Friday, May 19, 2023

Remembering Jim Brown (1936-2023)

By Chris Willis, NFL Films

Jim Brown, Pro Football Hall of Fame, running back

Today the NFL world mourns the loss of the great Jim Brown at the age of 87.

After being drafted in the first round of the 1957 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns, the 6-2, 232-pound Brown dominated the league for the next nine seasons. Over those nine seasons Brown led the NFL in rushing 8 times finishing with a then NFL-record 12,312 rushing yards.

He also has on his Pro Football Hall of Fame resume:

Rookie of the Year (1957)

3 NFL MVPs (1957, 1958, 1965)

All NFL or All-Pro for all 9 seasons

9 Pro Bowls

1964 NFL Championship win

1960’s All-Decade Team

NFL 50th Anniversary Team

NFL 75th Anniversary Team

NFL 100th Anniversary Team

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1971

Cleveland Browns Ring of Honor

Cleveland Browns Jersey Number 32 Retired

 As a player he achieved everything a player could and more.

The first time I met Jim Brown I was a high school senior in Columbus, Ohio in 1989. At a banquet held in Columbus, the NFL Alumni Association held an event honoring Jim Brown. As an eighteen-year-old growing up in central Ohio, I just knew I had to go to the event and met Jim Brown. At a local golf course banquet hall I waited with several hundred people to hear from Brown. Showing up a few minutes late, Brown gave a great speech about being part of a brotherhood of players with the NFL Alumni. Right after his speech I introduced myself. I was nervous but Brown treated me like a friend, asking about my high school football team. He then signed my book, "Off My Chest" (written with Myron Cope, 1964). It was a night I won’t forget.

A few years later after I graduated from college and started working for NFL Films my path crossed with Jim Brown again. In July of 1996 I was working as an assistant director on a project titled “The Browns are Back.” It was the year after Art Modell moved his franchise to Baltimore but the city of Cleveland was able to keep the name and history of the Browns. A fan event was held at Hiram College (the Browns old training camp site) and over 80 former Browns players and coaches attended.

During this event we interviewed many former Browns for a film that aired in 1996. While there Jim Brown showed up to show his support for the new Browns franchise. He looked like he could still play, although he was 60 years old. It was another moment I won’t forget.

Hearing the news today of the passing of Jim Brown made me think of these two meetings with the greatest running back in NFL history. I know the following weeks I’ll be digging into my library to read about the life and career of Jim Brown.

If you want to join me in reading about Jim Brown you have plenty to choose from. Besides "Off My Chest" written with Myron Cope, there are: 

1. Jim Brown: The Golden Year 1964 (by Stan Isaacs, 1970)

2. Jim (by James Toback, 1971)

3. Out of Bounds (by Jim Brown with Steve Delsohn, 1989)

4. Jim Brown: The Fierce Life of an American Hero (by Mike Freeman, 2006)

5. Jim Brown: Last Man Standing (by Dave Zirin, 2018) 

All of these titles are worth the read. They will give you a more in-depth view of Brown and his life and career, especially his autobiography "Out of Bounds" written with Steve Delsohn. 

RIP Jim Brown. 


  1. From Brian wolf ...

    RIP Jim Brown

    I first read about him in the Guinness Book Of World Records, when I was six ...
    A powerful symbol of Black Athleticism and Pride, he was one of the seldom pro athletes in football who I felt was a man amongst boys, along with Walter Payton, Ronnie Lott, Larry Allen, Mel Blount, Cookie Gilchrist, Dwight Stephenson and Don Hutson

  2. Freeman’s a woke hack. There are better choices.

  3. While Brown was an undeniably great player I've always been bothered by his lack of post-season success. 66/241/3.7 1 TD rushing. Excepting his 46 yard run against Balt. his numbers are 65/195/3.0. Hardly man against boys. Still probably the greatest RB of all time

    1. Great observation. Brown has become someone you can’t criticize, but players who don’t step it up in the playoffs or can’t match their usual production need to be called out. History is written by people who step up when the bell rings.

    2. Not equating Dickerson with Brown but he’s another RB who, outside of one great game, disappeared for his team in the playoffs when they needed him most.

    3. More a comment on RBs in general. Even back in the days of three yards and a cloud of dust, winning teams were teams that passed the ball well. The good defenses have typically shut down vaunted running attacks in the playoffs.

    4. "While Brown was an undeniably great player I've always been bothered by his lack of post-season success"

      Fair assessment. Especially in 1958. Akin to Barry Sanders' vs Green Bay in 1994.

      It even applies to Walter Payton to some degree. All-marked men.

      A deeper analysis for who is the GOAT is warranted that includes playoff performance. People can disagree but I thought all three were not too successful in postseason, with Payton the most, but 3 of his 4 win in '85, carried by defense.

      If anyone could be ahead of Brown as best all-time, IMO, would be Payton because of all around ability.

