A Fellow Syracuse University Alum Remembers the Life and Legacy of Jim Brown

5/20/23 – – Bump into any Syracuse University grad (like me) in the next few days and you’re sure to hear stories about fellow alum James Nathanial Brown. Better known as Jim Brown, arguably the best athlete who ever lived, he passed away Thursday at age 87.

This extraordinary man’s complexity is communicated well by the headline on his obituary in today’s Washington Post: “Jim Brown was a confounding knot of athleticism, activism and violence.” Viewing his life through the lens of his Syracuse experience helps explain the achievements and contradictions of his adult life.

Much of my insight into Jim Brown comes from conversations I had as a Syracuse undergraduate with one of my professors, Harry Porter (that’s Porter, not Potter).  Professor Porter was Brown’s academic advisor and got to know him well as a student in his U.S History courses which focused on the Gilded Age. Even though it had been two decades since Brown’s graduation, it wasn’t hard to get Professor Porter to reminisce about one of his favorite students.

He’d always start by praising Brown’s intelligence, reminding us that in addition to starring on the football, basketball, track and lacrosse teams, he spoke multiple languages and aced all his courses. Porter believed that Brown’s early life experiences and his path to Syracuse explained much of his athleticism, drive and aptitude.

Multi-Cultural Beginnings

Brown was born on February 17, 1936, in St. Simons, Georgia, a barrier island (about the size of Manhattan) between Savannah and Jacksonville. The history of this small but strategically located island is one of conquest and cohabitation. Originally the home of Creek and Guale Indians, St. Simons was controlled for periods of time before the American Revolution by the French, Spanish and English. In the decades prior to the Civil War, there was a large slave population tending to the island’s cotton plantations.

By the time Jim was born to Swinton and Theresa Brown, segregated St. Simons was a kaleidoscope of cultures, dialects and traditions. He learned to converse with his neighbors in multiple languages, and from his Native American friends he learned to play the game we call “lacrosse.” (Seventeenth-century French missionaries in Quebec gave it this name because the sticks carried by the players reminded them of the Bishop’s “crosier” staff with a curved top carried during religious ceremonies.)

Brown’s father, a boxer who wasn’t around much, left the family when Jim was two years old. His mother moved north to Long Island, New York, leaving Jim in St. Simons to be raised primarily by his grandmother Nora. At age eight, Jim joined his mother, who was cleaning the homes of wealthy families in the Great Neck area. It was arranged for Jim to live with a family in the excellent Manhasset school district, where he attended through high school graduation.

Making the Most of It in Manhasset

Professor Porter would say to us, “So, here’s this Black kid with a multi-cultural background, dropped into a wealthy, predominantly White suburban community and enrolled in a demanding educational environment. And remember, this is all happening before the civil rights movement in America. You couldn’t blame him if he felt out of place and failed. But that’s not what happened. He thrived.”

At Manhasset High School he got good grades and was voted president of the student government, all while excelling in football, lacrosse, baseball, basketball and track. His coaches, teachers and a Manhasset attorney named Kenneth Molloy, who had played lacrosse at Syracuse, took special interest in Jim. They recognized his off-the-chart athletic and personal potential.

“Here’s where fate comes into play,” Porter would say. “Believe it or not, big football programs were not beating a path to Manhasset to recruit Jim, who had track-star speed, stood over six feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. The problem was he was Black, and most teams, especially throughout the south, had never suited up a Black athlete and in some cases would not play teams that did. One exception was Syracuse, which had even started two Black quarterbacks in football (Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, 1937; Bernie Custis, 1948-50) and, coincidentally, had an excellent lacrosse program.”

Even with so perfect a match, Ken Molloy had to convince his alma mater to bring Jim aboard as a “walk-on.” Molloy paid for Brown’s first year tuition, having been given a promise by Syracuse head football coach Ben Schwartzwalder that a full scholarship would be granted if Brown performed.

And as any Syracuse alum can tell you, perform he did.

A Four-Sport Syracuse Legend

By the time he graduated, he had earned 10 varsity letters: three in football, three in lacrosse, two in basketball and two in track. He was a consensus All-American in lacrosse and football, finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting his senior year.

Porter would tell us the story about the time Brown played in a home lacrosse game wearing the wrong shorts in the first quarter because he had just finished starring in a home track meet and had no time to change. Little known fact: Brown finished fifth in 1956 at the U.S. Olympic trials in the decathlon, qualifying him for the Melbourne Olympics. He didn’t go to Australia because of his football commitments.

Brown, who was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1983,  was so dominant and physically imposing on the lacrosse field that rule changes were adopted. For example, after the Brown era, players were prohibited from holding their stick close to their body. Why the change? Brown would essentially hug the stick with the ball in its pocket as he maneuvered through opposing defensemen. There was no chance for them to dislodge the ball, even if they splintered their sticks against his chest, which they often did, according to Professor Porter. Before Brown, the rule was unnecessary, because no one in their right mind would subject themselves to such danger.

