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Jim Brown retires while on the set of ‘The Dirty Dozen’

Brown left to pursue an acting career after becoming a Hall of Famer — at age 30

When the 1965 NFL season ended, Jim Brown was the star of the league. He was the 1965 MVP after rushing for 1,544 yards in a 14-game season, which was 677 yards more than the runner-up, a Chicago Bears rookie named Gale Sayers. At that moment, Brown was the sport’s leader in single-season and career rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns. In nine years of pro ball, Brown was the rushing champion eight times and the MVP three times.

But he was bored. So when the season ended, Brown was out in London filming the movie The Dirty Dozen, trying to stimulate his mind. It was his second acting appearance and because of delays in filming, the days kept creeping closer to when Brown would have to return to prepare for the next NFL season. He realized he had a decision to make. It was July already, and Brown was about to enter the final year of a two-year deal that paid him a little over $60,000 per year. But if he wanted to play the next season and collect his money, he’d have to ditch the film. Browns owner Art Modell issued a statement with an ultimatum in it.

Among other things, Modell said, “’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. Should Jim fail to report to Hiram at check-in time deadline, which is Sunday, July 17, then I will have no alternative to suspend him without pay. I recognize the complex problems of the motion picture business, having spent several years in the industry. However, in all fairness to everyone connected with the Browns — the coaching staff, the players and most important of all, our many faithful fans — I feel compelled to say that I will have to take such action should Jim be absent on July 17.”

Jim Brown holds up an ambulance driver in a scene from the film 'The Dirty Dozen', 1967.

Jim Brown holds up an ambulance driver in a scene from the 1967 film The Dirty Dozen.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

Modell even started fining Brown $100 for every day that he didn’t show up. But no one told Brown what to do. Not even the owner of the team he played for.

A few days later, Brown let Modell know what was about to happen. There were no minced words.

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.

I was very sorry to see you make the statements that you did, because it was not a victory for you or I but for the newspaper men. Fortunately, I seem to have a little more faith in you than you have in me. I honestly like you and will be willing to help you in any way I can, but I feel you must realize that both of us are men and that my manhood is just as important to me as yours is to you.

It was indicated in the papers out of Cleveland that you tried to reach me by phone. Well, I hope you realize that when I am in my apartment I never refuse to answer my phone. The only reason that I did not contact you before I knew the completion date of the movie is that the date was the one important factor. You must realize that your organization will make money and will remain successful whether I am there or not. The Cleveland Browns are an institution that will stand for a long, long time.

I am taking on a few projects that are very interesting to me. I have many problems to solve at this time and I am sure you know a lot of them, so if we weigh the situation properly the ‘Browns’ have really nothing to lose, but Jim Brown has a lot to lose. I am taking it for granted that I have your understanding and best wishes, for in my public approach to this matter this will be the attitude that will prevail.

The business matters that we will have to work out we could do when I return to Cleveland. I will give you any assistance I can and hope your operation will be a success. You know the areas that I can be helpful and, even if you do not ask this help, my attitude will be one that I will do only the things that will contribute to the success of the ‘Cleveland Browns.’

Your friend,

Jim Brown

A few days later, the rest of the world would know, too. As writer Tim Layden recounted for Sports Illustrated’s The MMQB last year:

On the morning of July 14, 1966, Brown conducted a press conference on the set of The Dirty Dozen, wearing military fatigues while sitting in a tall director’s chair placed in front of a tank. “My original intention was to try to participate in the 1966 National Football League season,” Brown said, reading from a piece of paper. “But due to circumstances, this is impossible.” One day later Brown met with esteemed Sports Illustrated pro football writer Tex Maule on the set of the movie. Their remarkable exchange formed the basis for a single-source story in the July 25, 1966, issue of SI. In it Brown lays out the blueprint for an activist life beyond football, a life that had already begun with his formation of the Negro Industrial Economic Union (again, the language of the times), in which he involved many of his teammates. His movie career and his dispute with Modell accelerated his movement into a life he was already seeking. Brown told Maule: “I could have played longer. I wanted to play this year, but it was impossible. We’re running behind schedule shooting here, for one thing. I want more mental stimulation than I would have playing football. I want to have a hand in the struggle that is taking place in our country, and I have the opportunity to do that now. I might not a year from now. And later this: “I quit with regret but not sorrow.”

Layden also got Brown to talk last year about the $100 daily fines Modell used to hit him with:

You ask him about Art Modell and the $100 daily fines. Brown leans forward. “You want the real story?” he asks. “I had no bargaining power. But the only thing the Browns had over me was that if I wanted to keep playing football, I had to play for the Browns. But they couldn’t tell me I had to play football. Art was going to fine me for every day I stayed on the movie set? I said, ‘Art what are you talking about? You can’t fine me if I don’t show up. S—, I’m gone now. You opened the door.’ ”

Brown, one of the most revered and respected football players and activists in history, went on to appear in some 44 films (including 17 lead roles). As Modell learned the hard way — no one ever told Brown what to do.

Ryan Cortes is a staff writer for The Undefeated. Lemon pepper his wings.