      Pure runners, IMO are Brown, Sanders, then would have to think about it. All around guys--Payton, Faulk, LT, something like that.

      Bottom line is when you dig into it, there was some commentary that was negative towards Brown - lack of blocking mostly. Otto Graham added "lack of faking".

      But, like you, after looking at it, I made by #1 Brown and #2 Payton - and tried my best to include skill-set and postseason in the criteria. But also, reasonable people can disagree.

    5. BW ...

      I somewhat disagree on the postseason for Brown.
      In the 57 Championship, he was a marked man with O'Connell at QB and Plum couldnt take advantage of the Lions, or the Giants in 1958. Paul Brown frankly was outcoached in those matchups against Tom Landry's Giants defenses.
      The 65 Championship was a mudbath, where Taylor and Hornung ran through holes opened by the offensive line. Thats why Ryan took deep shots at the endzone, one that Brown dropped but he just missed on two other passes because their possessions were limited. Brown had a great game against the Colts in the 64 Championship.

    6. I don't think anyone, I know I am not, thinks any of these guys stank it up in playoffs, and coaching and blocking are a big part of ot. Few great RBs have played consistently great in postseason--most were object of focus of defense and playoff yards harder to get. I just think it's reasonable to look at entire picture. And even though Brown's performances dropped (as did Sanders and Payton and almsot anyone not named Daivs or Riggins or Emmitt) he's still the top guy ever to most people.

      All players have a wart or two, some more than others, and some bigger than others. Brown's two are the blocking issue and postseason . . . but neither enough to really make a difference in ranking him...though if someone picked Payton they'd have a strong case.

    7. Just to follow up on my earlier comment I think the disparity between Brown's reg/post season numbers is what surprises people. Especially here in NE Ohio where he's considered the greatest Brown and Otto/Motley are very distant 2nd/3rd. I just think that perception needs some fine-tuning
      Sam in Canton

  4. Mike Freeman isn’t a football writer. Then again, neither is Peter King.

  5. A few thoughts, and thank you for this forum where we can give our comments, for whatever they are worth.
    - I'm glad to read others brought up the blocking issue with Jim Brown. Sometimes people think you're just nitpicking, but it's why I would rate Walter Payton over Brown.
    - My strongest memory of Brown involves his post-whistle behavior. He got up from a tackle slower than anyone I ever saw, and you'd think he was getting the hell beat out of him. After a while you realized it was Brown who was doing most of the hell-beating.
    - Another abiding memory is that when you watched Brown in highlight films, it always looked like the other team just wasn't trying, that Brown just shed and ran through tacklers like they weren't putting out much effort. Of course that was just a weird illusion, but one peculiar to Brown.
    - RIP. He lived a helluva life.

    1. agree that PFJ is a forum where all can have opinions, but doesn't your 3rd point refute your ranking expressed in your point #1?
      In addition to that "weird illusion", the hard data is irrefutable....5.2 career ypc, league leader rushing 8 of 9 years, 1000+ yards 7 of 9 in 12 and 14 game seasons (and missed by 4 and 58 yards the other 2), 126 tds in 118 career games, never missed a game....sheesh.
      RIP Jim....the greatest back of all-time...

  6. BW ...

    Great comment on Brown shedding tacklers, Wilbur. It seemed like Brown's size and speed just took the heart out of many tacklers, who knew if they didnt wrap up quickly and properly, he would go through them. The same with Derrick Henry today, though I feel most defenders today, dont want to tackle any good running back, which is why running should be emphasized more now than ever but networks dont want a fundamental, time of possession type of football.

  7. BW ...

    Maybe more so in todays game but the Cowboys won 3 SBs in four seasons with Emmitt Smith, Terrell Davis won two consecutive SBs with Denver, Roger Craig was essential to 3 SB wins with SF, Jim Taylor was GBs main weapon for 7 Championship wins in the 60s as was Csonka to back-to-back SBs with Miami and Franco Harris winning 4 SBs in 6 years with Pittsburgh, not to mention Steve Van Buren and others.

  8. The guys you mention--their yards per game in POs vs regular seasons vary but all or 110% over except Craig...94%.

    And earlier guys played in two-back offenses - Taylor, Zonk, not "one guy" to target if you will.

    But it's also notable that guys like Brown, Barry Sanders, Faulk, Bettis, Walter are 80% or less some quite a bit...Faulk mitigates a little with receiving but all were guys who were incredible but didn't have postseason success.

    In this case Brown and Payton were in two-back offenses, others, they had a a blocking back who was not a great runner.

    Looking back, people who have done some research think differential in passer rating may be more of a key than anything, going back to at least the 1960s. But of course it begs the question, were some of the higher passer ratings built on good running games? Not huge numbers but Starr, Greise, (Montana over Marino) but then being able to stop the pass (pick passes, not allow 3rd down coversions) as much as the run, if not more.

    I don't know if there is any one rule or thing anyway. If someone can find the "secret" they will write about it in depth and it will be a good read.