Jim told teammates, "I would do it 180 degrees differently than Paul."

That summer's day marked just the beginning of Jim's second year in the NFL, but he already possessed the confidence--actually, the cockiness--of a player far more experienced. Then again, there were few players who were like him, and Jim knew it. He believed strongly in his physicality, and not just his taut muscles. To Jim, the brain was a weapon, and he decided quickly that being poised but quiet was better for a football player than acting gregarious and chatty. There were often several days a week in which Jim spoke to few of his teammates, even the ones who would become close friends. He would stand alone in practice, several feet to the side of the nearest man, or sit alone on a bench or at his locker. Brown had loner elements to his personality, but some of what he did was also contrived. He wanted people, even some of his own teammates, to believe he was unbalanced, ready to pop off at any moment. Many teammates gave Brown a wide berth and then spread the word to friends on other teams around the league about Brown's seemingly unbalanced mind-set. This reputation, Brown knew, would work to his advantage in games if opponents thought he was a little anomalous, in addition to being a brutish, skilled athlete.

Brown had learned early in his life that stoicism could convey messages of intimidation as well as calm. "What's with Jim today?" was a question often asked by Brown's Cleveland teammates, until they realized nothing was wrong with him. Moodiness was as much a part of Brown's pathology as were his power and speed.

Brown's face itself gave mixed messages. He possessed a caramel-colored, soft complexion with light brown eyes and very occasionally a smile that resembled a confident smirk. Jim kept his hair military short and trimmed on the sides in his early days in Cleveland, like the good ROTC driller he had been at Syracuse. His mouth and lips were full, and his face was usually stubble-free. He looked like a cross between a movie heartthrob and a young, sterling army officer, simultaneously inviting and standoffish.

Considering the conservative decade, the 1950s, in which his rise to prominence and stardom began, women, black and white, flocked to Brown with shocking forwardness. It was only a few years before the freedom of the 1960s, but the straitlaced 1950s were not easily relinquishing their hold. Conservative dress and attitude were still the order of the day in the Midwest. Still, each Brown appearance in public was met with aggressive flirtations and correspondence shoved into his hands or pockets from women seeking a physical relationship with the football star.

When he reported to training camp in 1958, Jim was a powerful 220 pounds, slightly more muscled up than in his rookie season; ten days into camp, he had added an additional 8 pounds. When the Browns used a hand timer to check his speed in the 40-yard dash on one of the first days of practice, he ran it in a blistering 4.5 seconds while wearing his entire uniform, including shoulder pads and helmet, and entering the sprint from a three-point stance. Before Jim, the fastest player on the Browns was running back Ray Renfro, who ran his heat in 4.7 seconds. Renfro was approximately 40 pounds lighter than Jim.

In a second race against other running backs, Renfro won with a time of 4.6, still slower than Jim's. After hearing that Renfro had won his heat, Jim went to Paul and pleaded with the coach: Let me race Renfro. Brown was the fastest man on the squad, but he was irritated because someone else came close to his speed.

"No," Paul told Jim, "you two would bust a leg trying to beat each other."

In actuality Paul did not want Renfro's ego to be mangled, because Jim would have embarrassed Renfro in front of the entire team by beating him. Later, when Big Ten hurdles champion Bobby Mitchell joined the team, Paul had the two men race on the first day of training camp. Brown may have outweighed Mitchell by forty pounds, just as he did Renfro, but he would beat Mitchell. They would race several times, with Brown and Mitchell beating each other equally, and each race drawing a crowd of excited Browns players to view perhaps the two fastest men in football.


Excerpted from Jim Brown by Mike Freeman Copyright © 2006 by Mike Freeman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mike Freeman is an NFL Insider for CBSSports.com. Before that, he was an NFL writer, investigative reporter, and columnist for the New York Times; a columnist for the Florida Times-Union; and a sports reporter, features writer, and investigative writer for the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Dallas Morning News. He lives in New Jersey.