And there was the football game against Colgate his senior year when Brown ran for 197 yards and scored 43 points — six touchdowns and seven extra points. (That’s right, Jim Brown was the place kicker, too.) Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of college football in 2019, an ESPN panel of 150 judges named him the best college player ever. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995.

Wearing what became the legendary number 44 on his Orange jersey, Brown set the standard for outstanding Syracuse running backs to come. He helped recruit and handed off his number to Ernie Davis, who helped the Orange win the National Championship in 1959 and became the first Black winner of the Heisman Trophy. Davis then passed on #44 to Floyd Little, who rewrote the school’s record books and enjoyed a distinguished NFL career.

To balance Brown’s athletic superlatives, Professor Porter would remind us that Brown was an excellent student and a member of Army ROTC during his four years at Syracuse, continuing his military service in the Army Reserves while playing for the Cleveland Browns in the NFL. In 2016, Brown was inducted into the U.S. Army ROTC National Hall of Fame. 

“Unfortunately,” Professor Porter would admit, “his Syracuse experience was far from perfect. Jim was dejected and angry whenever race reared its head on campus.” More than once he was counseled by coaches not to date White women. And he quit the basketball team when he was told he would not be starting because the coach would not place three Black players in his starting lineup. “Those slights were a reminder to Jim that for even a brilliant super star, if he’s Black, not all of America’s freedoms are secured.”

Dominating the National Football League

So, when Jim Brown left Syracuse as the Cleveland Browns’ first selection in the 1956 NFL draft, the contours of his personality, confidence and commitments had taken shape to guide his amazing careers in football, entertainment and social activism. “He left campus with the abilities and the will to make a difference,” said Professor Porter. “And that’s exactly what he’s done, on his own terms, on and off the field.”

Much has been written over the last couple of days about the mark he made in professional football. He entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971 and is considered one of, if not the greatest of all time. No one has ever matched his combination of speed, size, strength and grace. He never missed a game over his nine-year, record-setting career. He led the league in rushing eight times.

Sam Huff, the Hall of Fame linebacker for the NY Giants, said this about trying to tackle the 6’ 2” 230-pound fullback: “All you can do is grab, hold, hang on and wait for help.” Brown played the game with unbridled ferocity. In the New York Post today, John Mara, co-owner and president of the Giants, shared his boyhood memories of the legendary Brown v. Huff encounters: “I remember thinking that it was just so violent and so physical in some of the hits that they put on each other, that made an impression on me as a kid for sure.”

Brown once advised fellow Syracuse alum and Football Hall of Famer John Mackey, “Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts.”

Moving to Hollywood and Making a Difference

Abruptly ending his football career in 1966 — as Professor Porter would say, on his terms — Brown headed for Hollywood. You can judge for yourself if he was a good actor. Binge watch “The Dirty Dozen,” “Rio Conchos,” “Ice Station Zebra” and “100 Rifles” (in which he has a love scene with Raquel Welch) and see what you think. Asked if he thought the career change made sense, Brown remarked, “I knew when you went from Sam Huff to Raquel Welch, it wasn’t bad shit.”

Committed to making a difference beyond sports, Brown during his playing days founded the Black Economic Union, which according to media reports helped launch 400 Black-owned businesses. And in 1988 he founded Amer-I-Can, focused on rehabilitating gang members and young people who have served time in prison. The organization’s mission is to enable these individuals to, “meet their academic potential, conform their behavior to acceptable societal standards, and improve the quality of their lives by equipping them with what they need to confidently and successfully contribute to society.”

Contemporary super star LeBron James, who grew up in Ohio, said this in response to Brown’s passing: “When I choose to speak out, I always think about Jim Brown. I can only speak because Jim broke down those walls for me. 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. We all stand on your shoulders, Jim Brown. If you grew up in Northeast Ohio and were Black, Jim Brown was a God.”

Of course, Jim Brown was far from perfect. He displayed serious anger management issues and was accused several times of violence against women. As Professor Porter would point out to us, there was always anger and understandable resentment under the surface. Regrettably, the darker parts of his life could get the better of him.  

In a 1979 interview, Jim Brown explained to The Washington Post, “I was a symbol of a Black man who wanted all of my freedoms. It’s very difficult for White America to understand that if you are part of football’s elite why you are not satisfied with recognition and good money.” He concluded, “Anyone who expected me to be overjoyed that I was doing well in football would be disappointed,”

With a deeper understanding of the “confounding knot of athleticism, activism and violence” that defined Jim Brown, I and I’m sure most Syracuse University alums send our condolences to his family. We’ll never forget the gifted young man from St. Simons and how he made a difference.  

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