Today marks the anniversary of one of the darkest days in Cleveland Browns history: the day that Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown walked away from the NFL at the age of 30.
And, as with most of the dark moments in franchise history, this one can be placed at the feet of then-owner Art Modell, the only man in the history of the National Football League to lose money running an NFL franchise.
Following the 1965 season, a year where Brown led the NFL in rushing with 1,544 yards (the eighth time in nine years he led the league) and in rushing touchdowns with 17 (the fifth time he posted double figures in rushing touchdowns and the fifth time he led the league), Brown left for London to begin filming The Dirty Dozen, part of a three-picture deal he had with Paramount Studios.
“You just don’t give Jim Brown an ultimatum like Art Modell did. Jim was not going to back down to Art Modell or anyone else.” – Jim Kanicki, Former Browns Defensive Lineman
“After 1965, I told Art that I was leaving, but if he needed me, I might consider coming back,” Brown said in Terry Pluto’s 1997 book, When All The World Was Browns Town. “The movie was taking longer to finish than they thought. Art was putting out all these statements about how he had to fine me if I didn’t show up in camp. I told Art, ‘Hey, you have a one-way contract, I only get paid if I play. I’m not guaranteed any money.’ How could he fine me when I wasn’t even being paid?”
Think about the scenario here for a moment. You are the owner of a team that has the greatest running back in NFL history on the roster, a player who had average more than 1,600 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns over the previous three 14-game seasons. That player, a nine-year veteran needs to miss training camp and possibly a couple of games to take care of a scheduling issue he has no control over, but will be back for most if not all of the regular season. A player who, to this day, has never had a problem speaking his mind on difficult social issues.
And your decision is to back that player into a corner and demand they he come to training camp on time or else?
Art Modell was truly one-of-a-kind when it comes to NFL owners. (And we don’t mean that as a compliment.)
“A key thing was that Art was pressuring Jim to come back right now,” longtime Cleveland sports writer Hal Lebovitz said in When All The World Was Browns Town. “I think Jim was kind of angry at Art for pushing him.”
Not that it did any good, but several years later Modell admitted that he made a mistake in pressuring Brown.
“I may have acted hastily (with Brown) in 1966,” Modell said in When All The World Was Browns Town. “If I had told him to just forget training camp and show up when he could, I think he would have returned. But it wasn’t fair to the coaches and players (for Brown to miss camp).”
We’ll leave it up to you to determine the irony of a man who moved the Browns out of Cleveland talking about what is “fair.”
Even though he was being forced into a situation where he had to take a stand, Brown did not take it out on the only NFL team he had ever played for. From the movie set in London, Brown reached out to head coach Blanton Collier with an important piece of advice.
“From England, I wrote Blanton a letter,” Brown said in When All The World Was Browns Town. “I explained that I was retiring, but that he’d be set at running back. I told him to keep Ernie Green blocking, and that he had a runner who was going to be unbelievable. In that letter, I told Blanton to give the ball to Leroy Kelly.”
Kelly, of course, would go on to his own Hall of Fame career before also being pushed out of town by Modell, who apparently had a thing against Hall of Fame running backs … and Hall of Fame wide receivers … and Hall of Fame coaches.
As talented as Kelly was, he was no Jim Brown, and there is no way of knowing if having Brown leading the rushing attack for another couple of seasons may have pushed the Browns into a Super Bowl.
In case there is any lingering doubt that Brown was the greatest running back the NFL will ever see, here’s what the Pro Football Hall of Fame has to say on his bio page:
"Brown was more than just a one-of-a-kind running back. He caught passes, returned kickoffs, and even threw three touchdown passes. His 12,312 rushing yards and 15,459 combined net yards put him in a then-class by himself. Jim was a unanimous first-team All-NFL pick eight times, 1957 through 1961, 1963-1965. He played in nine Pro Bowls in nine years and was the game’s outstanding back three times. He closed out his career with a three-touchdown outburst in the 1966 Pro Bowl."
"Brown was unanimously named the Rookie of the Year in 1957. He was recognized that season as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player by many media organizations. In all, he earned league MVP honors four times (1957, 1958, 1963, and 1965). At Syracuse University, Brown was All-America in both football and lacrosse and a letterman in basketball. Jim selected football as his career sport, however, and thus became the Cleveland Browns’ number 1 draft pick in 1957. Even though coach Paul Brown was traditionally reluctant to use rookies as regulars, Jim Brown was a regular and a star from day one."
The Cleveland Browns have had plenty of dark days in franchise history, and the day that Jim Brown walked away from the game has to be near the top of the list.
If you saw Jim Brown play, what memories do you have of him?