Jim Brown showed boys like me there was a better place to run toward
In my tough Cleveland neighborhood, we appreciated how Cleveland Browns great stood up for himself and other Black people
I never got to see Jim Brown play. Not even on television. I was a year old when Brown retired in his prime, just a season after leading my hometown Cleveland Browns to a title.
But as a boy growing up fatherless and regularly flirting with danger on Cleveland’s tough East Side, Brown, who died May 18 at age 87, was my lifesaver. I never met him until I was an adult and we had a brief encounter in Los Angeles. Yet I watched him from afar for decades and took notes on how he worked to improve conditions for at-risk youth like I once was.
It also impressed me that many of the grown-ups in my life – people who ordinarily could be quite cynical – admired Brown for how he played football and lived his life. We lived in what we called Browns Town. And the greatest Brownie ever was Jim Brown, and it just so happened that he had a side to him that advocated for economically disadvantaged people like us. I always thought that if he had their respect – they were a tough bunch – then he must be on to something.
Brown seemed to be that rare American cultural figure who was allowed to transcend race, politics or income bracket. At a certain point in my teenage life, I needed to see that was possible.
I was confused about my place in the world. I wanted to be part of the legal economy. And I also wanted fast money, which for where I lived on Cleveland’s East Side and in East Cleveland, only came via illegal activities.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I worked a seasonal job selling concessions at the Browns football and Indians (now Guardians) baseball games. Hot dogs or popcorn, anybody? I was also attending high school and patrolling centerfield for the baseball team.
But I had another side to me as well. I sold weed to classmates – which today sounds less sinister than it did 40 years ago – and would regularly organize games of craps on street corners (and in backyards and at the sides of houses). After one dice game on Penrose Street, which was one block over from where my family lived, in which I’d won hundreds of dollars, a stranger who had been eyeing the dice contest from across the street walked up to me and asked for a cigarette. I didn’t smoke. He pulled out a gun. I ran. He didn’t shoot and I’m here to tell the story.
Brown started a community organization in which he encouraged people to take responsibility for their own success or failure. Some will say that considering he was blessed to be 6-feet-3, 240 pounds and played sports, that was easier for him to accomplish than it was for others. That might be true. Brown was all over the map philosophically. Yes, he wanted to uplift the poor and put a spotlight on racism, which made liberals happy. He also talked about personal responsibility, which pleased conservatives.
While I never played sports seriously beyond high school, I realized I could use love of sports and dedication to journalism and make a career. I was always going to watch sports and talk about them whether I got paid or not, so why not try to get paid for it? I learned that when you loved to do something for reasons other than money, you enjoy doing it more and probably get better at it.
If I didn’t care about the Cleveland Browns and the NFL, I probably would have been less enthralled with the big football player who ran over opponents when he could have run around them. (He got up off the grass slowly, saying that it was a way to conserve energy. He would say odd things like that, beat to his own drum.)
Brown was an imperfect hero. After his football career he would be connected with a half dozen instances of alleged domestic violence and serve four months in jail. He admitted to an anger issue but said that it was directed at men as well as women.
In 1988, long after he had retired from the sport, Brown started a program called Amer-I-Can Foundation for Change. He once said that he had heard so many youth say, “I can’t,” that he wanted to build a program that emphasized the phrase “I can.”
His program, which is still going, is built around a life skills curriculum aimed at helping individuals meet their academic potential, conform their behavior to acceptable societal standards and improve the quality of their lives. I’ve never read the program’s manual, but I believe I must have picked up some of the blueprint by observing Brown.
I grew up in a household of 11 with my mom, my grandmom and her husband, my mom’s six siblings and my grandmother’s brother. My mom was 14, and the oldest of her siblings, when I was born. All my aunts and uncles were 12 or younger. In our house and our neighborhoods in Cleveland and East Cleveland, Brown was regularly mentioned and not just because of football.
