Before Jim Brown found his place in history, he had to find a place to sleep.
But for a black man on a white team in a white sport in a white world in 1956, it wasn’t that easy. Not even for an ahead-of-his-era running back about to dominate the 1957 Cotton Bowl and forever change the NFL.
“Finding a hotel where they’d let me stay and eat with my white teammates was a struggle,” Brown said. “You know, in the 1950s, there was a different attitude toward blacks than here in 2002. Not a day went by that I wasn’t reminded I was black.”
Brown eventually got enough sound sleep in Syracuse’s team lodgings to rampage through TCU in the 1957 Cotton Bowl and later to break every rushing record during a nine-year NFL career. But now, years after his unprecedented football career, numerous acting gigs and a controversial stint as an outspoken African-American activist, Brown has strong views on the state of black America.
“As individuals we’ve advanced tremendously in every part of society, especially sports,” Brown said last week from his home near San Diego. Brown, however, expressed concern that black youths look to athletes as unrealistic role models.
In 1956, Brown and his Syracuse teammates were just happy their star was allowed to stay in a whites-only hotel on the edge of Dallas. The Saltine Warriors, as the Orangemen were then called, hadn’t played a game south of Maryland before facing the Frogs in Texas.
“I’d heard about other blacks having to stay outside the cities in the south in black private homes,” Brown said. “But there were no problems really. We found a place to stay, I got a pillow for my head, and I got treated with respect.”
Though the civil-rights movement of the 1960’s was just a dream, the country was still segregated and the Southwest Conference void of any black players, Brown’s pregame publicity caused more of a stir for his statistics than his skin.
Playing left halfback on offense, linebacker on defense and kicker, Brown almost single-handedly led Syracuse to an upset before TCU held on to win 28-27 before a crowd of 68,000. He had three kickoff returns for 96 yards, five tackles, completed one pass for 20 yards, kicked three extra points, ran for three touchdowns and gained 132 yards on 26 carries despite running against TCU’s outlandish nine-man defensive fronts. Brown won his anticipated battle with Frogs star halfback Swink, but TCU’s Chico Mendoza blocked his extra-point kick after Syracuse’s third touchdown to provide the difference.
In its Jan. 2, 1957, game story, however, the “Star-Telegram” neglected any detailed description of Brown’s substance or style, instead referring to him as “the dark-skinned All-American,” “a fine boy” and a “220-pound Negro.”
The performance in his final college game catapulted Brown into the national spotlight. He was the sixth overall draft pick by the Cleveland Browns, where he was the NFL’s Rookie of the Year in 1957, the MVP in 1958 and 1965 and the leader of the Browns’ 1963 championship team. Brown played only nine NFL seasons, but eight times led the league in rushing and, when he left the game at age 30, held records for rushing yards (12,312), touchdowns (126) and rushing touchdowns (106).
After retiring at the top, Brown acted in 32 movies, including “The Dirty Dozen,” and joined Martin Luther King and a boxer named Cassius Clay in a monumental black solidarity news conference in 1964 that helped change the future face (dare we say the color) of professional sports.
“They referred to me as `Negro’ and `dark-skinned’ and I never accepted it,” Brown said. “Because to be a truly great country I’ve always said all people have to have two things: freedom and equality.”
Yes, Jim Brown found his place to sleep in 1956 and found his place to be glorified in eternity. But today, Brown, who just turned 66, still is searching for peace.