- Thomas Neumann, ESPN.com
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The word legendary literally refers to someone or something of mythical stature.
It’s a word that’s badly overused, especially in the sports world. We’re desensitized to the actual definition.
A running back rushes for 100 yards in consecutive games? He’s legendary.
A wide receiver catches two touchdown passes in a half? He’s legendary.
A linebacker is named to the Pro Bowl roster as an injury replacement? He’s legendary.
But there’s no hyperbole when the word is used to describe Jim Brown. The man’s athletic résumé reads like a fable: won eight NFL rushing titles in nine seasons; scored 126 touchdowns in 118 career games; three-time MVP; didn’t miss a single game as a professional; played five varsity sports in high school and four at Syracuse University.
He became one of the first prominent American athletes to speak out with significance on social issues. He’s appeared in numerous movie and television acting roles.
He’s arguably the greatest football player in history. Jim Brown is legendary.
During a recent visit to ESPN headquarters, Brown fielded questions from ESPN Playbook. Here’s what transpired:
ESPN Playbook: Two programs with which you’re deeply involved, Amer-I-Can and the United Athletes Foundation, have touched thousands of lives. What do you want to see those organizations accomplish in the future?
Jim Brown: There’s three of us, Reggie Howard, Ray Lewis and Jim Brown, that are gonna try to lead the way. I want the violence among young people in this country to stop -- particularly gang violence. It’s atrocious that in this country we can allow our young people to kill each other. I want the educational system to be revisited and brought up to snuff. We’re way down the list when it comes to other countries. And I want particularly African-American fathers to take care of their biological children and take pride in the leadership of their community.
How serious were you about attempting a comeback in 1983 to defend your all-time rushing record?
I wasn’t serious at all. I did a TV show in Vegas, and someone said, “Franco [Harris] broke one of your records.” And I said, “Franco is a big old guy that runs out of bounds so a 180-pounder won’t hit him. If he’s gonna break my record creepin’ and crawin’, I’ll come back and creep and crawl and re-break it.” And some people took me seriously. Then they asked Paul Brown, my old coach, “Paul, do you think he can do it?” Paul said, “Well, if anybody can do it, [Jim] could do it.” So then I just got with some promoters and we promoted [a one-on-one multisport competition] in Atlantic City between Franco Harris and Jim Brown and made some money and had some fun. But I wasn’t serious at all.
Is it true the New York Yankees tried to sign you out of high school?
No. What they did offer me was a tryout. I didn’t think I was a good enough baseball player to accept it. I got a personal letter from Casey Stengel, but I knew my limitations. I don’t feel I could’ve played major league baseball.
How big a factor was race in your slipping to No. 6 in the 1957 NFL draft?
I’ll be honest with you. In America, every morning I wake up, I think race will be the first thing on my mind because I came up in the ‘60s, and there was a revolution at that time. It’s easy to blame race for everything. I don’t know what number I should’ve been, but I was OK with where I got drafted. I definitely didn’t think that race was the No. 1 reason. But race was the reason that I did not have a chance at the Heisman Trophy. It was stated that blacks will not win this trophy, until Ernie Davis won, and he happened to be a Syracusian. But as I said, race is a major factor in our culture, and I hope one day it won’t be.
Did the AFL ever try to poach you from the Browns?
No, they never tried to get me.
You were drafted by the Syracuse Nationals of the NBA. What kind of career do you think you would’ve had if you chose to play pro basketball?
I was an in-between size. I wasn’t tall enough to be a real forward, and I probably didn’t handle the ball well enough to be a point guard. So I don’t think I would’ve done too well. But I might add I didn’t consider myself a basketball player. I played basketball, and I loved it. But I never thought of it seriously as being a professional.
Of the many movies in which you acted, which was your favorite and why?
“The Dirty Dozen” was my favorite, and the reason is it was really a good movie. A lot of people really liked it. It became a classic. We had a wonderful time shooting it. We had so many great actors, and they all befriended me and helped me and guided me through it. So it was a very enlightening experience, but it was a very pleasurable experience because of the way they accepted me. I was a former football player. And most people would say, “Football players can’t act, so we’re gonna mess with him.” But they didn’t do that. They gave me an opportunity to do my part, so I felt very grateful for that.
Could you compare and contrast yourself to Barry Sanders, another back who retired in his prime and was highly respected for his modesty and respect for the game?
I think Barry Sanders is an unbelievable football player. I don’t know if any of us could say that we were better than Barry, and I don’t think any of us would want to. It’s unnecessary. But he’s also a real fine human being and a friend of mine. His father was a dear friend of mine and used to tease Barry and say, “You’re the third-best back that ever played the game.” His father said, “I’m No. 1, Jim Brown is No. 2 and you’re No. 3.” Barry had to tolerate that conversation, but he took it well. ... Just a fantastic athlete and a great person. A lot of dignity.