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*Jim Brown was born on this date in 1936. He was a Black football player, actor, and civil rights advocate.
From Saint Simons, Ga. He was the son of Swinton and Theresa Brown. He came to New York to live with his mother, a domestic, first in Great Neck and then on Lee Avenue in Manhasset, Long Island. Brown attended Plandome Road Junior High, where his speed and strength through high school helped him dominate any sport. Many say his best game was lacrosse. By the time he was a senior, his athletic prowess was such that the Yankees offered him a minor-league contract. Brown switched from lacrosse to baseball in the spring to test himself.
After pitching and playing first base with some success, he decided his skills wouldn't get him to the major leagues, so he sent his regrets to Casey Stengel. Ken Molloy, a Manhasset attorney and later a State Supreme Court judge in Nassau County, steered Brown to his Alma Mater, Syracuse University. But the coaching staffs were against the idea of a Black athlete in the early 1950s and did not offer a scholarship. Molloy rounded up enough money and obtained a promise from the school that it would put Brown on scholarship if he were as good as advertised.
Brown emerged as the greatest athlete in Syracuse's history. As a senior, Brown scored 43 points in a football game against Colgate, was a unanimous college All-American at running back, and was voted the MVP of the Cotton Bowl and an All-America choice in 1956. It has been said that Notre Dame's Paul Horning won that year's Heisman Trophy instead of Brown because he was white.
He was the Cleveland Browns' No. 1 draft pick in 1957 and the NFL's leading rusher in eight of his nine NFL seasons. He was named to the All-NFL team eight times, the league's Most Valuable Player in 1958 and '65, Rookie of the Year in 1957, and played in nine straight Pro Bowls. His 5.22 average per rushing attempt is an NFL record.
In 1966 Brown starred in the box office hit The Dirty Dozen. Shooting for The Dirty Dozen was repeatedly delayed and ultimately conflicted with football training camp. It was then that Brown abruptly announced his retirement from football. He was 30 years old and at the height of his game. For years after Brown retired from football, he continued to win major film roles in works such as Dark of the Sun, Ice Station Zebra, and 100 Rifles. Brown's movie career was only a memory by the early eighties, his ten-year publicity contract with Pepsi-Cola went unrenewed, and he found himself hustling Celebrity Bowling tournaments on TV for $20,000 paydays.
Brown admitted in People that his numerous relationships with women led him astray. "I've done things I'm not particularly proud of," he said in Esquire, "but at least I'm honest enough to talk about them." He founded his own production company, Ocean Productions, to encourage minority participation in movie-making. Also, Brown has been no stranger to the field of public service. As early as his playing days in Cleveland, he founded the Black Economic Union (BEU), which used professional athletes as facilitators in establishing Black-run enterprises, urban athletic clubs, and youth motivation programs. The BEU eventually folded, but Brown took his ideas to the Coors Golden Door program and Jobs Plus.
In 1986, he founded a new endeavor, Vital Issues, to teach life management skills and personal growth techniques to inner-city gang members and prison inmates. By 1989, Vital Issues had evolved into Amer-I-Can. Brown conducts sessions from his home in the hills above Los Angeles. In 1992, Amer-I-Can won more than a million dollars in grant money to expand its programs into cities such as San Francisco and Cleveland. While he may not be the only athlete to reach out to others less fortunate than himself, Brown urges his peers to do more than "make gestures" when facing society's ills.
In due course, Brown does not want to be seen as another wealthy athlete who made his way in the world through his physical ability. "I was a highly paid, over-glamorized gladiator," he told the Washington Post. "The decision-makers are the men who own, not the ones who play. I was never under an illusion as to who was the boss."
2002 brought legal problems to Brown. He refused to take court-ordered counseling and community service for vandalizing his wife’s car in 1999. The result is a 180-day misdemeanor jail term in Los Angeles. Jim Brown, whose name is still synonymous with greatness at the running back position more than 50 years after his final NFL game, died on May 18, 2023, at his home in Los Angeles; he was 87.
African Americans/Voices of Triumph
by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Copyright 1993, TimeLife Inc.