Jim Brown is recognized as perhaps the greatest football player to ever live. But his phenomenal nine-year career with the Cleveland Browns is only part of his remarkable story, the opening salvo to a much more sprawling epic. Brown parlayed his athletic fame into stardom in Hollywood, where it was thought that he could become "the black John Wayne." He was an outspoken Black Power icon in the 1960s, and he formed Black Economic Unions to challenge racism in the business world. For this and for his decades of work as a truce negotiator with street gangs, Brown--along with such figures as Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, and Billie Jean King--is revered as a socially conscious athlete.
On the most hypermasculine cultural canvases of the United States--NFL football, the Black Power movement, Hollywood's blaxploitation films, gang intervention both inside and outside prison walls--Jim Brown has made his mark. Yet in the landscape of the most toxic expression of "what makes a man"--numerous accusations of violence against women--he has left a jagged mark as well.
Dave Zirin's book redefines an American icon, and not always in a flattering light. At eighty-one years old, Brown continues to speak out and look for fights. His recent public support of Donald Trump and criticism of Colin Kaepernick are just the latest examples of someone who seems restless if he is not in conflict. Jim Brown is a raw and thrilling account of Brown's remarkable life and a must-read for sports fans and students of the black freedom struggle.
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man of steel (the superman trap)
That Jim Brown . . . He says he isn't Superman. What he really means is that Superman isn't Jimmy Brown!
-Anonymous opponent of Jim Brown's, who, like most, failed to tackle him
You are Dave Meggyesy, a second-year linebacker in 1964 for the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals. You are six feet, two inches, and weigh 215 pounds. You make $9,500 a year. In the off-season, like a couple of your teammates, you work in a quarry, breaking rocks to make ends meet. This week, you are playing the Cleveland Browns. That means Jim Brown. That means a guy who ran for more than 1,800 yards last year. These are the days before film study, highlight packages, and even color television. That means you've heard the stories about Jim Brown-hell, you even went to Syracuse, as he did, where you heard all kinds of stories-but you've never seen him in the flesh and on the field. You are starting to think his on-field exploits are just whispered ghost stories aimed at scaring young linebackers. You know that he outweighs you by fifteen pounds, but whatever. You're an NFL linebacker. That means you bring the pain, no one brings it to you. Then Jim Brown takes the field and you have to make an effort not to gasp. It's not the size of Brown but the proportions. He's as skinny as a wide receiver in the waist, with all of those 230 pounds in his shoulders and thighs. "He's just a man," you tell yourself. "Just a man." On the first series, Cleveland quarterback Frank Ryan pitches the ball to Brown, who plants his foot and cuts it inside.
You see it happening as if in slow motion. You are ready. You slip the tight end and mirror his cut inside to meet Jim Brown head-on, and you hit him. You don't just hit him-you really hit him. You put your head down and aim for the center mass, right in between the 3 and the 2 on his chest. Then you black out. When you open your eyes, your vision has narrowed for some reason. Everything is round and you have no peripheral vision. You can't breathe out of your nose. Disorientation reigns. What the hell just happened? Then you realize: you are looking out the earhole of your helmet, your nose all mushed up against the side of the damn thing. Later, when describing Jim Brown, you can only smile and shrug and say, "He didn't run over me. He ran through me."
It is a short list: athletes who were legendary on the field of play and then brave enough to risk the ensuing idolatry for a higher purpose. Muhammad Ali was able to turn the world of sports on its head politically only because he had already staked his claim to greatness by upsetting the unbeatable champion, Sonny Liston. Billie Jean King was as principled a political person as weÕve seen in sports, but her platform was erected on top of thirty-nine Grand Slam titles and the defeat of Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes match at the Houston Astrodome. LeBron JamesÕs recent political statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement-even if they are less politically bracing than the stinging words and actions of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick-have so much weight precisely because James has cemented his place as one of the finest basketball players to ever live.
To understand how Jim Brown was able to make such an enduring political impact, we have to first understand the awe he inspired inside the lines.
From the moment he stepped onto a playing field, the operative emotion expressed in describing Jim Brown has been reverence. To be clear, that's "playing field," not "football field." In a remarkable variety of sports, Brown dominated, a man among boys. He could drop fifty points in a Division I college basketball game or come in fifth in the National Collegiate Athletic Association track-and-field decathlon without training for any of the events-and was asked to consider competing in that grueling series of ten contests at the 1956 Olympics. He received a request to join the New York Yankees without ever having played baseball and was sent a letter from their manager, Casey Stengel, pleading with him to just give it a try. He never boxed but was offered what was at the time a hefty contract to train for a heavyweight championship bout. One news report from 1957 makes an offhand comment about Jim Brown's remarkable skills at cricket.
