When he joined the Cleveland Browns in 1957, his coach, Paul Brown, just gave him the ball and let him run, which is all Jim Brown really wanted. "But you could never just play and not be cognizant of the social situation in the country," he says. "Every day of your life, that was in your mind. You had to question why they put black players only at certain positions, why there were positions that blacks weren't smart enough to play.
"So I was very conscious of the civil rights movement," he continues, "and very active in what I call the movement for dignity, equality and justice. In fact, it superseded my interest in sports. Sports gave me an opportunity to help the cause."
The night Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston in Miami for the heavyweight championship in 1964, Brown sat with him for two hours afterward, with Malcolm X waiting in the next room, as Cassius confided that he had embraced the Nation of Islam and had taken the name Muhammad Ali.
Brown was in London two years later, filming The Dirty Dozen, when Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army. So Brown flew to Cleveland, where a group of fellow black athletes were gathering to hear Ali out in a summit meeting. Brown, Lew Alcindor, Willie Davis, Bill Russell and John Wooten listened as Ali said, "My fate is in the hands of Allah." The group then announced support for their friend, whose religious convictions were all they had to hear....
You already know how the Ali story ends: Brown flies back to London from Cleveland, never to return to football. In nine seasons he had gained a record 12,312 yards and won a championship. He got out at his peak.
The Dirty Dozen established Brown as an actor, his thespian talents best described by Lee Marvin, who said that Brown was "a better actor than Olivier would have been a fullback." Brown always played the same character, essentially himself; even the names didn't change much: Fireball, Slaughter, Gunn, Hammer, Pike. After five years Brown tired of the industry and fell back on the work he'd been doing all along.
In the late 1960s the Ford Foundation had given more than a million dollars to the Black Economic Union (BEU), an organization that Brown had helped form to promote black entrepreneurship through a network of athletes and MBAs. More than 400 businesses were touched by the union, whose '68 newsletter Brown fishes from a file in his den. Among the items inside is a photograph of eight black high school students in Cleveland. The BEU would be funding their college educations, much as those men in Manhasset had supported Brown 15 years before. "It's only a drop," says Brown, "because what's happened is, there has been no follow-through with black athletes today.
"If I had the participation of the top 20 athletes in this country, we could probably create a nationwide gang truce," Brown is telling you. "These athletes represent such a great amount of resources and influence. These kids would be flattered to have their lives changed by them."
It may be little more than an accident of geography, but a trip to Brown's hillside home has the quality of a visit to a mountaintop guru, a man offering solutions to intractable problems. "You give the kids athletes to follow, and you give them false hope," Brown is saying. "You take the emphasis off just being a good student, getting a job and having a family. Instead, it's, 'I want to be Michael Jordan. I want to have those shoes.' Kids in this area also look to the drug dealer, the gangster, the killer as a hero. So these are the two sets of heroes, and both are bad." Ask Brown what happened in the 1970s and '80s to create these problems, and he'll tell you it was the '70s and '80s themselves. The '70s, the Me Decade, and the '80s, with its alliterative mantra, Greed is good. Back-to-back decades of decadence. "Sure you gotta make money, but how much money, and at what cost?," he asks. "Quality of life is what's most important.
"When I was growing up in Georgia, I guess we were supposed to be poor," Brown says. "But we weren't poor. We had all the crab and fish and vegetables that we could eat. The house was small and weather-beaten, but hell, I lived well. Because there was so much family there, a whole community of people who cared about each other. See, that was my foundation. I'd hate to have to come up without that."