By Bill Trott
(Reuters) -Jim Brown, one of the greatest running backs in the history of the National Football League who quit the game at the height of his career to act in Hollywood movies and add his voice to the civil rights movement, has died. He was 87.
Brown died on Thursday night, his wife Monique Brown said on Instagram.
“To the world he was an activist, actor, and football star. To our family, he was a loving and wonderful husband, father, and grandfather. Our hearts are broken,” she wrote.
As an explosive fullback for the Cleveland Browns, Brown combined power, speed, intensity and size (6 feet 2 inches, 230 pounds) in a way not seen in the NFL before he joined the league in 1957. He announced his retirement in July 1966 while in London filming his second movie, “The Dirty Dozen.”
He was a prominent figure in the Black Pride movement of the 1960s and a friend of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan as well as Huey Newton, co-founder of the militant Black Panthers group.
Brown was dogged by allegations of violence against women over the decades though never convicted. Brown admitted in his 1989 memoir to slapping women.
“In a perfect world, I don’t think any man should slap anyone,” Brown wrote. “I don’t start fights, but sometimes I don’t walk away from them. It hasn’t happened in a long time, but it’s happened, and I regret those times. I should have been more in control of myself, stronger, more adult.”
Brown led the NFL in rushing in eight of his nine seasons and was voted the league’s most valuable player four times. He held 20 league records when he retired at age 30, including most rushing yards and most rushing touchdowns. In 1999, the Sporting News put him atop its list of the 100 greatest players of the 20th century.
Brown summed up his style by saying: “Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts.”
“I didn’t retire because I was broken down and slow,” Brown told Sports Illustrated in 2015. “I retired because it was time to retire and do other things.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement on Friday that Brown was one of the most dominant players to ever step on any athletic field and also a cultural figure who helped promote change.
“During his nine-year NFL career, which coincided with the civil rights movement here at home, he became a forerunner and role model for athletes being involved in social initiatives outside their sport,” Goodell said.
“He was certainly the greatest to ever put on a Browns uniform and arguably one of the greatest players in NFL history,” Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam said in a statement.
In 1967, Brown joined other activist athletes such as basketball’s Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in supporting Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the U.S. military.
Brown also sought to empower the Black community by starting the Negro Industrial Economic Union in the 1960s to help African Americans in the business world and in the 1980s founded Amer-I-Can, a program to help ex-convicts and former gang members by focusing on job skills and nonviolence.
“I was basically a proponent of economic development as a way to equality, social equality,” Brown told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2013.
Brown was one of the first U.S. athletes to parlay his on-field accomplishments into another full-time career, which included more than 40 movies and television shows. His rugged good looks and quiet charisma made him a natural for tough-guy roles and he made his first movie, the Western “Rio Conchos,” in 1964 while still with the Browns.
In addition to “The Dirty Dozen,” (1967) his early works included “Ice Station Zebra” (1968) and 1970s “blaxploitation” films such as “Three the Hard Way” (1974), “Slaughter” (1972) and “Black Gunn” (1972).
Brown’s 1969 movie “100 Rifles” featured a rare interracial sex scene with Raquel Welch. He posed nude for Playgirl magazine and wrote frankly about his busy sex life in his 1989 book “Out of Bounds.”
Later movies included the blaxploitation spoof “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” (1988) and Spike Lee’s “He Got Game” (1988).
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
Brown was accused of violence against women multiple times including a 1965 case in which he was acquitted of assaulting an 18-year-old woman. In 1968, he was accused of throwing a girlfriend from a balcony in an argument but she told police she fell.
Battery charges in an incident involving two women were dropped in 1971 and a rape charge was dismissed in 1985 due to inconsistent testimony from the accuser.
In 1999, his second wife, Monique, told authorities Brown had threatened to kill her. She later recanted and he was convicted only of smashing the windows of her car. Brown took a six-month jail term because he considered an alternative sentence that included counseling, community service and probation to be unfair. He served less than four months.
He later told the Los Angeles Times he curbed his violence through a self-improvement program that operates in California prisons.
In 1978, he was convicted of assaulting professional golfer Frank Snow in a dispute on a golf course.
James Nathaniel Brown was born on St. Simons Island, Georgia, on Feb. 17, 1936, and spent his early years with his great-grandmother after his father left the family and his mother moved away to work as a maid.
He rejoined his mother in Manhasset, New York, and became a four-sport star in high school. He won a scholarship to Syracuse University where he was an all-American in lacrosse as well as football and a star on the basketball team.
The NFL this year honored Brown by renaming the league’s rushing title the Jim Brown Award. Some critics said it was disgraceful for the NFL to honor a man accused of violence against women.
“To champion Brown as some kind of hero is as brutal a blow as the ones he was repeatedly accused of delivering,” USA Today sports columnist Nancy Armour wrote.
Looking back, Brown said he was not concerned about public perceptions.
“I’m not interested in trying to work on people’s perceptions,” Brown said in a 1999 documentary on ESPN Classic. “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.”
(Reporting by Bill Trott; Additional reporting by Matthew Lewis, Paul Grant, Brendan O’Brien and Frank Pingue; Editing by Will Dunham, Diane Craft and Rosalba O’Brien)