To fully appreciate the magnitude of Jim Brown, you had to be there, in Cleveland, as a Browns fan, when Jim Brown was Jim Brown.
Fortunately, I was lucky enough to be a Cleveland kid when Jim Brown was a Cleveland Brown, and kicking the daylights out of opposing defenses, who had the temerity to try to tackle the most un-tackle-able player in NFL history.
To Cleveland kids he was a god. A player who was tougher than all the rest, stronger than all the rest, faster than all the rest.
We worshiped him.
He was everything we wanted to be, everything we couldn’t be, and we knew it. But that didn’t diminish our awe. Even as know-nothing, nose-running, hero-worshiping whipper-snappers, we knew Jim Brown was special from Day 1.
He was, if you’ll pardon the expression, gorgeous.
Huge shoulders. A chest that looked like it was chiseled out of marble. Enormous arms. A ridiculously tiny waist. Thighs that resembled pistons looking for a train to pull.
On appearance alone it was stunning that, in the 1957 draft, there were actually five players (in order: Paul Hornung, Jon Arnett, John Brodie, Ron Kramer and Len Dawson) selected before Paul Brown chose Jim Brown.
Jim Brown was already a legend by that time. At Syracuse, in addition to football, Brown was a frighteningly physical lacrosse player who forced a change in the collegiate lacrosse rules. Prior to that, he would hold the ball against his chest with his stick and just go barreling down the field toward the opponent’s goal, daring opponents to try to pry the ball away from him.
Jim Brown was a law unto himself on both the lacrosse and football fields.
There was no giant NFL Draft party in 1957, when the Browns drafted Brown. There were plenty of parties later, though, once Browns fans got a glimpse at this freak of nature who simply blasted his way up the field until enough opposing players showed up to try to gang-tackle him.
I said “try.”
My most vivid memories of Jim Brown running with the football were when — and he’d do this three or four times in every game — he would disappear into a pile of tacklers. There would be a brief pause, when you lost sight of him and assumed the play was over. But then he’d come roaring out of the other side of the pile and run for another 25 yards.
He was a man’s man, and us Cleveland kids ate it up.
What was most exciting to the Cleveland kids, and the Cleveland kids’ fathers, was that here was this breathtaking, unstoppable force of nature capable not only of single-handedly beating opposing teams, but beating up opposing teams. He was the biggest star in the NFL and he was actually playing for Cleveland! We couldn’t believe it.
In many of the 118 games Jim Brown played for the Browns, he WAS the Browns. In his nine years with Cleveland he led the league in rushing eight times, which is still the NFL record.
Brown’s greatness as a Cleveland hero was forever cemented by the Browns’ 27-0 win over the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 NFL championship game. There was no Super Bowl then, but there WAS Jim Brown. In the rout of the Colts at old Cleveland Stadium, Brown rushed for 114 yards on 27 carries and caught three passes for another 37 yards.
Of course, he did.
He was Jim Brown. That was why the Cleveland kids worshiped him. He played his best when the spotlight was brightest. When it wasn’t, he still played his best.
In Brown’s nine years with the Browns (1957-65), roughly every kid in Cleveland wanted a Jim Brown No. 32 jersey for Christmas. To this day you still see countless Browns fans, most of whom weren’t even born when Brown was wreaking havoc on NFL defenses, wearing a No. 32 jersey to Browns games.
He was at times, it should be pointed out, a flawed Cleveland hero. There were some unfortunate, uncomfortable off-the-field missteps involving women that, rightfully, should not be forgotten.
But he was also a civil rights activist and a participant in a famous meeting in Cleveland in June 1967 among a dozen Black athletes, including Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in support of Ali declining to serve in the Vietnam War.
For the Cleveland kids, however, the most painful episode in Brown’s career came in the summer of 1966, when, at age 30, he retired from football, after Browns owner Art Modell threatened to fine him for missing training camp while Brown was taking part in the filming of the movie “The Dirty Dozen.”
The Cleveland kids took that one very hard.
On Thursday in California, the greatest Cleveland Brown of them all died at the age of 87.
We are kids no more.