But Brown holds another distinction that puts him in the conversation as the greatest athlete of the last one hundred years: he alone is discussed as the "best of all time" in two separate sports, football and lacrosse. Upon Brown's induction into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame, his old Syracuse lacrosse coach, Roy Simmons, Sr.-a man who had seen decades of players at one of the most storied programs in NCAA history-argued that "Jimmy" was the greatest he had ever coached. Brown himself insists that track-and-field Olympic legend and early football star Jim Thorpe is the top athlete to have played multiple sports. A strong case can also be made for Mildred "Babe" Didrikson, who dominated track and field as well as golf to absurd degrees and could also throw a baseball past Babe Ruth. But Brown, in two major team sports and with a plethora of competition, distinguished himself in a way that still provokes slack-jawed wonder from those who witnessed him in action. This reputation, particularly in lacrosse, was built during a time when most games were neither filmed nor televised. This gives the stories about his ability a Paul Bunyan quality-elders in a room will talk in hushed tones, as if around a campfire. In 1984, when he inducted Brown into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame, Coach Simmons spoke with New York Times columnist George Vecsey about the 1957 college all-star game, and recalled that Brown "scored one goal underhanded with his right hand, one overhanded with his right, one underhanded with his left, one overhanded with his left. There was nobody like him."
In May 1955, Brown's lacrosse team played against Cornell, whose goalie was the late, great sportswriter Dick Schaap. The Cornell Chronicle recounted this game upon Schaap's death in 2001: "On May 18, 1955, Syracuse barely beat Cornell, 13-12, scoring the winning goal with about a minute left in double overtime. Syracuse's Jim Brown, who would later become a National Football League legend, scored four goals against Schaap, who made 20 saves in that game."
Schaap, when asked about Brown, said that just because he saved some of Brown's shots, it "doesn't mean that [he] ever saw the ball."
Schaap's son Jeremy, a bestselling author and ESPN journalist, remembered that his father hated playing goalie when Syracuse was the opponent because he was terrified of Brown, as were most people who played against him. Jeremy Schaap said, "Jim Brown was invoked regularly by my dad as the greatest athlete ever. The toughest man in the world."
Famed sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards described the way Brown's size and easy grace transfixed his opponents: "The first time that I ever saw him play was in 1965 against San Francisco. I was absolutely astonished at the reaction of the San Francisco 49ers when Jim Brown took the field to stretch before the game. Everybody stopped what they were doing, and turned and looked to the end zone at the other end of the field, and the people in the stadium, who were in their seats for the pregame warm-ups, literally stood up. You stand up for two kinds of people in the United States: when the president comes in the room, and when legends appear in this country. So I looked at that, and I said, 'Wow. Already legend.'"
The media during Brown's athletic prime could not contain their purple prose when watching him perform. Their tributes are fascinating to read today, and not only because they are so effusive. In the eyes of the mainstream media-white male journalists-the only way to describe someone with the speed and grace of Brown was by comparing him to an animal. As Sports Illustrated's Tex Maule wrote in 1958, "Jim is a quiet, relaxed human being off the field. In repose, the magnificent body looks loose, the heavy muscles bulging even at rest, the impression he gives one of a great hunting cat asleep in the sun."
Then, with an air of pleasant surprise, Maule said of the college graduate, "He is not talkative, but he is an articulate young man who understands the technique of running with the football and is able to explain it." This astonishment could be because earlier in the piece, Maule described Brown as having "the shoulders of a Miura bull and a 30-inch waist." Sportswriter Bert Sugar said that if he had tried to tackle Brown, Brown would have "dragged me like a plough horse."
Even from the typewriter of the legendary New York Times sports columnist Red Smith, who had the sense to eschew comparisons to livestock, we get a description that evokes a respect tinged with terror. Smith wrote, "For mercurial speed, airy nimbleness and explosive violence in one package of undistilled evil, there is no other like Mr. Brown."
With that same combination of fear and bedazzlement, Time magazine called him "a fire-breathing, chocolate-colored monster." Brown, armed with a keen intellect, was very aware that this kind of objectification was part of how he was received by the media and the league's predominantly white fan base. In his 1964 autobiography, Off My Chest, coauthored with Myron Cope, he wrote, "Although Cleveland fans consistently received me with more warmth than any ballplayer has a right to expect, I can't help but suspect that they admired me as they would a large piece of sculptured stone or a strong draft horse."