My teenage mom and her siblings loved to watch TV and go to the movies. Brown retired from football in 1966 to make motion pictures and he appeared in some big-budget flicks as well as some blaxploitation ones. He was also one of the first actors to participate in an interracial love scene (with Raquel Welch in 100 Rifles in 1969). His economic organization was meant for job creation in neighborhoods likes ours. It seemed like his hands were in everything. It didn’t hurt, either, that he was Black, handsome, full of confidence and no-nonsense.
Brown lived a long life and had many accomplishments for which tributes are now pouring in. He was known for being a good teammate and advocating for those who didn’t have his influence. He arranged the famous Cleveland Summit in which a group of Black athletes, including Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics and UCLA sophomore Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), met in Cleveland in June 1967 with Muhammad Ali, who was refusing to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.
On the East Side of Cleveland where I was raised, a special reverence was held for the man even beyond those achievements. The 1950s and ’60s –when Brown was running over defenders in Cleveland – was a period when Black people had to contend with overt racism in public accommodations such as the workplace and schools. Brown, because of who he was and what he could do in sports, seemed to have transcended some of those boundaries while using his influence to help other Black people.
My mom Queenie had become pregnant with me in 1964 when Brown was in his eighth season in the NFL. My dad Curtis was a teenager from the Hough neighborhood and decided not to be involved with raising me. (Today, my dad and I now have a loving relationship.)
By the time my mom was in her late teens, she was starting to getting sucked into the drug scene. She began a 20-year heroin addiction. She eventually kicked her habit but not until she experienced tremendous heartache, including several stays in prison. She died in 2014 in Houston and the final 20 years of her life were spent helping others in recovery.
Brown created Amer-I-Can to help people in situations like my mom and me. He wanted them to understand that they could achieve social and economic success. His goal was to show another way to youths facing issues such as gang violence, drug addiction and teenage pregnancy.
After high school, I was able to enroll into Cleveland State University and began working toward a degree in communications. While in college, I got married and started a family. I also began working for The Vindicator, a Black-led student newspaper born out of the social turmoil in Cleveland of the 1960s. Before I graduated, I became the first Black editor-in-chief of The Cauldron, school’s main student newspaper. After getting a master’s degree in journalism at Ohio State University, I took my family to California, where I worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
It was there, helping out with coverage of the murder case involving another former football great, O.J. Simpson, that the editors asked me to go to a function at the Urban League, Brown was speaking. He had been commenting on CNN about Simpson, who eight days earlier had been arrested after the Los Angeles Police Department had famously chased him and his friend in his white Ford Bronco across the city’s freeways.
I had always wanted to meet Brown but not under these circumstances.
Nevertheless, after Brown gave his talk, I followed him and his chief of staff, a former gangbanger named Rockhead Johnson, out the back of the Urban League’s facility. Johnson had been one of those youths gone astray whom Brown had helped, a Crip who had spent 17 years in prison and had been shot 11 times. He considered Brown to be a father figure, something he’d never known in life.
I had a job to do so I ended up standing between Brown and the car he and Johnson were going to. I knew it was never a good idea to get in between Brown and his destination – whether that was an end zone or a parked vehicle.
Rock Head shot me a mean mug. Brown didn’t know me or my Cleveland roots. He didn’t know how he had inspired me with Amer-I-Can. This was not a time for nostalgia. This was a time to question him before he showed me his ability to escape.
“Jim,” I said. “You said on CNN that drugs are at the root of O.J.’s problems. How do you know that?”
I could see his famous anger boiling up. His brows furrowed.
“I know what it looks like to be on drugs.”
“How?” I asked.
“I’ve been around long enough to know what that looks like,” he said.
“Have you ever seen him do drugs?”
“I don’t need to see him do it to know what it looks like.”
“So you have never personally been around O.J. when he was doing drugs?”
He was getting more agitated.
“Again, I don’t need to be around him to know what a person on drugs looks like and how they act.”
Rock Head entered my space and he and Brown got into the car and the driver pulled off — but not before Brown shared his disappointment in the LA Times for sending me out to question him.
But he answered my questions and never once cursed. And I have no doubt that he did know how a person on drugs behaved.
In fact, that’s something that I knew as well.