Football 101: No. 2, Jim Brown
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I grew up in Cleveland on the legend of Jim Brown.
Let me share something with you — when Jim Brown retired in 1965, there had been eight NFL seasons when a running back averaged 100-plus yards per game. Here are those eight seasons:
Jim Brown, 1963, 133.1
Jim Brown, 1958, 127.3
Jim Brown, 1959, 110.8
Jim Brown, 1965, 110.3
Jim Taylor, 1962, 105.3
Jim Brown, 1960, 104.8
Jim Brown, 1964, 103.3
Jim Brown, 1961, 100.6
He was from another planet. It’s funny, so many of the greatest players on this list reinvented their position. Lawrence Taylor changed how you play outside linebacker. Sammy Baugh and Roger Staubach and Joe Montana each altered the quarterback position. Don Hutson and Raymond Berry and, obviously, Jerry Rice, changed what it means to be a wide receiver. Anthony Munoz created the mold for left tackles.
And what I mean by “reinvented their position” is that they moved professional football forward — Lawrence Taylor begat Derrick Thomas, Don Hutson begat Paul Warfield, Roger Staubach begat Dan Marino begat Aaron Rodgers began Patrick Mahomes. Each of those players added something to their position, something that the next generation could build upon.
Jim Brown is different. He didn’t beget anybody. There never was a Jim Brown before him and there’s never been a Jim Brown after him. He didn’t innovate any running back moves, didn’t inspire any offensive novelties, didn’t inspire any copycats. There was no point in trying to copy Jim Brown; he was an American original, through and through.
The illusionist David Blaine does a trick where he catches a bullet between his teeth. The bullet catch is a very old magic trick, one with a rich and, yes, tragic history, but Blaine did it differently from everyone else: It wasn’t a trick for him. The bullet actually was fired at his mouth. And Blaine offered one of my favorite all-time lines about it: “The hardest part of the bullet catch,” he said, “is catching the bullet.”
The hardest part of being Jim Brown was being Jim Brown.
You probably know that he was one of the most extraordinary all-around athletes in American history. To this day, he is often listed as the greatest men’s lacrosse player ever. At Syracuse, he averaged 15 points a game for the basketball team, finished fifth in the U.S. Championship in the decathlon, and was obviously an All-American in lacrosse; he was so good they actually changed the rules to make him theoretically stoppable.
As a football player, he was probably the best player in America in 1956, even though the Heisman went to Notre Dame’s Golden Boy, Paul Hornung. There was some hype about Brown leading into the Cotton Bowl that year, as people compared him to Texas Christian’s vaunted running back Jim Swink.
Brown didn’t like being compared to anybody, so all he did was rush for 132 yards (“often carrying four or five of the Frogs on his back,” the newspapers reported), return three kicks for 98 yards, score three touchdowns and kick three extra points. Syracuse actually lost the game 28-27 because one of Brown’s extra points was blocked, but everybody was still properly awed.
“That Brown, he’s a great football player,” TCU’s coach, Abe Martin, said after the game. “If a man couldn’t see that out there today, he’d be pretty ignorant.”
Cleveland selected Jim Brown with the sixth pick in the 1957 draft — yeah, the sixth pick. Here, for posterity, are the five players picked in front of him.
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