Jim Brown : The Fierce Life of an American Hero

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-10-02
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications
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He intimidated people on and off the football field. He was brutal yet brilliant, narcissistic yet magnanimous, relentless yet unyielding. Most of all, he was the greatest football player of all time. He was Jim Brown. Jim Brown was an astonishing physical specimen with tremendous skills and intelligence. An athlete who played a number of sports at Syracuse University, he ultimately discovered that it was the violence of football that appealed to him most. The idea of physically dominating other men, surviving ferocious battles on the field against opponents who would just as soon call him a nigger as try to gouge out his eyes fueled an astonishing, record-making NFL career that led to the Hall of Fame. He battled his defenses, sometimes his teammates, and often the Cleveland Browns' legendary head coach Paul Brown. But Jim Brown had ambitions greater than football. He used his athletic brilliance to launch a movie career, becoming Hollywood's first black action hero, culminating in a scandalous love scene with America's sweetheart Raquel Welch. He leveraged his popularity into helping the NFL's black players and becoming a civil rights activist. Never shy about expressing his opinions, Brown would become the subject of FBI investigations and surveillance throughout parts of his life. Then there were the women. The patient wife who was essentially a single mother and who endured public humiliation. The girlfriends he ran through and the scandalous accusations of violence made by some of them. A complex and fascinating story, Jim Brown is a towering biography of a living legend.


Jim Brown
The Fierce Life of an American Hero

Chapter One

Paul Brown stood on a choppy practice field, hands on his hips, his eyes fixed on a player several feet away. The man many people called Jimmy Brown was stretching on the scruffy green canvas. Paul watched, showing a brief smile, his full cheeks fattening as Jim had moved from stretching to jumping jacks and then graduated to running sprints at half speed. His quickness, despite running at a lower gear, was more than evident. Paul was still stunned, even after months of watching Brown: how could a man his size be so fleet of foot?

Paul had an unremarkable face with thinning hair and a long chin. His personality was just as nondescript. He was an unemotional man, often distant from his players, and not prone to intense emotional outbursts or grandiose statements.

So the beginning of practice on August 1, 1958, was unusual because of something Paul said to a small group of reporters. "There," Paul declared, slightly nodding in the direction of the galloping Jim, "is the best draft choice we ever made. Can you think of a better football player we've drafted?"

Jim was within earshot and could not help but smile awkwardly. His relationship with Paul had started warmly but quickly cooled. Paul would later come to believe that Jim caused the team to divide along racial lines, and Jim felt strongly that Paul had little if any emotional connection with the players who shed blood for him, particularly the black players. Jim appreciated Paul's strong will. A football team needs a leader. Yet Paul was sometimes too unyielding and uncompromising. "If I ever coach one day," Jim told teammates, "I would do it 180 degrees differently than Paul."

That summer's day marked just the beginning of Jim's second year in the NFL, but he already possessed the confidence—actually, the cockiness—of a player far more experienced. Then again, there were few players who were like him, and Jim knew it. He believed strongly in his physicality, and not just his taut muscles. To Jim, the brain was a weapon, and he decided quickly that being poised but quiet was better for a football player than acting gregarious and chatty. There were often several days a week in which Jim spoke to few of his teammates, even the ones who would become close friends. He would stand alone in practice, several feet to the side of the nearest man, or sit alone on a bench or at his locker. Brown had loner elements to his personality, but some of what he did was also contrived. He wanted people, even some of his own teammates, to believe he was unbalanced, ready to pop off at any moment. Many teammates gave Brown a wide berth and then spread the word to friends on other teams around the league about Brown's seemingly unbalanced mind-set. This reputation, Brown knew, would work to his advantage in games if opponents thought he was a little anomalous, in addition to being a brutish, skilled athlete.

Brown had learned early in his life that stoicism could convey messages of intimidation as well as calm. "What's with Jim today?" was a question often asked by Brown's Cleveland teammates, until they realized nothing was wrong with him. Moodiness was as much a part of Brown's pathology as were his power and speed.

Brown's face itself gave mixed messages. He possessed a caramel-colored, soft complexion with light brown eyes and very occasionally a smile that resembled a confident smirk. Jim kept his hair military short and trimmed on the sides in his early days in Cleveland, like the good ROTC driller he had been at Syracuse. His mouth and lips were full, and his face was usually stubble-free. He looked like a cross between a movie heartthrob and a young, sterling army officer, simultaneously inviting and standoffish.

Considering the conservative decade, the 1950s, in which his rise to prominence and stardom began, women, black and white, flocked to Brown with shocking forwardness. It was only a few years before the freedom of the 1960s, but the straitlaced 1950s were not easily relinquishing their hold. Conservative dress and attitude were still the order of the day in the Midwest. Still, each Brown appearance in public was met with aggressive flirtations and correspondence shoved into his hands or pockets from women seeking a physical relationship with the football star.

When he reported to training camp in 1958, Jim was a powerful 220 pounds, slightly more muscled up than in his rookie season; ten days into camp, he had added an additional 8 pounds. When the Browns used a hand timer to check his speed in the 40-yard dash on one of the first days of practice, he ran it in a blistering 4.5 seconds while wearing his entire uniform, including shoulder pads and helmet, and entering the sprint from a three-point stance. Before Jim, the fastest player on the Browns was running back Ray Renfro, who ran his heat in 4.7 seconds. Renfro was approximately 40 pounds lighter than Jim.

In a second race against other running backs, Renfro won with a time of 4.6, still slower than Jim's. After hearing that Renfro had won his heat, Jim went to Paul and pleaded with the coach: Let me race Renfro. Brown was the fastest man on the squad, but he was irritated because someone else came close to his speed.

"No," Paul told Jim, "you two would bust a leg trying to beat each other."

In actuality Paul did not want Renfro's ego to be mangled, because Jim would have embarrassed Renfro in front of the entire team by beating him. Later, when Big Ten hurdles champion Bobby Mitchell joined the team, Paul had the two men race on the first day of training camp. Brown may have outweighed Mitchell by forty pounds, just as he did Renfro, but he would beat Mitchell. They would race several times, with Brown and Mitchell beating each other equally, and each race drawing a crowd of excited Browns players to view perhaps the two fastest men in football.

Jim Brown
The Fierce Life of an American Hero
. Copyright © by Mike Freeman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Jim Brown: The Fierce Life of an American Hero by Mike Freeman
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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