Friedlander: Jim Brown was a larger-than-life presence whose legacy is almost too amazing to be true ... but it is
Some legends grow into tall tales as the years pass. Jim Brown’s legacy needed no embellishment.
Even though to the uninitiated, it might be hard to believe that his amazing list of accomplishments hasn’t been exaggerated.
Take his performance on the football field for Syracuse in a 1956 game against Colgate. Brown ran for 197 yards, scored 6 touchdowns and kicked 7 extra points to singlehandedly account for 43 points – setting an NCAA record that stayed on the books for more than 4 decades.
A year later, he placed 1st in both the high jump and javelin to help the Orange win a track meet before quickly changing into his lacrosse uniform and leading an 8-6 victory against Army that finished off an undefeated season for his team.
He was such a dominant, larger-than-life talent that he also started for 2 seasons on the school’s basketball team while earning 10 varsity letters in 4 different sports.
When news of his death at the age of 87 broke on Friday, Syracuse chancellor Kent Syverud issued a statement that was more of an understatement. He said that Brown “is widely regarded as one of the greatest athletes to ever wear Orange.”
Make that the greatest athlete in school history.
He is held in such high regard at Syracuse, his No. 44 has been elevated to almost mythical status. It holds so much significance that in the late 1980s, the university had its zip code and phone exchange changed so that 44 could be included in them.
That, more than any statue, record or testimonial, is the definitive statement on just how much Brown meant and still means to his alma mater.
His career after graduation is held in equally high regard.
Ask anyone who saw him in his prime – which was far too short since he walked away from competition before his 30th birthday – and they’ll tell you that there’s never been another athlete like him either before or since.
He has a place of honor in both the college and professional football halls of fame, as well as the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame.
Brown led the NFL in rushing 8 times in his 9 seasons with the Cleveland Browns and earned 3 league MVP awards. His 12,312 yards was a record at the time of his retirement and could have been much higher had he continued to play longer. As it is, it took 19 years for Walter Payton to surpass him.
But those numbers are only a small part of Brown’s story.
His 2nd act included a turn as a Hollywood actor who starred in films such as the Dirty Dozen, Mars Attacks and On Every Given Sunday. Those roles allowed him to remain on the public stage and provided him with a platform from which he achieved greatness far beyond anything he did on the field of play.
He became an outspoken civil rights activist and a champion for social justice who became one of the 1st high-profile athletes to speak out publicly on issues beyond the realm of his sport.
Along with other prominent African-American athletes of the day – including Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – Brown made headlines in 1967 by organizing the so-called “Cleveland Summit” to voice opposition to the Vietnam War.
With the passing of Jim Brown, and Bill Russell last year, I believe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Walter Beach are the last two living members of one of sports’ iconic photos – the Cleveland Summit, also known as the Muhammad Ali Summit (1967). #legends #history pic.twitter.com/At1hF2mr1U
— exhoopsprguy (@exhoopsPRguy) May 19, 2023
“Jim’s dedication to the fight for equal rights was a lifelong effort and something that enabled me to maintain our friendship for over 50 years,” Abdul-Jabbar Tweeted on Friday. “The world and I will miss him greatly.”
Like the rest of us, Brown wasn’t infallible. He had his struggles with anger management and domestic violence. But the good far outweighed the bad.
As he got older, he began channeling his energy into creating programs aimed at promoting black entrepreneurship and teaching life skills to underprivileged inner city youths and those confined in juvenile detention facilities.
Through it all, Brown never lost sight of his roots.
He continued to serve as “one of Syracuse’s proudest ambassadors,” as chancellor Syverud described him, while serving as an inspiration to generations of Orange players, coaches and fans who knew him only through his role as legend emeritus.
And a legacy that was already so much larger than life that it only seemed to be embellished.