“Actor,” “activist” and “educator” all apply to Jim Brown, and articles could easily be written about each of those descriptions. However, before he earned any of those titles, Jim Brown was one of the greatest athletes ever in collegiate and professional sports. During his visit to the College last Thursday, Brown spoke with the men’s lacrosse and football teams, participated in a question and answer session to students and lectured to a nearly full Chapin Hall. In each session, he spoke to the positive effects of sports on his life.
In his visit to the College, Brown discussed his achievements in life after sports but expressed that his athletic achievements allowed him to become an influential social symbol and gave him the drive to turn into the national activist he has become. His perspective on the different facets of athletic success was one of the greatest lessons Brown had to offer.
Brown began his athletic career playing five sports in high school and receiving 13 varsity letters. He then moved on to Syracuse University, where he was First Team All-American in football and lacrosse his senior year. While at Syracuse, Brown also ran track and played basketball at a high enough level to be drafted into the NBA. However, Brown was also drafted into the NFL by the Cleveland Browns in the first round. He went on to be named to the Pro Bowl nine times and win an MVP and an NFL championship in 1964, the final year of his career. He retired at the age of 29 in 1964. In 1971, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was eventually named the greatest professional football player ever by Sporting News in 2002.
Brown credited much of his immense athletic success and his own personal development to his first coaches, specifically his high school football coach, Ed Walsh. “When I was a young man, Ed Walsh was my mentor,” Brown said. When family troubles pushed Brown out of his home, Walsh offered to take him in. “It might have been against the rules, but it made an impact on my life.”
That impact was tremendous, as Walsh’s teachings shaped the person Brown would become. Walsh taught Brown that “standing up in this world is an important part of being a man,” Brown remembered. “[I learned that] when you have a principle, stand up. Even when 100 percent of people think you are wrong, you have to stand up and make a point.”
Along with his coach’s lessons, Brown attributes many of his achievements post-NFL to the self-assurance he gained from participating in sports. “My participation and success in athletics gave me a confidence,” he said. “That confidence is necessary as you venture out to fulfill your vision.”
Along with confidence came a tireless work ethic. “I was tenacious as an athlete â€“ I would say that my philosophy was that if you and I have equal ability, I am going to beat you every time,” he said. “To beat me you are going to have to be better, because you’re never going to work harder than me.”
Equipped with that tenacity, Brown envisioned and helped form the Black Economic Union in the ’60s, which eventually assisted over 400 black-owned businesses. He then continued his activism as a black rights activist and eventually created the Amer-I-Can Program. Amer-I-Can focuses on giving underprivileged people life-management skills training and encourages them to take responsibility of their own self-determination. In the end, Brown credits his programs’ purpose to the qualities built through athletics, as well as in his education and experience in the ROTC. “To be able to go into the gang culture and have some of the most vicious gang members turn their lives around â€“ those things come out of the confidence that was built from being successful in athletics and certain other things,” Brown said.
Along with his own story, Brown reminded Williams athletes of the privilege that comes with being a student athlete. “[You are privileged] to have an opportunity to be at [Williams] and get an education and play athletics also, [and to have] teachers that are all about giving you the best education possible.”
He reminded his audience, above everything else, to remember their humanity. “You are human beings first, no matter what happens in your athletic career â€“ [whether it is] success or failure, it doesn’t matter,” he said to the lacrosse and football players.
“Each and every day you that you play, compete and maximize your ability,” he said. “That is all you can do.