Out of Left
Brown in "100 Rifles"
He was always
-- and still controversial
I was a little late getting around to the Spike Lee documentary,
"Jim Brown, All-American that ran a few months ago
on Home Box Office. But the HBO people finally got a tape to
me. If they show it again in reruns, I recommend it highly. It
is an excellent portrayal of a not-easy man to portray. It inspired
By STAN ISAACS
Jim Brown came out of Long Island shortly before I
joined Newsday, the big Long Island newspaper, in the early 1950s.
Because he was the local boy who made good at Syracuse U. and
the Cleveland Browns, I followed him closely and wrote about
him frequently over the years. I met him many times, but I never
got close to him.
When I joined Newsday in 1954, Brown was only recently graduated
from Manhasset High School. He was already the stuff of legend.
He had been a phenomenal athlete at Manhasset, the star of the
football, basketball and lacrosse teams, a bulwark of the track
and field squad and had shown some flair as a baseball pitcher.
Colleague Ed Comerford told me about the time Newsday brought
Brown in for a photography shoot of the All Long Island football
team, only to then rush him out to a track meet where he was
scoring points in track and field events. I have come to regard
him as the greatest American athlete of all time, ahead of Jim
Thorpe and Jackie Robinson. In addition to his prowess in football
as a pro and in college; and lacrosse and basketball in college,
he finished 10th in a national decathlon championship competition
as a high school senior when he had hardly any coaching in skill
events like pole vaulting and the discus.
Early on while he was at Syracuse I asked him if he was becoming
conscious of the increased interest in social issues by black
athletes. He said he had no interest in that. Jackie Robinsons
way is not my way, he said. And he expressed no activist
thoughts early in his pro career.
So it was a surprise to me that in his autobiography, Off
My Chest, written with Myron Cope, for which he received
a substantial fee, he spoke out unequivocably on social injustice.
This earned him the enmity of racists and people who preferred
that black jocks confine their commentary to football. Integrationists
I felt a pang that he never expressed feelings like that to me
even though he should have guessed that I would have put them
in a sympathetic framework. I wondered if he expressed himself
so freely partly because he was paid or because he had grown
in awareness since I talked to him at Syracuse. A part of me
felt, though, that if I had been more persistent he might have
opened up to me.
I covered him when he came to New York to play the Giants and
at times went out to see him in Cleveland. I recorded the feats
of the man who is still regarded as the best runner, perhaps
the best pro football player of all time.
The numbers dont tell the half of it, because in his time
pro teams played only 12 and 14-game schedules and many of todays
records were set in 16-game seasons. He scored 126 touchdowns
in 118 games. He gained more than 100 yards on an average of
once every two games. He gained 220 yards in a game four times.
And at Syracuse he once scored six touchdowns against Colgate.
But most significant of all, he averaged 5.2 yards per carry
with the Browns, still the highest rushing mark of all time.
And he did this when opponents concentrated on stopping Jim Brown.
The movie has a extraordinary bank of shots of Brown breaking
tackles, making long runs, scoring touchdowns. I doubt any runner
can boast a set of highlight clips to match these.
He retired from football in 1966. The movies did it. Actually,
Browns owner Art Modell refused to allow Brown to come
to training camp late so that he could finish making the movie,
The Dirty Dozen. Modell announced that he would fine
Brown $100 a day for every day he missed training camp. This
was a monumental misreading of the proud Brown, the First Independent
Man. He quit football. Years later, when Modell and Brown made
up, Modell admitted, I made a mistake.
Brown has been a controversial figure ever since.
He has been involved in a number of incidents of violence against
women. At various times he has been charged with assault and
resisting arrest; he has been hit with a paternity suit. He has
said the Los Angeles police have made him a marked man with trumped
up charges. But there is no doubt he has that violent streak
that has threatened women at times. Most recently, after admitting
smashing the windows of his wifes car after an argument,
he went to jail for six months rather than carry out the sentence
of doing community service work picking up garbage and going
to anger management classes.
There is the infamous incident of the woman and the balcony.
The popular belief is that Brown pushed her off the balcony,
but both Brown and the woman deny this. Nevertheless, in the
HBO documentary the woman shows a scar on her forehead that stems
from Browns anger. Spike Lees movie is impressive
for not shrinking from this dark side of Brown.
He was a black stud in movies for some time, gaining the most
attention from a hot sex scene with Raquel Welch in 100
Rifles. He says with a chuckle in the documentary, I
didnt really know what to do, so I put my tongue in her
ear. I recalled that Brown frequently has this nervous
chuckle, particularly when he thinks he is being immodest.
He cant get out from under the women-beater rep, but the
most significant aspect of him since he left football has been
his social activism. He has long stressed the need of blacks
to lift themselves economically. He founded the Black Economic
Union, a multi-city organization helping blacks to set up their
He has gone where few others dare go, forming the rehabilitation
organization Amer-I-Can working in prisons and among Los Angeles
gang members, turning some of societys worst toughs into
success stories. Jim Brown, All American features
interviews with former gang members who extol Brown and what
he has been doing.
He has been a critic of black stars like Michael Jordan who he
accuses of turning their backs on their unfortunate brothers.
When O.J. Simpson was running himself into riches as a commercial
symbol, Brown confronted him about being more than a commercial
pin up boy for whites, Simpson said, You go your way, Ill
Even in his good works Brown remains controversial. When he supported
President Richard Nixon for re-election it was pointed out that
his Black Economic Union was in line for money from Nixons
minority business agency. And GQ Magazine cast a critical eye
on his Amer-I-Can, pointing out that Brown took 40 per cent of
Amer-I-Can participants wages as a fee. There have been
charges that he hasnt shown how many gang members and ex-cons
he has turned around, that the bulk of the curriculum for self-improvement
is little more than an urbanized Dale Carnegie course.
Brown responded angrily that Every other program is getting
millions and they dont have to justify shit. I work 55,000
times harder than any of them. All the contracts we work on are
public record. I provide a service, run this business and pay
I knew Brown came from a broken marriage and that he had a sort
of footloose domestic existence as a youth on Long Island. The
documentary is poignant for showing the absence of love from
his parents and his inability to reach out to his own four children.
One of his sons who was afflicted with a drug problem says, He
can read people so well. I dont want to come to him with
Jim Brown is sensitive, proud, brilliant. He is an overwhelming,
sometimes menacing presence. I admit anew that for all the years
I have known him, I have not had the relationship with him that
I might have wished for. It certainly came as something of a
surprise to me then when I saw him at an autograph session not
too long ago in Manhasset for his book, Out of Bounds
and he wrote in my copy, To Stan, a long time history,
©2003 by Stan Isaacs.
The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The photo
from "100 Rifles" is courtesy TBS Superstation.
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