Such beastly prose didn't reside just in the distant past. A magazine profile published in 1986, when Brown was fifty, described him as a "sleeping lion" that could awaken and strike at a moment's notice. This appealed to Brown's masculine ego in late middle age. He said wryly, "The old lion is still a bad mother. He just wants to roam. Leave him alone. He's fading, but he's still a lion."
Yet for black journalists and fans, the animal comparisons were not the descriptors of choice. Even though they felt the same awe and spoke of his body as being carved from marble, the point of comparison was not something from a farm or the African savanna. Over and over, so often it is uncanny, the comparison was instead to Superman. In 1992, the black newspaper Atlanta Daily World named Brown the best football player to ever live, "the closest thing we will ever see to Superman in this life."
A 1965 article in The Chicago Defender put it this way: "Those 17-inch biceps, that 47-inch chest and that 32-inch waist. Superman? Well, not quite. James Nathaniel Brown, 29, fullback of the National Football League's Champion Cleveland Browns, cannot leap over the Empire State Building-or even stop bullets with his chest. But it is sheer nonsense to try to convince the practitioners and patrons of pro football that Jimmy Brown is an ordinary mortal. After nine seasons in the league, Brown is regarded as a genuine phenomenon in a sport that shares the language."
Dr. Harry Edwards, alluding to a star of the moment, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, says, "I laugh when I see these guys run into the end zone and all of a sudden pretend like they are opening up their shirt to show the Superman logo. They have no more idea what it means to have literally been mythologized, lionized as Superman, than I do about flying a space shuttle. If you want to go back and really get a sense of Superman in football, go back and study the life, the legend, the mythology surrounding Jim Brown."
Superman is a striking, bracingly evocative name for black men to use when describing Brown. One reason is obviously the absence of black superheroes in the mid-twentieth-century world of comics, but it runs deeper than that. First, and foremost, Superman is a figure of unvarnished patriotism: "truth, justice, and the American way." This has always been an interpretation of Jim Brown-and how Jim Brown has interpreted himself: that he was not a "revolutionary" in the sense of wanting to dismantle the system, but instead was fighting for the black community to have access to the American Dream. This is why sportswriter Mike Freeman subtitled his Brown biography The Fierce Life of an American Hero and Spike Lee titled his documentary Jim Brown: All-American. As Dr. Robert Bennett, who wrote his dissertation about the Black Economic Unions that Brown launched in the 1960s to promote black-owned businesses, says, "Unlike some Black Nationalists, he embraced the notion of being an American. He didn't distance himself from it. But when a black man embraces that he's an American, he can still face rejection by the broader society, whether he's an NFL player or not."
Perhaps this desire to achieve full citizenship is why the Man of Steel moniker is apt, beyond the obvious associations with Brown's musculature and speed. Superman was created in 1933 by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, two men who were the children of immigrants. They were young Jews, outcasts in the North America of eighty years ago (Shuster was born in Toronto), and Superman was at heart an assimilationist fantasy. Clark Kent was the nebbishy, awkward Jewish stereotype, brainy but with the coordination of a puppet cut from its strings-more hapless than heroic. But beneath the surface, he was handsome, strong, and the avatar of all things American. It was a tale of acceptance earned through excellence.
Brown, too, believed that individual excellence could be a path toward assimilation. He was attractive and intelligent, and he knew how to speak the language of business entrepreneurship. If he couldn't make it, then who the hell could? Even if those who called him Superman did not know about Shuster and Siegel, there is that idea of needing to be "super" to overcome being the inherent outsider. Brown spoke to this when he said in an interview, "I came up at the crossroads of segregation. . . . It was a blessing on the one hand because there were opportunities, but it was demeaning because you were still looked on as inferior. It was almost as if you'd been given a favor. And you always felt you had to perform much, much better."
Yet Brown's legend was about more than assimilation. Former NBA player Etan Thomas says that what makes Jim Brown "Superman" in his eyes is "what he represents: strength, courage, stubbornness, rebelliousness, pride." Brown, according to Thomas, "commands respect even from people who don't agree with his particular stance, unwillingness to be reduced to a clown used only to entertain someone's circus."
Table of Contents
Introduction "It Just Is What It Is" 1
1 Man Of Steel (The Superman Trap) 11
2 The Boy They Called Man 33
3 Man Among Browns 69
4 Jim Brown's Black Power: "If I Ever March, I'll March Alone" 113
5 Almost a Leading Man: The Hollywood Hustle 163
6 Man Up: Gangsters, Shot-Callers, and Fighting To Make Peace 197
7 Toxic: Manhood and Violence Against Women 251
8 Last Man Standing 291