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Jim Brown: The Fierce Life of an American Hero 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
speed-learn More than 1 year ago
I'll start by stating a bias that few sports superstars lead lives worthy of a biography. Jim Brown is an exception. However, be warned that this book is more a bio of Jim Brown the man than a sports biography. Much of the book covers Brown¿s childhood, the years of his professional & collegiate football career and his College HOF lacrosse career. However, the book only intermittently chronicles Jim Brown¿s extraordinary on-field accomplishments. He led the NFL in rushing 8 of his 9 seasons, retiring with most single season $ career rushing records. However, don¿t expect much sentimentality or gridiron reminiscences. The book covers the many other facets of Jim Brown¿s life - his civil rights activism, his work to help inner city youth/gang members, his acting career, his legal troubles related to physically abusing women & his time in prison.

The book is a balanced portrait of Brown presenting good & bad, professional & personal. The author sees Brown as a hero not for his on-field accomplishments where he excelled due to a dominating combination of power, size & speed. He often outweighed anyone on defense & was always one of the fastest men on the field. Instead, Freeman finds Jim Brown to be a hero for boldly, consistently confronting racism & because he sought to live a life of purpose by helping others after his football career ended. Brown¿s activism is something that athletes with significant clout such as Michael Jordan & Tiger Woods could easily do. Brown believes that if modern athletes pooled only a fraction of their wealth & influence they could change the fortunes of thousands of young poor people. Brown¿s activism started early. He paved the way for integrating the football program at Syracuse in the 1950s which helped Ernie Davis who followed him in the Syracuse backfield to become the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. Jim Brown helped recruit Davis to Syracuse. He respected Davis because he ¿transcended racism¿ as Davis was liked by both blacks & whites. Brown not only proactively addressed racism but since retirement from Football has put his money to work to improve the financial conditions of African Americans. Freeman discusses a paradox of Jim Brown who stridently fought racial oppression, but who displayed a lack of respect for & physically abused women.

Freeman notes that athletes commonly experience the situation where the traits which helped them succeed on the field often lead to their downfall off the field (O.J. Simpson & Pete Rose as notable examples). The author believes Brown benefited & suffers from supreme arrogance, violent anger, & an intensely strong will to dominate. As one legal prosecutor stated it, Jim Brown could abide by football rules but needed to equally abide by the rules of society.

An unexpected highlight of the book is an 11-page mini biography of Coach Paul Brown. Before there was Vince Lombardi or Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick there was the football innovator Paul Brown. Evidence of Coach Paul Brown¿s greatness is that his teams played for the league championship in each of Coach Brown¿s first 6 years in the NFL.

The book serves more as an introduction to Jim Brown than a sentimental recollection of his career or an insightful analysis of his life. Jim Brown accomplished much based on where he started & the racism he faced, but in the end his legacy is diminished by char
Guest More than 1 year ago
While the author claims to show both sides of Jim Brown, he doesn't. He clearly glosses over the negative aspects of his life. There is very little about his football career in this book, and the true story of his life still needs to be written. He is a fascinating icon, but he is more flawed than the author lets on. All you need to know is that he gives praise to Jim's acting career. We all know he was a great player, but his acting was truly bad. Disappointing in every way.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
jbdunlap14 More than 1 year ago
For better or worse, Jim Brown has been relevant to this world. Not only is he the greatest NFL running back in history, but you learn he is probably the greatest lax player ever, and also played basketball at Syracuse University. That may not surprise people, but will surprise people of my generation or later, those born in the 1970's onward is that Brown was a ground breaking actor, his views on race are not the "standard" civil rights era beliefs, and that he, and helped bring soem peace to gang ridden L.A. Very worth the price.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As someone who has followed Jim Brown's career I looked forward to reading this book. It did not disappoint. What I liked the most was how the writer presented a great deal of facts and made Brown's complicated life flow very easily from page to page.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Lots of fluff here. Very short on documentation. Many errors throughout the book. Court records not validated.Story was loosely put together with no flow. Disappointing to say the least.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought I knew a lot about Jim Brown until I purchased this book. I'm a huge fan of Brown's career and this work is the centerpiece of my Brown collection. A job well done.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was one of the better sports biographies I have ever read. It's extremely thorough and covers every aspect of Brown's life. I particularly enjoyed some of the really interesting stories about Brown's days in Cleveland.