Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns was a multi-sport star in addition to being a football superstar.
Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns is widely respected as the greatest football player of all time, and the model running back who did everything well. Younger fans have probably heard their parents and grandparents describe him.
He was, big, fast, tough, smart, and unbelievably quick. He could go around you, but mainly he ran right over you. He was also a punishing blocker for halfbacks Bobby Washington and Ernie Green. Brown could also pick up the blitz and pick up passes. He completely mastered virtually every aspect of being a running back in the NFL.
But even your grandparents may not be aware that Jim Brown was a multi-sport athlete, especially in his days playing for the Syracuse University Orange. He could be compared to Jim Thorpe, the legendary football star who was also the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon gold medalist, only to have his medals taken away because he had received money for playing semi-pro baseball.
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He was also a founding member of the NFL and though he threw his arm out as a pitcher, he played major league baseball as an outfielder.
Is it ridiculous to compare Jim Brown to the likes of Jim Thorpe? Well, hold on to your hat, because here we go.
Jim Brown not only played fullback for the Browns, but he also returned kickoffs. In college, Jim Brown led the nation in kickoff return yardage in 1955.
Brown was also the placekicker. One game he scored 43 points on six touchdowns and seven extra points.
Can you name any defensive backs on those Syracuse teams? How about Jim Brown? That's right, he was a first-string safety in college, and led the team in interceptions with three in 1956 and had eight in his three-year varsity career.
In January, ESPN selected Jim Brown as the best college football player of all-time. Yet, he finished sixth in the Heisman voting, which was won by quarterback Paul Hornung, who led his team to a 2-8 record, with three touchdowns versus 13 interceptions.
He threw for 913 yards, while Jim Brown rushed for 986 yards. Also like Brown, Hornung played safety, and was a placekicker and he added 420 yards rushing, so no question Hornung was a hugely talented player. But please read these numbers again: 2-8 W/L, 3-13 TD-INT, 913 passing yards, 420 rushing. It was a matter of some controversy in 1956, and today it is downright embarrassing.
Part of the problem was that televised football was still in its infancy, and Syracuse just did not get much national attention until Brown made the scene. Even so, the 1956 Heisman selection process was a joke.
Brown's football resume is like no one else's, but we are just getting started. Do you remember the "Bo knows" commercials, in which Bo Jackson would be participating in all sorts of sports? Well, Jim Brown's real life was like that, too, especially in college.
Jim Brown, college basketball star
Jim Brown was a basketball star at Syracuse, and averaged 15.0 points per game as a sophomore, which was second on the team, just behind another sophomore, Vin Cohen, who led the team with 15.8 points per game. But Brown wasn't even a full-time starter, with just 11 starts in 21 games. Brown shared the guard position with Manny Breland. Cohen, Breland, and Brown were the only African Americans on the team.
The following year, Breland was out with tuberculosis. Senior and team captain Ron Gillespie moved to the point guard position after playing mostly forward the previous three years. The Orange got a big year from Jim Snyder at center with 14.8 points per game, and Gary Clark at power forward, averaging 14.0 points per game. Brown started 19 of 22 games that year.
Donald Staffo, in Jim Boeheim and Syracuse Basketball: In the Zone, writes that Syracuse had an informal policy of limiting African American presence on the court to two. A version of the story is repeated by Devon Patton, writing in Spectrum News, as well as by orangehoops.org. With Breland coming back in 1956-57, they would not both be starters alongside Cohen, their top scorer.
Jim Brown did not accept such a disagreeable policy, and did not play that year.
Syracuse had a shot at the national title in 1957, and made it to the Elite Eight, although back then, probably nobody called it that. They were knocked off by the North Carolina Tar Heels, the eventual champion.
The Orange faithful and the players were not particularly happy with how the season turned out. They had their ethnic policy intact, but they also had no national championship. No doubt that inspired considerable internal introspection and debate. The team went 6-22 the next two years.
Brown's basketball accomplishments are impressive enough. But wait, there is more. Jim Brown was a superstar in lacrosse.
Jim Brown, the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame GOAT
For whatever reason, lacrosse never did develop into a major professional sport like football, but at the college level, lacrosse was and is a big deal, particularly in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic United States. If you imagine playing hockey on a grass field with a ball instead of a puck, that would not be far off.
Like hockey, it derives in part from games played by Native Americans. Today, the players wear pads like football, and it is just as rugged as football, hockey or rugby. Brown claimed that it was actually his favorite sport, which really allowed him to use his speed and power as an athlete. He reportedly said, "I'd rather play lacrosse six days a week and football on the seventh."
