MANHASSET, N.Y. Jim Brown does not do anything he doesnt want to. Not long ago, he showed up on Long Island unannounced to show his two young daughters where he grew up. Jim Brown, family guy.
His aging high school teammates still shudder from the dreaded Tuesday tackling drills and know him as a hard man in public life. Yet when he comes back, he draws them around him, drawing a chorus of Thats right when he says glowing things about their mutual hometown. Jim Brown, softy.
He recently turned 77 and his physique still looks powerful like Jim Browns and his wit and voice are clear, but he stoops a bit and moves slowly. He was not the most subtle actor when he was making those action films, and he could not fool anybody today if he tried to get all nostalgic, out of character. He lives the role. He gives credit to the leaders of this mostly posh suburb to the east of New York City, the place that took him in.
Brown was back home Monday as part of a program called Hometown Hall of Famers, conducted through the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. For the past three years, former professional stars have been honored (mostly in person, but also posthumously) in their hometowns, usually at their high school.
Sometimes, they had not been back since graduation, says George Veras, a longtime television producer who administers the Hometown Hall of Famers program, but Jim Brown comes back to Manhasset, and he remembers.
Brown did not become perhaps the greatest athlete in U.S. history merely by raw ability or burning needs. He still speaks out about racism like a blast from the past of the distant 60s, and he tries to defuse the gang life in Southern California. He also loves his hometown.
He addressed suburban students in the Manhasset High School gymnasium Monday, and chuckled at the idea of an old guy appearing before young people who probably did not know who he was.
I see all of you, pretty smiling faces, what a wonderful opportunity you have, to live in this kind of community that goes out to hire the best teachers, he said, pushing the concept of excellence.
Once upon a time, Jim Brown was young, arriving from segregated St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. His mother was working as a maid in the Manhasset-Great Neck area. His father was not around.
We lived on the dividing line, Brown said conspiratorially, after his speech. She wanted me to come here. She used a little trickery.
For a while, Brown lived with the Butler family across the street in Manhasset territory. Bill Butler, a former teammate of Browns, was at the gym Monday, recalling how they used to walk home together, how Brown would stay at his house, like a brother. They both were African-American, but Manhasset was quite white, and quite rich.
Early in his first year, Brown was walking in the hallway and was noticed by Ed Walsh, a meek-looking man with glasses, not the typical-looking football coach. Walsh asked him if he played football. Brown said he did not know much about the sport. They could teach him, Walsh said, assigning his senior quarterback, Bob Brink, to help him.
For the rest of high school, Walsh was Browns mentor, taking him home for dinner many nights, once driving him to Harlem to buy him a suit. Brown was honored at a Boy Scouts event not long ago and gave credit to God, then praised Ed Walsh as my surrogate father who showed him how to be a man.
Kenneth Molloy, a lawyer and later a judge, advised him, as did other teachers, and Brown recalls no problems as a black male in an affluent white student body.
He asserted his independence for nine years with the Cleveland Browns, leading the league in rushing; he retired on his own terms after never missing a game because of injury.
Arthur Kaminsky, a powerful sports agent and longtime resident of Manhasset, makes a case for Brown as the greatest athlete in U.S. history, based on versatility and domination. Brown made the cover of Time magazine on Nov. 26, 1965 (as Jimmy Brown, a name he dislikes).
Whenever I mention Manhasset, people say Jim Brown, said Bob Rule, the great lacrosse goalie at Cornell and retired coach at Manhasset.
ESPN recently came up with a study of the greatest athlete ever and named Bo Jackson, who played major league baseball and football, until his body broke down. Brown finished second. The very same ESPN named the top 50 U.S. athletes of the 20th century, and Michael Jordan, who played one sport quite well, won, followed by Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown.
The old teammates are drawn back when Brown returns east. He laughed Monday as he recalled how they used to weigh 102 pounds but now weigh 250. He reveled in the familiar faces in front of him like the Rev. Edward Corley, who has been preaching at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Manhasset for 39 years, and once ran out of the backfield with Brown, along with quarterback Jim Wagner.
I hate to admit it, but I was third, Brown said.
This is a rare admission, according to his teammates. Mike Pascucci, who has done well in real estate and was a right tackle on Browns team, told Charles Cardillo, the superintendent: Jim was relentless in everything he did. He is so competitive that he wont give you a 6-inch putt because he wants so badly to win.
Brown is slowing down a bit; arent they all? But every so often, he puts himself on a plane to visit his hometown. Some of the great names in pro football need that homecoming program to be reminded of their roots. Jim Brown, tough guy, never lost touch.
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