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HE IS STILL A FAMILIAR PRESENCE ON TELEVISION, AN IMPOSING bust on the small screen: His square head sits on square shoulders, a square hat sits on his square head. At 58 Jim Brown remains an enormous Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot of a man. His arms are crisscrossed with scars, his fingers veer off at each joint in unexpected directions, remnants of the cartoon-violent NFL of the 1950s and '60s.
But that vision of a massive, muddied Brown begins to evaporate in your head while you drive, high above Sunset Boulevard, on a serpentine street that runs like a stream through the Hollywood Hills. You turn off and plunge down into Brown's driveway. He has lived in the same house, driven the same car, had the same telephone number since 1968. That was the spring when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. A framed portrait of King hangs in Brown's foyer. But nowhere on display in the house is a single personal memento of Brown's own varied careers—as a football superstar, as a film actor, as an activist in what he calls "the movement for dignity, equality and justice."
Toward that end Brown has opened his home through the years to an astonishing cross section of humanity. Recently, Brown says, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp and the head of the Nation of Islam shared the couch on which we now sit. "I can have Louis Farrakhan here, you, 15 Jews," he says. "It don't make no damn difference."
Never has. As a child he was thrown in with all races and generations, almost from the time his father, Swinton (Sweet Sue) Brown, a fighter and a gambler, abandoned him at birth. Jim Brown was raised by his great-grandmother, whom he called Mama, on St. Simons Island, off the coast of Georgia. He went to school in a segregated, two-room shack, went to the toilet in the backyard. When he was eight, Mama gave him a box lunch, buttoned him up and put him on a train for Manhasset, N.Y., where his mother worked as a domestic. In that white and wealthy community Brown became an athletic prodigy. At Manhasset High he was a kind of ward of a group of white professional men, doctors and lawyers and teachers, who demanded that he study and run for student government.
"These people actually saved my life, man," Brown says. "I would never, ever have been anything without them. And it was so pure. If kids can see honesty and interest from people of that age, that's what builds, man."
You have asked Brown to look at his remarkable life. Brown has seemingly lived every issue in sport and society since he left home for Syracuse University so long ago. He continues to work in places like South Central and San Quentin. You ask him to assess this public life he entered 40 years ago, and he says, "I am oh, so tired."
Just before 1 p.m. on May 17, 1954, the Chief Justice of the United States began to read the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Legal segregation was ending. In Harlem that year Malcolm X was appointed the leader of Temple Seven for the Nation of Islam. And across the river in the Bronx, the great New York Yankees had still not dressed a black player.
"I came up at the crossroads of segregation," says Brown. "There were still colleges where black players couldn't play. There were teams that would go south, and black players had to stay in private homes. It was a blessing because there were opportunities, but it was demeaning because you were 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."
And so Jimmy Brown, the only black on the freshman football team at Syracuse, went from fifth-string halfback to the best player in the nation in his four years of playing for a coaching staff that—save for an assistant named Roy Simmons—initially begrudged his presence. But by the time Brown graduated in 1957, Syracuse was eager to recruit black halfback Ernie Davis and then Floyd Little, both of whom wore Brown's number 44. Syracuse won a national championship in '59 and now regularly fills that dome named for Willis H. Carrier, and much of that is directly attributable to the heroics of James Nathaniel Brown. It is more indirectly attributable to Simmons, the kind assistant football and head lacrosse coach who took Brown under his wing; with Simmons's guidance, Brown used his spare time to become, many would say, the greatest lacrosse player in history before going on to do the same, many more would say, in football.
The man belonged to a higher species. He was built like a martini glass, with a 46-inch chest and a 32-inch waist; he was an exceptionally fast man who looked gracefully slow on the field. Bursting through the line, he accumulated would-be tacklers, men hopping a moving train, until he slowed and finally collapsed eight or 10 or 12 yards upfield, buried beneath a short ton of violent giants. One didn't really try to tackle Brown; one tried only to catch him, as one catches the 8:05. In his entire nine-year professional career, he never missed a game.