In his senior year, the Orange went a perfect 10-0. However, in lieu of a championship game, the US Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association awarded the Wingate Trophy to 5-0 Johns Hopkins University. Perhaps it was a coincidence that Syracuse had two nonwhite players and Johns Hopkins had none. In Leveling the Playing Field: The Story of the Syracuse 8, David Marc tells how coach Roy Simmons addressed the team. "For most of you, this is the first time you have felt the sting of racism. That lesson has far greater value than the Wingate or any other trophy."
Jim Brown is the first African American to have been selected to the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame, inducted in 1984. Perhaps they were embarrassed that Brown is so much better known for his football play, but this was a travesty to have waited so long. They list him as "James N. Brown." Oh come on, we know who he is. They must be jealous that Jim Brown is so much more famous than the rest of the lacrosse players
His Hall of Fame induction plaque indicates that Jim Brown is "considered by many to be the greatest to ever play the game of lacrosse." The 1958 NCAA Lacrosse guide called Brown "the greatest lacrosse player in the history of the sport." According to George Vecsey, writing for the New York Times (March 19, 1984), Roy Simmons was at the induction ceremony and underscored that claim, saying "I coached this game for 46 years, and Jim Brown was the greatest lacrosse player I ever saw." So critics should not be saying it was made up by a bunch of Cleveland fans. He really was that good.
The professional Premier Lacrosse League started in 2019, and its future is in doubt due to Covid-19. Nevertheless, their Most Valuable Player Award is named after Jim Brown. Brown offers these comments on their website:
"I’m very proud to be a part of the PLL and its commitment and dedication to the game of lacrosse. I will be very active in support of this great effort. My congratulations to all of those who have worked very hard to make this recognition of lacrosse a reality. I also have a great appreciation that the MVP award will be in my name. The sport of lacrosse has a rich history, dating back hundreds of years to the Iroquois Nation, and I'm humbled to continue to grow the game.”
If Jim Brown is not the GOAT of lacrosse, who is?
Also, it is very much like Brown to acknowledge the contributions of the Iroquois Nation. It truly is an American game.
Incidentally, Brown's son Aris will be a freshman this fall and will play lacrosse at Hampton University.
Jim Brown, decathlete and track star
At Manhasset High School in New York, Brown won 13 varsity letters in five sports: football, lacrosse, basketball, track, and baseball. In baseball, he threw two no-hitters as a pitcher. Somehow, he made time to also participate with the track team and was the winner of the Nassau County high jump championship.
At Syracuse University, when time permitted, Brown also was a part of the track team. Orangehoops.com tells the story of a 1957 track meet in which Brown won the high jump and javelin, placed second in the discus, and helped Syracuse beat Colgate. Then the same day, he played with the lacrosse team, leading the way to an 8-6 win over Army.
He placed fifth in the decathlon in 1955 at the intercollegiate national championship. The decathlon, of course, was the signature event for Jim Thorpe and is one of the most grueling athletic events in the world. Brown didn't win an Olympic gold medal as Thorpe did, but if he had trained for it consistently, would anyone put it past him?
Curiously, Brown shared the Cleveland backfield with Olympic decathlon champion Milt Campbell, who was drafted in the fifth round in 1957, the same year Brown was drafted sixth overall. Campbell never amounted to much in the NFL, however, with a career output of 7 rushes for 23 yards.
In addition to cross-training in so many sports, by the mid-1960s he found himself becoming a totally different kind of star, a movie star. That career ultimately proved to be incompatible with football, or at least owner Art Modell, who was not willing to compromise.
Filming of The Dirty Dozen went into double overtime, and Brown was going to have to be late to summer camp in 1966. Modell could not stand for that and issued angry threats via the press that Brown had to report immediately. To make a long story short, Hollywood won out and Brown retired from football.
By 1969, Brown was getting paid $200,000 to film 100 Rifles, a cowboy movie that featured a steamy romance with Raquel Welch. Being a movie star paid much more than being a football star, which paid him $60,000.
Not that Brown is a saint, on the contrary, he has had problems with anger management and violence, which has gotten him into legal trouble numerous times. Anger is the one force to have gotten the better of him. But just as he was a multi-sport athlete, he has had multiple roles in retirement, including founding a production company called Ocean Productions, to encourage minority participation in movie making.
Also, Brown has been no stranger to the field of public service. Through various foundations including the Amer-I-Can Program, Brown has worked with young people, including gang members, ex-convicts, and other at-risk groups, seeking to empower the disenfranchised in order that they may reenter the mainstream of society. He's one of the few people who seem able to communicate and even influence the so-called "hardcore" in our society.
You may not like him. A lot of people do not. In any case, he was multidimensional on the athletic field as well as off. This fan believes he was the best multi-sport athlete ever.