Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Bad, bad Jimmy Brown

I wrote this column when I was editor of Business First of Columbus, almost 30 years ago, and it seemed to have some relevance today in light of controversies about the NFL.

Oct. 9, 1989
    Jim Brown’s first book, “Off My Chest,” arrived under the Christmas tree 25 years ago [Note: the book was published in 1964].  For a 13-year-old fan of the Cleveland Browns, the book was a revelation.  The Jim Brown who carried the football for the Browns, and who said little in public that was controversial, suddenly showed himself to be an opinionated, angry person.
     He was angry at Paul Brown, the coach who he felt treated him like a trained beast.  He was angry at the coaching staff at Syracuse University that took so long to give him a chance to prove himself.  He was angry at the white world that treated him as an outsider and an inferior.  At the same time, Jim Brown showed himself in that book to be extremely grateful and loyal to the teachers, coaches and friends who helped shape his life and steer him toward improving himself in school.  There were almost two personalities at work.
     So it was with some anticipation that I waited to meet this boyhood hero who was in town to promote his new book, “Out of Bounds.”
     The blurb writers have pulled the most salacious and outrageous material out of the new book to hype it.  Brown’s life since retiring from football at age 29, a game in which he set records that only recently have been surpassed, offers plenty of outrageous and salacious material.  He was accused of throwing a woman off a balcony during a quarrel.  (He says she jumped).  He has hosted parties in his Hollywood home where the women pranced around naked.  He has cultivated a public persona that is arrogant and intimidating.  He has boasted of amorous conquests of the starlets who appeared with him in movies.  Was this guy who was once my hero really a jerk?

     He stands waiting in the office lobby.  He is an imposing figure in person at 6 feet 2 and somewhat above his football playing weight of 228.  He has thickened around the middle.  If you shake hands with him, you can understand why he did not fumble the ball much during his professional career.  He has huge hands, huge and powerful.
     The first question, about the book he wrote 25 years ago, takes him by surprise a bit.  He seems to let down his guard.  He says he is not as angry as he was then.  “When I did that book, I looked at the white man as the cause of all our problems.”  Now he believes the black man’s problems result from self hate, a lack of self respect, that stems from a negative portrayal of the black man’s role in the history of this country.
     In this kind of environment, the old bromides do not work.  “To look for affirmative action and yet have black-on-black crime, that’s not too cool.  We have to redefine ourselves and take responsibility for getting sophistication in our economic approach.  That will make us more effective and eliminate racism.  When you’re great consumers and don’t produce anything, that says something.”
     Brown says that Koreans can come into black neighborhoods and establish successful businesses because they have a positive image of themselves.  “Martin Luther King missed the point.  Integration is not a way to improve the black man’s lot, but economic sophistication is.  If you become an economically viable force, you come together with mutual respect.  We’ll take responsibility for our actions, and we can accomplish a lot in spite of racism.”
     Brown, 53, is executive director of Vital Issues, a for-profit organization that runs programs for inmates in 18 California prisons.  The eight-week course is supposed to help prepare inmates for life on the outside.  “It helps people develop the tools and have higher self-esteem.  Once a person graduates, they have the ability to take control of their lives.”
     Brown follows football today with interest, although he does not consider himself a fan.  “I’m just an observer of great football.”  The interview took place, as it happened, the morning after the Browns had been beaten by the Cincinnati Bengals, whose patriarch is the Browns’ founder and former coach, Paul Brown.  This gave the former player a chance to be generous to his former coach and the Bengals.
    “Paul got busted from Cleveland, and now he has the most imaginative team in football,” he said, referring to Paul Brown’s firing by the new owner, Art Modell, after the 1962 season.  “He’s been to two Super Bowls.  That takes a brilliant man, to be busted by a young executive from New York and to beat that team the other night.”
     Despite the bitterness expressed in his 1964 book, Brown has reached something of a détente with his former coach.  “I’ve played in a golf tournament of his.  I played in his foursome.  I’ve talked negatively of him, but it’s more positive now.  He has to deal and I have to deal.  Life goes on.”
     The man who is arguably the best runner who ever played the game also wants to give his own version of the Franco Harris affair a few years ago.  When Harris, fullback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was approaching Brown’s all-time rushing record, reporters asked Brown how he felt about it.  “I said if Franco is going to creep and crawl and run out of bounds to break my record, I’m going to come back and creep and crawl and run out of bounds and break my own record.”
     According to Brown, it was a put-on; he was disgusted with Harris’s running style and was not serious about coming out of retirement.  “I said, ‘How can a 235-pound fullback run out of bounds to avoid a 185-pound cornerback?’ ”  Reporters kept asking him questions, Brown kept giving them quotes, the thing snowballed, and pretty soon people were taking it seriously.  That, at least, is how Brown explains it.
     Perhaps Brown’s greatest moment in football came in the 1964 NFL championship game against Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts.  The Colts came to Cleveland heavily favored.  Sports Illustrated had planned a four-color painting of Unitas for the cover of the issue about the game.  The editors had to settle for a black-and-white photograph of Cleveland quarterback Frank Ryan, who passed for three touchdowns to Gary Collins as the Browns humiliated the Colts 27-0.
     “It was a great team effort,” Brown recalls.  “Everybody played a part in that effort.  I didn’t really appreciate at the time what a great receiver Gary Collins was.” 
That is the modest, generous Jim Brown speaking.  You might not have seen much of this side of him.  I did, and I just thought you might be interested.

1 comment:

  1. Who is this guy James Breiner? What a great column, relevant today and about 30 years ahead of its time.