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Jim Brown dies at 87: Browns Hall of Famer, movie star and civil rights icon lived extraordinary life

The imagery is beamed to us from days of old: a thundering, whirling Superman hurtling past dazed defenders; pulling away from a clutch of enemies to dart laterally, chop forward and break free upon a mixture of Cleveland dirt and painted grass for a long rocket blast to paydirt.

Younger generations know this almost mythical on-field figure from those storied spools of black-and-white cutups, but the real-time, in-the-flesh experience of Jim Brown unfurled in high-octane color -- sometimes Technicolor.

Brown, viewed by many as the greatest football player ever, died Thursday night at age 87.

"It is with profound sadness that I announce the passing of my husband, Jim Brown," Monique Brown said in a statement on Friday. "He passed peacefully last night at our L.A. home. To the world, he was an activist, actor and football star. To our family, he was a loving and wonderful husband, father and grandfather. Our hearts are broken."

One of the NFL's first superstars, Brown shattered the league's record books during a short career that spanned from 1957 to 1965.

"On behalf of the entire NFL family, we extend our condolences to Monique and their family," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement on Friday. "Jim Brown was a gifted athlete -- one of the most dominant players to ever step on any athletic field -- but also a cultural figure who helped promote change.

"During his nine-year NFL career, which coincided with the civil rights movement here at home, he became a forerunner and role model for athletes being involved in social initiatives outside their sport. He inspired fellow athletes to make a difference, especially in the communities in which they lived."

His résumé reads like that of a man from somewhere beyond any normal place, capturing eight NFL rushing titles in nine seasons, along with three MVP awards, eight first-team All-Pro nods and a Pro Bowl berth in every campaign he touched. Brown rampaged for 12,312 yards and 106 touchdowns -- and never missed a game in nine years before walking away from football in 1966, at age 30, as the only man to average 100-plus rushing yards per outing over his career.

"Jim Brown is a true icon of not just the Cleveland Browns but the entire NFL," Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam said in a statement on Friday. "He was certainly the greatest to ever put on a Browns uniform and arguably one of the greatest players in NFL history. Jim was one of the reasons the Browns have such a tremendous fan base today. So many people grew up watching him just dominate every time he stepped onto the football field but his countless accolades on the field only tell a small part of his story."

Yes, the football feats only begin to paint the imprint left on America by Jim Brown, who bolted the gridiron at the height of his powers to pursue an acting career in Hollywood and continue a lifelong mission as an outspoken activist for issues of social justice, economic empowerment and civil rights.

"Jim Brown really represented achievement for the Black community," NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once told NFL Films. "And he was so good that it didn't matter what color they were; they had to acknowledge him as the best in his field. And that meant a lot to Black Americans in the '60s, when anything that any Black person achieved was questioned as to whether it was significant. But there were no question marks about Jim Brown."

Born February 17, 1936, Brown spent his early life raised by his great-grandmother on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. His father, Swinton "Sweet Sue" Brown, a professional boxer, left when Jim was two weeks old. His mother, Theresa, relocated to New York to make ends meet.

"Even though my mother and father weren't around, I had the undying love of my great-grandmother and lived on a beautiful southern island," Brown told Syracuse University Magazine in 1996.

Eventually shifting to New York to live with his mother, Brown bloomed into a dominant athlete at Manhasset Secondary School, excelling in football, basketball, lacrosse and track.

Recruited by Syracuse to play football, Brown -- the only Black player on his freshman team -- was forced to ride the bench early.

"The first thing my football coach attacked was my talent," Brown recalled. "He said I couldn't run the ball and that I wasn't any good. I would fight it every day, but finally I thought, Maybe he's right; maybe I can't run."

The superintendent of Brown's high school, Raymond Collins, flew to Syracuse to encourage his former student.

"[He] told me that I better not quit," Brown told NFL Films. "Stick it out. That it'll work out. And he was right."

Brown cracked into the lineup due to a rash of injuries and forced the Syracuse coaching staff to acknowledge his gifts. As a starter during his senior year in 1956, the 6-foot-2, 212-pound Brown operated as a poetry-in-motion whirlwind, barreling through cowed college defenders for 986 yards at 6.2 yards per clip. His 13 touchdowns were helped by a 43-point firestorm against Colgate that saw Brown score six times and knock home seven extra points.

If the football staff was slow to the draw, not so of Brown's Syracuse lacrosse coach, Roy Simmons, who told The New York Times in 1984: "I coached this game for 46 years, and Jim Brown was the greatest lacrosse player I ever saw."

