Born February 17, 1936, on St. Simons Island, off the southern coast of Georgia, James Nathaniel Brown experienced a childhood shaped by struggle. He was just two weeks old when his father abandoned the family. His mother soon departed from his life as well, taking a job as a maid in Manhasset, New York, and leaving the care of her young son in the hands of Brown’s great-grandmother. Brown was 8 years old when his mother finally sent for him to come live with her in New York. In his new home, Brown did well, thriving on the football field for the largely white Manhasset High School. During his senior year, the young running back averaged an astonishing 14.9 yards per carry, more than good enough to earn him a spot at Syracuse University. In college, Brown dominated the competition, both on the football field and on the basketball court. He also ran track and was a talented lacrosse player. As a running back, Brown earned national attention for his strong, explosive play. In the final regular-season game of his senior year, Brown capped off his college career by rushing for 197 yards, scoring six touchdowns and kicking seven extra points.
In 1957 the Cleveland Browns selected Brown with the sixth overall pick in the National Football League draft. Brown wasted little time adjusting to the new competition, leading the league in rushing yards with 942 on his way to capturing the league’s Rookie of the Year honors. It was just the start. Over the next seven seasons Brown became the standard-bearer for all NFL running backs. At a time when defenses were geared toward stopping the ground game, Brown bulldozed his way past opposition, posting remarkable season totals: 1,527 yards (1958), 1,329 (1959), 1,257 (1960), 1,408 (1961), 1,863 (1963), 1,446 (1964) and 1,544 (1965). His only “down” year came in 1962, when Brown rushed for 996 yards. It was the one season in his brilliant but brief football career that he failed to lead the league in yards. In 1964 Brown steered Cleveland to the NFL championship, where the club routed Baltimore to win the title, 27-0. In the game, Brown ran for 114 yards. But Brown saw a life for himself outside of football, and before the start of the 1966 season, he stunned the sports world by announcing his retirement. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
Just 30 years old when he stepped away from the game, Brown wanted to use his post-football life to focus on a movie career. While some doubted he would stay away from the game for long, Brown stayed true to his word, leaving football for good and going on to appear in more than 30 films, including “The Dirty Dozen” (1967) and “100 Rifles” (1969). But trouble also followed the temperamental Brown. For much of his adult life he’s been dogged by accusations of assault. In 1968 he was accused of his throwing his then girlfriend off a second-story balcony. The following year he managed to escape charges that alleged he assaulted another man following a traffic accident. More recently, in 1999, Brown was convicted of smashing the window of his wife’s car. After refusing to attend counseling, Brown served a six-month jail sentence in 2002.
But Brown’s life has also been defined by his support of African-American causes. In the 1960s he threw his support behind black-owned business by helping to create the Negro Industrial Economic Union. In the late 1980s he started the Amer-I-Can program, which aimed to turn the lives around of young gang members. He’s also been fiercely critical of modern black athletes, such as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, for not being better role models for younger black athletes.