Athlete, actor, and political activist James Nathaniel Brown was born February 17, 1936, in St. Simon Island, Georgia. A talented athlete from an early age, Brown earned 13 letters playing a variety of sports at Manhasset High School in New York. Over the course of his athletic career, Brown broke numerous records in the 1950s and 1960s and won multiple Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards before abruptly retiring from professional football at the age of 30 to focus on his emerging acting career and the civil rights movement.
Brown attended Syracuse University in New York where he played football, basketball, ran track, and played lacrosse. As a senior in 1956-7, Brown was a unanimous All-American in football and a second-team All-American in lacrosse, and remains the only athlete to be inducted into the NCAA Hall of Fame for both sports, as well as the NFL Hall of Fame.
The Cleveland Browns selected Jim Brown as their number one pick in the 1957 NFL draft, and the rookie would capture the league rushing title, Rookie of the Year honors, as well as earn the league Most Valuable Player award. Over the next eight years, Brown would lead the league in rushing seven more times, be elected to every Pro Bowl, and win another Most Valuable Player award in 1965. Some of his most notable records include career rushing yards (12,312) and average gain per attempt (5.2 yards). In nine seasons as a premier fullback, he never missed a game. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
Brown made his film debut in the 1964 western, Rio Conchos, acting with leading Hollywood stars including Richard Boone, Stuart Whitman, Anthony Franciosa and Edmond O’Brien. In the off-season of 1965, Jim Brown announced his retirement abruptly from a movie set of the World War II film, The Dirty Dozen, in London, saying he would prefer to focus more on his film career, as well as working with community organizations. In 1969 Brown starred in 100 Rifles with Rachel Welch which generated controversy because they were involved in one of the earliest interracial love scenes in a major Hollywood film. Over his career Brown would star in more than 50 film and television projects including most recently Draft Day which was produced in 2014.
Brown was also known as a civil rights activist who organized the 1967 Cleveland Summit of major black athletes who supported Muhammad Ali who refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War. From the 1960s through the 1980s he worked with inner-city gang members and prison inmates. That work led him to found in 1988, the Amer-I-Can Program, and subsequently the Amer-I-Can Foundation, which supports troubled youths and inmates through courses teaching life management and self-determination.
Through his career Brown also was involved in a number of legal issues. In 1968 he was charged with assault with the intent to commit murder after model Eva Bohn-Chin was found beneath the balcony of Brown’s second floor apartment. The charge was dismissed but he paid a $300 fine for striking a deputy sheriff during the incident. In 1978 he spent one day in jail for beating and choking his golfing partner, and in 2002 he was jailed for refusing the terms of probation for a charge of vandalizing his wife’s car three years earlier. After refusing counseling and probation, Brown was sentenced to six months in jail. He served four months.
Brown’s politics were also unusual. He supported both Democratic and Republican candidates for office including Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016.
James Nathaniel “Jim” Brown died on Thursday, May 18, 2023 at his home in Los Angeles, California. He was 87.