Brown remains the only individual inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame (1995), Lacrosse Hall of Fame (1984) and Pro Football Hall of Fame (1971).

Brown's storybook pro career set sail in 1957, when the Cleveland Browns made him the sixth overall pick in the draft. Coach Paul Brown apparently had eyes for Len Dawson, but when the future Hall of Fame signal-caller went to the Pittsburgh Steelers with the fifth selection, history was born.

Jim Brown crushed all comers out of the gate, nabbing MVP and Rookie of the Year honors while leading the NFL in rushing yards and touchdowns in 1957 -- helped by a 237-yard detonation of the Los Angeles Rams -- while fitting seamlessly into a Paul Brown attack that revolved around a bone-crushing, clock-controlling ground game, with Jim Brown noting to NFL Films: "The coach liked me. I'll always remember. He said these words to me: 'You are my running back. You are my running back.' Those were the sweetest words I ever heard as a professional football player."

Brown topped himself in 1958 by running for a record-shattering 1,527 yards and never looked back. In an era when bundles of players would pound beers and tack on flab in the offseason -- emerging from a fog in training camp -- Brown's chiseled, massive frame endured. Teams would draw up plans to stop him, using a variety of old-school tactics -- cheap shots, late hits and surprise clotheslines -- no longer allowed in today's more civilized affair.

"Every time the play was over, Jim Brown would get up and he'd be the last one to stand up," Hall of Fame runner Larry Csonka told NFL Films. "And he would go back to the huddle very slowly. And then he'd get in the huddle and I'd think, My God, he's got to be hurt. And then he would just explode."

Browns teammate, Walter Beach, knew he was among someone set apart, telling NFL Films: "If you watch some of the films, you can see his balance. I saw Jim Brown come out of a meeting and it was in the winter. And he stepped on a piece of ice and slipped. At least for four or five seconds, he defied gravity. I said, 'This cat ain't even fall when he slipped on a piece of ice.' "

Brown's six games with at least four scores still stands as a league record, while his 1,863 yards rushing in 1963 remains a benchmark in Cleveland. One year later, in 1964, he guided the Browns to their most recent NFL championship, with a 27-0 drubbing of the Baltimore Colts in the title game.

At Syracuse, Brown knew well the sting of racism in the 1950s whenever the team would voyage into the South, saying in 2002: "Finding a hotel where they'd let me stay and eat with my white teammates was a struggle."

The star back experienced similar prejudice as a pro, but Brown had grown accustomed to speaking out for his African American teammates.

"We played a game in Florida," fellow Browns running back Bobby Mitchell told NFL Films. "When we got there, when the players got through getting their keys, the only people still standing there were the Black guys. Jim and all of us. The manager came over and he said, 'We have a nice hotel for you in Miami.' He had never met Jim Brown. Jim said, 'Wait a minute.' And Paul [Brown] said, 'No, no, no, no. No, no, no.' We're the Cleveland Browns. We don't separate. So you get keys for all of my players. And they came back and they said we can stay in the hotel, but we cannot go out any of the doors to the beach. And that was tough, looking out at that pretty water. But that was commonplace."

Jim Brown's pairing with Paul Brown was nothing short of an on-field smash hit, but their relationship grew rocky as Jim's fame flowered to massive proportions, with some describing it as a cold war between the two mega-powers.

"Paul dominated all of his players. There was one guy he couldn't dominate," Mitchell said to NFL Films. "Many times, he put me in the middle of things so he could say things to Jim. So he might jump on me, and screaming at me about something, but it was always when Jim was next to me somewhere -- because he's really talking to Jim."

Brown finished the 1965 season with a third MVP trophy -- and a lingering sense of boredom. After a previous foray into Hollywood in 1964 -- landing a supporting role in the Western film Rio Conchos -- Brown ventured to London for a significant part in the World War II action-epic The Dirty Dozen. Delays in filming pulled the production closer and closer to the start of Cleveland's 1966 training camp, but Brown felt zero desire to return stateside.

Nonplussed Browns owner Art Modell countered by fining Brown $100 for each voided camp practice, saying in a statement: "No veteran Browns player has been granted or will be given permission to report late to our training camp at Hiram College -- and this includes Jim Brown."

On July 5, 1966, Jim Brown sent a missive back to Modell, which read, in part:

Dear Art:

I am writing to inform you that in the next few days I will be announcing my retirement from football. This decision is final and is made only because of the future that I desire for myself, my family and, if not to sound corny, my race. I am very sorry that I did not have the information to give you at some earlier date, for one of my great concerns was to try in every way to work things out so that I could play an additional year.

Modell would later acknowledge: "I made a mistake."

