Jim Brown - One of Football's Greatest


Within the Cleveland Brown franchise, one player towers above the rest. A running back that faced opposition head-on and at full force. Opposition did not stand a chance against the juggernaut Jim Brown, whom John Mackey, former tight end with the Baltimore Colts and San Diego Chargers, once recalled as saying, “Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts.” Brown’s physical prowess was the picture of perfection. Over six feet and 232 pounds of pure violence contained when in repose, which was not often, exploded onto the field as the stoic warrior reacted to every blow he was dealt with a greater and opposite force. Powering through one defensive lineman, then two, and three, it took multiple men piling on to bring him down. After which Brown, like a behemoth resurrected, would rise as though he were pushing the earth down and with each determined step toward the huddle, further demoralize his rivals, who were exhausting themselves only to slow down an inevitable force.

Born in the rural south amidst the naked racism of 1930s America, Life could not wait to impart its lessons on the young James Nathanial Brown. Brown grew up in an all-black community on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. He was raised under the care of his great-grandmother, sharing a household with his grandmother, who struggled with alcoholism. His father, Swinton Brown, a professional boxer, had abandoned the family when Jim was only two weeks old and his mother, Theresa, unable to care for him on The Island, moved to New York to work as a maid. At four, he started primary school in a segregated two-room shack. Four years later, his mother would send for him.

Jim Brown has been an entrepreneur most of his life. When he was with Cleveland, he felt sti-fled by the inflexibility and reactionary approach of the authoritarian head coach, Paul Brown. In 1962, he led the players’ revolt that ousted the legendary coach, even putting himself in the line of fire by telling the franchise’s owner, Art Modell, “either Paul Brown goes or I quit.” Under the direction of Paul’s replacement, Blanton Collier, Jim Brown proved Modell made the right decision by rushing 1,863 yards, becoming the first to run over a mile in a single season. When he was given the opportunity to act in a film, he ran with it, exchanging a secure career in the NFL for an uncertain status in Hollywood. As an actor he represented an Everyman personality formidable actors like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte could not pull off, made in-roads for future African American action stars, and had a respectable career in television and movies. When he saw people falling through the social and economic gaps in his community he stepped in by spearheading two programs to empower them. In short, Jim Brown built his con-fidence in himself, trusted himself to take smart risks. And that is what defines entrepreneur-ship.

1) Stand Your Ground

Jim Brown encountered barriers throughout his life, the most pernicious being racism. At the age of eleven he incapacitated a boy for several days for calling him a “dirty n . . ” with one swift punch. In college, his coaches relegated him to the fifth string in his sophomore year because they opposed having a black starting player. He virtually forced them to move him up to first string by playing phenomenally well and becoming a crowd favorite. You will likely face opposition as a business person: from people around you, competitors, and even yourself. Be optimistic. Never stand in your own way and do not allow others to. But maybe avoid going around punching people in the face.

2) Learn What “Self-Reliance” Means, Then Practice It

Self-reliance is a term that is thrown around a lot these days; so much so that the sub-stance of the phrase gets lost amid the hype. Often those proclaiming themselves to be self-reliant have a tenuous grasp on what exactly that means. They get wrapped up in the self-aggrandizing illusion that they are truly independent, able to procure everything they need by themselves. But no one in society actually lives that way. Realistically, the self-reliant individual is one who is confident in one’s ability to lead, orchestrate, and intercede when necessary. Jim Brown learned early to appraise himself: know his strengths and capabilities, test his limits, and work on his weaknesses. If he did not accept himself for who he is, he would not have a chance of being accepted by the world. In his own pointed words, “I’m not interested in trying to work on people’s perceptions. I am who I am, and if you don’t take the time to learn about that, then your perception is going to be your problem.” Although his confidence waivered in college, he learned the valuable lesson to take the opinions of others with a grain of salt and to simply dismiss the prejudices of bigots. If you lack confidence in your abilities, you will not be able to rely on yourself. Have a healthy and confident attitude about your skills. Never sell yourself short.

3) Learn to Accept the Help of Others

Mentors, friends, and heroes had a formative impact on Jim Brown. Willing to lend him a hand, have his back, or inspire greatness—one wonders if Jim Brown would have met the unfortunate fate of some of the other members of the Gaylords had these figures been absent from his life. It is important to graciously accept the help of others and to acknowledge those who come through for you. We hear in Proverbs of pride going before destruction and haughtiness before a fall: meaning that your refusal to admit that you are human and prone to err spells out your own ultimate failure. When you turn your nose up at the help of other people (and let us not forget assistance programs, too), when the noise of self-acclaim echoes in your head, you will trip more often and fall much harder because you will not be able to see the obstacles be-fore you or hear the warnings of your ruin from those around you. More than networking, establishing lasting relationships contributes to a well-rounded life and ensures that when you stumble someone will be ready to right you.

