Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown, an unstoppable running back who retired at the peak of his brilliant career to become an actor as well as a prominent civil rights advocate during the 1960s, has died. He was 87.
A spokeswoman for Brown’s family said he passed away peacefully in his Los Angeles home on Thursday night with his wife, Monique, by his side.
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“To the world, he was an activist, actor, and football star,” Monique Brown wrote in an Instagram post on Friday. “To our family, he was a loving husband, father, and grandfather. Our hearts are broken.”
One of football’s first superstars, Brown was chosen as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1965 and shattered the league’s record books in a short career spanning 1957-65.
Brown led the Cleveland Browns to their last NFL title in 1964 before retiring in his prime after the ’65 season to become an actor. He appeared in more than 30 films, including Any Given Sunday and The Dirty Dozen.
A powerful runner with speed and endurance, Brown’s arrival sparked the game’s burgeoning popularity on television.
As Black Americans fought for equality, Brown used his platform and voice to advance their cause.
“I hope every Black athlete takes the time to educate themselves about this incredible man and what he did to change all of our lives,” NBA star LeBron James said. “We all stand on your shoulders, Jim Brown.”
In June 1967, Brown organised The Cleveland Summit, a meeting of the nation’s top Black athletes, including Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to support boxer Muhammad Ali’s fight against serving in Vietnam.
In later years, he worked to curb gang violence in LA and in 1988 founded Amer-I-Can, a programme to help disadvantaged inner-city youth and ex-convicts.
On the field, some feel there has never been anyone better than Cleveland’s incomparable No 32. At 6-foot-2-inches (189cm), 230 pounds (104 kg), he was relentless, fighting for every yard, dragging multiple defenders along or finding holes where none seemed to exist.
Brown was an eight-time All-Pro and went to the Pro Bowl in each of his nine years in the league. When Brown walked away from the game at age 30, he held the league’s records for yards (12,312) and touchdowns (126).
And despite his bruising style, Browns never missed a game, playing in 118 straight.
“Jim Brown is a true icon of not just the Cleveland Browns but the entire NFL,” said Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam. “He was certainly the greatest to ever put on a Browns uniform and arguably one of the greatest players in NFL history. Jim was one of the reasons the Browns have such a tremendous fan base today.
“So many people grew up watching him just dominate every time he stepped onto the football field but his countless accolades on the field only tell a small part of his story. His commitment to making a positive impact for all of humanity off the field is what he should also be known for.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell offered his condolences on behalf of the league.
“Jim Brown was a gifted athlete – one of the most dominant players to ever step on any athletic field – but also a cultural figure who helped promote change,” Goodell said.
However, Brown was a contentious figure off the field and was arrested a half-dozen times, mostly on charges of hitting women.
In June 1999, Brown’s wife called 911, saying Brown had smashed her car with a shovel and threatened to kill her. During the trial, Monique Brown recanted. Jim Brown was acquitted of a charge of domestic threats but convicted of misdemeanour vandalism. The Los Angeles judge sentenced Brown to six months in jail when he refused to attend domestic violence counselling.
Born on February 17, 1936, in St Simons Island, Georgia, Brown was a multi-sport star at Manhasset High School on Long Island.
A two-sport star at Syracuse – some say he is the best lacrosse player in NCAA history – Brown endured countless racist taunts while playing at the virtually all-white school at the time.
Brown was the sixth overall pick of the 1957 draft, joining a team that routinely played for the title. He was the Offensive Rookie of the Year that season.
Running behind an offensive line featuring Hall of Fame tackles Lou Groza and Mike McCormack, Brown set a league mark with 1,527 yards and scored 17 touchdowns on his way to the league’s Most Outstanding Player award – a precursor to the MVP – in 1958. Over the next three seasons, he never ran for less than 1,257 yards before picking up just 996 in 1962.
He led the NFL in rushing eight times, gaining a career-best 1,863 yards in 1963. He averaged 104 yards per game, scored 106 rushing touchdowns and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. A dangerous receiver as well, Brown finished with 262 catches for 2,499 yards and another 20 TDs.
“I’ve said many times, and I will always say, Jim Brown is the best,” Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers once said, “and he will still be the best long after all his records are broken.”
Brown’s No 32 was retired by the Browns in ’71, the same year he entered the Hall of Fame.
The Browns erected a statue of Brown outside their stadium in 2016.
Brown is survived by his wife Monique and their child. He was divorced after 13 years of marriage from Sue Brown, with whom he had three children.