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SI Flashback: The Brown of Browns

Early retirement heightened Jim Brown's mystique

Click here for more on this story

Posted: Wednesday December 01, 1999 05:23 PM

  Brown graced SI's cover for the first time in 1960. Daniel Schwartz

Issue date: September 1, 1999

By Richard Hoffer

Sports Illustrated FlashbackIt was an act of arrogance, no question, to leave the game so soon. He had played just nine years and, only 30 at the time, was more formidable on the field than ever. His production the previous season -- 1,544 yards rushing, 5.3 yards per carry, 17 touchdowns -- actually improved his already impossibly high season averages. There was no impending decline, either in health or performance. It was not time, no matter how protective he might have been of his legacy (if he cared at all), to begin consolidating his glory for the sake of history.

But Jim Brown quit all the same, for no better reason, it appeared, than his desire to act in The Dirty Dozen. That the film turned out to be a fairly standard war movie -- and, more to the point, that he turned out to be a fairly standard action character -- confirmed his apparent disdain for pro football. He had dominated the NFL for nearly a decade and, grown bored, simply left it.

The seeming carelessness of his decision, back in 1966, was astonishing. It's hard to bring that kind of shock up to date. Barry Sanders quitting this July? Not close. Sanders had been hinting at retirement for nearly two years. Brown, the best running back of his generation, perhaps of any, quit without warning, leaving us just this small window of excellence, nine years. Unlike other superstars, who meant to fashion breathtaking exits but didn't quite, Brown never looked back.

More than 30 years later, he still hasn't. "I've had no regrets," he says, admiring his enigma from the safety of time. "In fact, I have the opposite of regret. I'm so happy I was able to make that choice."

Today, Brown reminds you that there was more going on at the time than just football and that not all his issues had to do with his own place in NFL history. "When you're in the '60s," he says, "you might have had bigger issues than football affecting you. You have to remember, this was a time when a football player might still be unable to eat in certain restaurants. Besides, there was a quality-of-life issue. And football, though I enjoyed it thoroughly those last two to three years playing for Blanton Collier, was only a part of that life."

The upshot of his retirement, besides its lingering fascination after all these years, is to better proclaim his playing days. The arrogance of his decision has since been softened by time, so all that remains is nine years of unspoiled achievement, 118 games without one regrettable play and not one memory, as Brown likes to point out, of him "sitting on a bench, limping around, invoking sympathy." What athlete has left behind a career without so much as one stumble? What career is unblemished by any letdown, any failure of nerve or age? You needn't have been in the old Cleveland Stadium to recognize Jim Brown's greatness: The numbers he left behind ought to be impressive enough. He won the rushing title in eight of his nine seasons, averaged more than five yards a carry and set a career rushing record that stood for more than 20 years. More numbers: He rushed for over 100 yards 59 times, for over 220 four times. He missed exactly one half of one game.

But for all that, it's better if you had bought a ticket. He was, even standing still, the best athlete you ever saw. The bulk of his 228 pounds seemed situated squarely in his shoulders, an effect that was more pronounced by his refusal to wear hip pads. In motion, his movements were so deliberate and unhurried that his speed was a little shocking.

Everybody knew what a natural athlete he was. At Syracuse, he had played lacrosse, and those who saw him say he was the best ever to play that game. But he also played basketball in college and competed in track as well. At his last college track meet, after Brown had won the discus and shot put and was in the locker room changing into his lacrosse gear, he was asked if he'd ever thrown the javelin. He went out and threw it 162 feet, and Syracuse won the meet. On the football field, though, he was a supernatural athlete. Here's what the numbers can't describe: In a tie game against Dallas in 1965, Brown was stymied by three Cowboys on an end run and forced back seven yards. He plunged straight forward, however, with a linebacker wrapped around his legs, collided with three more defenders at the goal line and scored the touchdown.

In those days, the yardage was a lot tougher (rules changes have since opened up the running lanes), and maybe the defenders were too. Today's game might be bigger and more violent, but few linebackers would think to grind sand into a player's eye (as one unnamed Giant did during a pileup in 1963), half blinding the game's best player. By the way, Brown was no crybaby. "Got hurt in the second quarter," was what he told the coach that afternoon.

Brown still had to seek out the trainers (sneaking into their emergency room at 6:30 on the morning after a game so that nobody would know of his injury), and he played most of 1962 with a broken toe. But mostly it was Brown who was exacting the price for his collisions. The great Sam Huff once taunted Brown after a stoppage ("You stink!") only to be rewarded by the diminishing sight of Brown's famous 32 as he scored from 65 yards out on the next play ("How do I smell now, Sam?"). Huff later described defending against Brown this way: "All you can do is grab hold, hang on and wait for help." And lots of times, there just wasn't enough of it.

Given the otherworldly quality of his play, and how few seasons there were of it, it's only natural we feel shortchanged by that strangely abbreviated career. But then again, maybe he did it exactly right, leaving us just like Sam Huff, puzzled as he chugged into the distance, uncatchable to the end. He was always a hard man to bring to the ground.

Issue date: September 1, 1999

 
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