In the summer of 1966, on the London set of "the dirty dozen," Jim Brown, the world's greatest running back and an aspiring movie actor, could be found playing touch football at lunchtime with members of the film crew. On July 13 a few news agencies received calls indicating that the Cleveland Brown star had something to say. A handful of reporters showed up on the set, and Brown, without ceremony, announced that he was retiring from football, immediately.
"I quit with regret but no sorrow," he said that day. "I've been able to do all the things I wanted to do, and now I want to devote my time to other things. And I wanted more mental stimulation than I would have had playing football."
Brown was 30. For a decade he had dominated pro football like no player ever had. He had won the rushing title in eight of his nine NFL seasons and had been elected the 1965 MVP. It is possible that had he continued to play, he would have put all the league's rushing records so far out of reach that they would have been only a distant dream—like Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak—to the runners who followed him. As it is, his most telling number is 5.22, which was Brown's average yards per carry over nine years.
The relative brevity of Brown's career has only added to his mystique. His numbers in that final year—1,544 yards, 5.3 yards per carry, 17 touchdowns—all bettered his season average to that point. And four games from the end of his career, according to many Brownophiles, he made his best run of all. On Nov. 21, 1965, in Dallas, the Browns and the Cowboys were tied 3-3 in the second quarter; Cleveland had a fourth-and-one at the Dallas three. Brown took a handoff and tried to run around left end, but three Cowboy defenders forced him to retreat to the 10-yard line. He then steamed ahead. At the five, Dallas linebacker Dave Edwards had both his arms wrapped around Brown's legs, but Brown, with his right hand on the ground, kept churning. Near the goal line he smashed into three Dallas defenders and then lunged forward. Touchdown.
Two months later, Brown was out of uniform forever. "All through my career I was always looking to not stay too long," he would say. "For all the guys who stayed too long—Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali—I thought it was embarrassing. People had sympathy for them, and you should never have sympathy for a champion."
He was the consummate athlete. In his college days at Syracuse, Brown was a track and field phenom and the finest lacrosse player anyone had ever seen. He was even drafted by the Syracuse Nationals of the NBA. But the gridiron was his chosen field. He was a 230-pound shifty brick who steamrollered defenders, punishing tacklers more than he got punished. "It's like tackling a locomotive," defensive tackle Glenn Holtzman of the Los Angeles Rams said after facing Brown in 1958. Former New York Giant linebacker Sam Huff still wears a scar across the bridge of his nose from an encounter with Brown: Huff's nose was crushed by the force of his own helmet crashing down on it. Two of his teeth were shattered. Huff doesn't remember a thing about the collision. "I woke up on the trainer's table," he said later. Very likely Brown rose from this same crash in the deliberate way he rose from all others: slowly unfolding each body part, walking haltingly back to the huddle as if pained and exhausted, all the while conserving his energy for the next collision. In his nine-year professional career, Brown never missed a game.
Being a football star, though, was not enough for Brown, nor was being a movie actor. His largest role has been as a social activist, as a man who could not turn his back on the needs of the black community. He cared about an urban society that was devouring its youth, and he set out to do something about it, spending most of his time working with kids in the worst neighborhoods of Los Angeles—his home—and other American cities. "I have never done anything more important," he has said, "than working for social change."
Brown's reputation has been clouded, however, by a series of ugly episodes of alleged assault against women, beginning in 1965 and recurring in '68 and, most recently, '86. Though in each case either the charges were dropped or Brown was found not guilty, the incidents have contributed to a confused image of the man, who is nothing if not enigmatic. "We all have our negatives and our positives," he says.
His positives have been many. In 1987, after years of the kind of inner-city work largely foreign to the self-absorbed athletes of this era, Brown started the Amer-I-Can program, an effort to reintegrate gang members into productive society. Brown sought out young people who he felt were serious about changing their lives and put them through a 60-hour curriculum aimed at building self-esteem and a feeling of empowerment.
He tells his charges, "Success is not only for the elite. Success is there for those who want it, plan for it and take action to achieve it." And while Brown has been putting "my gangsters," as he likes to call them, into sporting-goods management and security firms, he has bluntly criticized high-profile black athletes such as Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan for not lending a bigger hand to the disenfranchised men and women who worship them. "If I had the participation of the top 20 athletes in this country," Brown said recently of his program, "we could probably create a nationwide gang truce."