In the summer of 1966, James Nathaniel Brown stunned the sports world with the announcement of his retirement from the Cleveland Browns while still in the prime of his NFL career. But those short nine seasons, in which he terrorized opposing defenses, saw Brown firmly establish himself as one of the greatest players to ever step on the gridiron.
Born in 1936 on St. Simon’s Island, off the coast of Georgia, Brown was raised by his great-grandmother after his father, a former professional boxer, left the family when he was still an infant. When he turned seven, Brown would eventually join his mother in Long Island, NY, where she had found work as a housekeeper.
Life up north was initially a culture shock for Brown, who managed to get into a fight on his first morning at Manhasset Valley grade school.
"My mother had dressed me in new clothes," Brown recalled.
"That morning when they gave us recess, a black boy made a wisecrack, said I looked 'pretty,' and he shoved me. I reacted Georgia-style. I tackled him, pinned him with my knees, punched him. The closed circle of kids watching then started chanting, 'Dirty fighter, dirty fighter.' I stopped fighting. I was mystified. How did these boys fight up here?"
But Brown would find his niche in the sports arena, exhibiting he was a natural athlete at virtually every game, from baseball and football to lacrosse and track events.
By his freshman year of high school, Brown’s superior athleticism and determination to be the best at whatever he did already became the stuff of legends, prompting his high school football coach to declare that Brown, “probably had more drive to succeed of anybody I have ever coached. Whatever he did, he wanted to do better than anybody else.”
Brown would go on to earn 13 letters at Manhasset High School, playing baseball, basketball, football, lacrosse and running track, as well as membership on the honor society for scholastic achievement.
"I was a poor kid from a broken home," Brown once told Newsday, "but I was not insecure, because where there is love there cannot be insecurity."
After being recruited by 45 colleges and universities, Brown chose to attend Syracuse University, where, as a freshman, he was passed over for less talented white players in basketball and football. However, an injury to a teammate would open up a spot for Brown on the football team, and he never looked back.
Subsequent to becoming a starter, Brown would go on to earn 10 varsity letters—three each in football and lacrosse and two each in basketball and track. Brown also placed fifth nationally in the 1956 decathlon competition, qualifying for the Olympic Games in the process. Nevertheless, Brown bypassed the 1956 Olympics to concentrate on football.
In his senior season at Syracuse, Brown ran for 986 yards, third most in the country, scored 14 touchdowns and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. When he graduated in the spring of 1957, Brown had gained 2,091 yards and scored 187 points—including 25 touchdowns—for the Orangemen.
Therefore, it came as absolutely no surprise when the Cleveland Browns selected Brown in the first round of the 1956 NFL Draft, but what did come as a shock was how quickly Brown made his presence known in the league.
By his fifth game, Brown had surpassed the team record for most touchdowns scored in a single season, and played a vital role in Cleveland’s Eastern Division Championship of 1957. Brown would end the year as the NFL’s leading rusher, the unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year and the league’s Most Valuable Player.
The scary proposition for the rest of the NFL was that Brown was only going to get better, and he did.
From 1958 to 1965, Brown rushed for an average of 1,421 yards per season, on 5.3 yards per carry, and scored an average of 15 touchdowns.
During this incredible span, Brown was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, a seven-time First-Team All-Pro Selection, a three-time Pro Bowl MVP and a two-time NFL MVP.
Brown’s bruising running style made him a nightmare to tackle, and a beloved figure in the sports-obsessed city of Cleveland.
“He told me, 'Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts.' He lived by that philosophy and I always followed that advice.”—John Mackey, 1999
When he decided to hang up his cleats in 1966 at the age of 30, Brown just came off a season where rushed for 1,544 yards and scored 21 touchdowns (17 rushing, three receiving), which made his retirement all the more shocking.
Brown’s legacy in NFL history was completely secure though. His record for career rushing yards (12,312) stood for nearly 20 years, until former Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton broke it in 1984. More impressively, Brown's record for career touchdowns stood for nearly 30 years, until former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice broke it in 1994.
However, Brown’s records for career yards per carry (5.2) and average rushing yards per game (104.3) remain untouched and unrivaled.
In addition to being inducted into the Pro Football of Fame in 1971, Brown is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and the Lacrosse Hall of Fame, being one of the few athletes to be a Hall of Fame member in more than one sport.
More importantly though, Brown has made his impact felt off the field, establishing public service programs like Amer-I-Can, a life management skills organization that operates in inner cities and prisons to help kids caught up in the gang scene in Cleveland and Los Angeles.
"The young black male is the most powerful source of energy and change we have," Brown once told the Washington Post. "My hope is to start a direction where these young men will be given respect and taught how to utilize it."
And more than the sum of all his football accomplishments, this is how Brown would like to be remembered.
"I have no trophies in my home. When I lay down, I think of all the experiences I've had and the respect that I've gotten. That's my glory."
Happy 75th, Mr. Brown.
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