4) Have Goal Models Not Role Models

Jim Brown famously recommended, “Don’t have role models, have goal models.” He knows first-hand that people are not perfect. In fact, some of us are seriously flawed. This did not stop him from recognizing the respectable achievements and goals that anyone can make for her or himself. Find people whose goals parallel your own; when you feel you are veering off course to achieving your goals, you can look to their road map for guidance.

5) Break Barriers, Do Not Build Them

Life is full of obstacles: social limitations, fiscal woes, the unexpected. Too often our biggest obstacle, however, is ourselves. Jim Brown [almost] fell victim to the second-guessing-syndrome brought on by racism and the calumny from bigots. When his coaches and teammates castigated him he thought, “Maybe they are right.” Had he continued to give credence to the irrational hatred of others, scaffolding their vitriol with his own doubts about his worth, he would have quit football in college and avoided the illustrious career(s) we know him for today. And his careers in sports and film and his personal endeavors as an activist certainly epitomize the breaking down of barriers. Recognize the barriers in your own life and business. Are they things from without? Or do they stem from something within? Address these issues. Do not get bogged down in them. Get out of your own way and actively work to overcome them.

6) Use Money as a Means, Not as an End

In addition to self-reliance, the Austrian economist Joseph Alois Schumpeter (1883-1950) ascribed to the character of an entrepreneur, a stomach for moderate risk, an optimistic outlook, and a perfectionist bent. Noticeably absent is the pursuit of wealth, or what is known in business as the profit motive. Just as you should avoid the pull of barriers, so too should you not be guided by profit. When Jim Brown played football, multi-million dollar contracts were not, as they are today, the norm. (The New York Times reported at the time of his retirement from the NFL his annual salary at $60,000-plus.) His guiding principle was social reform; part of the reason he left professional football was because he believed the film industry offered him a better avenue to promote civil rights. As he explained: “I’ve always had my freedom. The price I paid for it was popularity and money. I would not trade places with Magic Johnson or Warren Moon [two athletes who made millions in their respective sport, basketball and foot-ball].”

7) Have a Positive Presence in the Community

Jim Brown recognizes that as a person of some renown and celebrity, he is well positioned to expose the ugly parts of society. From his platform he can criticize racism, economic inequality, and the abuse of human rights. He can garner a funnel of support from wealthy donors and petition the government for assistance to make social changes. With his Amer-I-Can program, Brown intervened in the conflict between the notorious Los Angeles gangs the Bloods and the Crips in the early nineties and mediated a truce. Now, serving as a member of Amer-I-Can is the former Crips leader, Rudolph “Rockhead” Johnson. A responsible business contrib-utes to the commonweal. Promote harmonious relations between groups and businesses in the community, participate in local civic affairs, respect all people in the community, and improve the living conditions around your business.

8) Diversify

As far back as high school, Jim Brown kept his hand in a lot of pots and spun multiple plates. From all-star jock to actor; from activist to businessman—he kept his mind open and his ambitions varied. He could have continued playing football and acted on the side, but his work probably would have suffered; so, still in his prime, he moved on to pursue something new and exciting. He told author Alex Haley in an interview for a 1968 issue of Playboy:

I got out before I ever had to do like I’ve seen so many guys—sitting hunched over on the bench, all scarred and banged up, watching some hot young kid out there in their place; and, worse than that, just wondering if they’d slowed down so badly they’d never be called to go into the game anymore. You see, I believe a man grows up. He discovers there are other worlds. Basically, I’m a guy who has to progress or I feel I’m stagnating—I don’t mean just materially, but as a person. My interests have expanded in various areas—in racial relations, my various investments and, of course, my new movie career, but most of all in my sense of responsibility to my people. For the rest of my life I am committed to taking part in the black struggle that’s going on in this country.

You should have the same sort of multi-dimensionality and perspicacity: tend to all your interests and talents, and know when to call one project finished so you can pick up on another.

9) Respect Others

His stiff determination to get up when his opponents were lucky enough to tackle him, compliment them for their efforts, then slowly trudge back into position, run eighty yards, and score a touchdown illustrates Jim Brown’s sportsmanship. He was not dismayed when he took a hit fighting for every yard; it comes with the territory. Unless those hits were foul, underhanded attempts at disabling him—for instance, when Tom Scott of the Giants tried gouging out Brown’s eyes in a game, Brown retaliated by scuffling with Scott and both were discharged from the game—he would just disarm his opponent with a smile and mow him down in the next play. For a lasting success in your business enterprise, you will need to respect your customers, your employees, your shareholders, and your competition. Part of respecting others is not being full of yourself. “When running backs get in a room together,” Brown quipped, “they don’t argue about who is the best.”