Just like that, the finest career in pro football lore was a wrap.

Brown went on to star in a rash of major films after The Dirty Dozen -- The Running Man, He Got Game, Mars Attacks! and Any Given Sunday among them -- and saw Hollywood as a chance to widen his influence and affect social change, saying to NFL Films: "You had the same kind of visibility and you could break down more barriers because the movie industry was very segregated and there were things that Black actors were not supposed to do."

His first Hollywood agent, Phil Gersh, recalls how it started, saying: "A producer at Columbia, Jerry Tokofsky ... he called me and asked me if I'd be interested in representing Jim Brown. I was a big football fan. I thought Jim Brown was great. I felt he would be a major star and particularly for action pictures."

Despite zero previous acting experience, Brown was an on-screen natural, starring in a string of Westerns and Blaxploitation offerings – Slaughter, Black Gunn, I Escaped from Devil's Island and Three the Hard Way, for starters -- during the late-'60s and early 1970s.

"Jim changed Hollywood financially," longtime actor and former Chiefs/Raiders defensive back Fred Williamson told NFL Films. "It opened doors because, all of a sudden, Hollywood realized that there was a Black audience they had been missing all along."

In 1969's 100 Rifles, Brown plays a deputy sheriff from Arizona angling to nab a bank-robbing antihero played by Burt Reynolds. The movie looms as a passable Spaghetti Western, but Brown's character advanced the course of film history by playing opposite starlet Raquel Welch in the first interracial love scene in a major Hollywood vehicle.

"What Jim Brown offers is a more physical, perhaps more urban representation of Black masculinity," USC film professor Dr. Todd Boyd told NFL Films, comparing Brown to African American star Sidney Poitier. "He was sexual, he was powerful, he could throw hands."

The beeline running through Brown's winding public life was an innate desire for social equality and civil rights -- a quest he pursued in a style all its own.

"I'm not a Martin Luther King and a Gandhi mother------. I don't know what they were talking about," Brown said to Esquire in 2008. "Spit on my a-- and I'll knock you out. I ain't going to sing and march, man. But I'm fair."

On June 4, 1967, Brown spearheaded the Cleveland Summit, bringing together 12 superstar Black athletes to meet with and listen to -- and, in the end, show support for -- Muhammad Ali's worldview after the heavyweight champion's belt was stripped for his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War. The list included Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Carl Stokes, Bobby Mitchell, Walter Beach, Sidney Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter and John Wooten -- a meeting that impacted the course of the Vietnam War and civil rights in the United States.

"I felt with Ali taking the position he was taking, and with him losing the crown, and with the government coming at him with everything they had, that we as a body of prominent athletes could get the truth and stand behind Ali and give him the necessary support," Brown told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2012.

Along the way, Brown verbally sparred with Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox over segregation and brokered a peace between the Bloods and Crips when gang violence ravaged Southern California. The work with gangs helped motivate his founding of The Amer-I-Can Foundation, which "came out of the need to get down to the street level," Brown told the New York Daily News in 2011. "I was doing economic development for minorities. I was getting Black folks to use their dollars to help each other. I looked up and saw Black men killing each other over red and blue. Until we did something about that, there was no use for economic development."

In later years, Brown was criticized for his stance on Colin Kaepernick and his decision to meet with President Donald Trump. And he remains a subject of controversy after facing multiple criminal allegations of violence coming from men and women between 1965 and 1999. In 2002, Brown served four months of a six-month jail sentence for refusing court-ordered counseling and community service after being found guilty by a jury of vandalizing his wife's car with a shovel.

"There were things that I did that was wrong and there were things I was accused of that I did not do. And to try to explain it would be to make an excuse for the things I did that were wrong," Brown told NFL Films. "But I'll tell you something: As I sit here now, I wouldn't think of trying to do anything wrong. I've learned how to allow a person to slap me and I've learned how to turn the other cheek. I wish I had the intelligence to apply myself better at a younger age."

Jim Brown was many things at once.

The greatest football player of all time, an immediate screen star and a force of nature for racial equality and individualism in America. Charismatic, fiery, troubled by anger, driven to succeed and a loyal friend who saw far beyond himself.

"I'll tell you why I am the way I am," Brown told NFL Films. "It doesn't start on the field. It starts as a person. I was dealing with race since I was born. And in my inner self, my strength was unbending when it came to accepting that B.S.: racial discrimination. Because I was never going to let anybody make me feel that I was not top-shelf. And that was a battle that raged, and I could use a lot of that on the field."

As Brown told Esquire in 2008: "Ultimately, the soil replenishes."

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