Home Lifestyle COLUMN: Remembering Jim Brown

COLUMN: Remembering Jim Brown

Jim Brown displaying a Rockingham Rockets jersey, presented to coach Bill Eutsler on his 85th birthday. Photos courtesy of Bill Futterer

The phone rang in my hospital room, minutes before I would undergo open heart surgery due to my abuse of Big Macs and cheesecake. It was Jim Brown, telling me he loved me and hoped for the best.

That call, one of few allowed to inmates of the Los Angeles County Jail, came in 2002 when he served four months for vandalizing his wife’s car. The poignant call contrasting with the jail time illustrates the complexities of the man.

Friends who know of my 25-year friendship with Jim have called or written following his death at 87 Thursday night, so I thought I would share some distinct memories of our relationship.

We met in 1996 when I was in Cleveland for a football project involving the Browns. In our first conversation that day, I found that he had researched me and knew that singer Curtis Mayfield was a mutual acquaintance.

Both Jim and Curtis had been vocal on civil rights issues since the ’60s, and so the three of us shared a bond. Jim and I met privately that July day and agreed that our relationship would go forward with frank conversations and a pledge to deliver to each other what we promised.

That remained the cornerstone of a connection that went far beyond talk of running backs and linebackers to agree, and disagree, on far-ranging topics such as the Middle East, Louis Farrakhan, gang violence, civil rights legislation and Lebron James.

Jim loved Lebron, Michael Jordan not so much. He thought nationally significant black athletes had an obligation to stand up and be counted on controversial issues.

Jim Brown, Bill Futterer and Dionne Warwick during a break from a Cleveland Browns music video production.

Following are a few anecdotes that I share so you can gain a better understanding of this man, who had imperfections, but who became one of the 20th century’s most important yet underappreciated civil rights icons.

  • As a white American, I know racism from 30,000 feet. I studied Brown v Board of Education, I remember “I Have A Dream” and the terrible MLK assassination, and Jim Miller used his American Government class at Rockingham High to drill us on the history of slavery. But I had never been presented with face-to-face stories of human humiliation. Then Jim, a private and proud man, shared with me his attempt to rent an apartment closer to the Browns training facility…late ’50s…in Cleveland. He was already a star with the Browns. The white landlord met him at the door, knew exactly who he was, and she simply closed the door remarking, “I don’t rent to ——-.” Nearly 40 years later, it still stung and was no doubt one of dozens, hundreds, of similar ignominies he experienced. That conversation revealed a sickening truth that remains my North Star about prejudice and discrimination. If that could happen to a nationally renowned “star” in the enlightened North, how terrible was it for everyday black citizens in the Jim Crow South? Jim took me from generic awareness to a deeply personal understanding of the conditions he fought.
  • Interesting, given the potential to become consumed with hate, that Jim displayed no hint of racism. He insisted his Amer-I-Can program deal with all people at risk. His work to pull kids from gangs knew no color boundaries — Bloods, Crips, Gaylords, Koreans, Dominicans — and he never seemed to write anyone off as hopeless. I watched him treat everyone equally and with dignity.
  • It was tough to get Jim to smile in a typical photo with a typical fan. He equated that to an image he hated of 19th century slaves smiling and dancing for their masters.
  • Jim seemed lackluster about many federal programs but had faith that black Americans could reach their highest goals. He was a stickler for equal education and employment opportunities and protection of civil rights. He seemed to feel the rest would ultimately take care of itself.
  • He was a team player, always commending the linemen — Schafrath, Hickerson, Groza and others — who blocked for him. When our Browns budget allowed for only a small fee for player appearances, he never asked for more money because of his status.
  • Make no mistake, however, Jim Brown recognized he was a star. I have dealt with elite athletes for most of my business career, but Jim was different. There was an aura I can only compare to that of Arnold Palmer. I took Jim to his only NASCAR race in 1999 in Atlanta. Walking through the garage area, I understood his star power when Richard Petty led a group of NASCAR stars who rushed to meet Jim. Reggie Jackson, standing with us, was largely ignored. Jim was a star to the stars. At Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremonies the most famous players sought his autograph. Hank Aaron told me he saw Jim in an impromptu foot race and Aaron said he was mystified by the speed of someone so large.
  • Sitting in his family room, Jim and I once discussed past controversial statements that had become firestorms. A major national issue had been Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder’s comments about black athletes being superior to white athletes because they were “bred” dating back to slavery times. While I found Snyder’s comments to be in poor taste, Jim stood up — in his familiar black shorts, T-shirt and sandals — and said, “Look at me…look at my legs…look at my hands and feet and shoulders. Of course, I’m a product of those times!”
  • The combination of his fame, looks, talent and athletic ability led to a second career in movies — in fact, he had significant roles in 40 movies. A favorite recollection of his was from “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” a somewhat satirical look at earlier blaxplotation films. Jim and Isaac Hayes (as Slammer and Hammer) were on a stakeout of sorts, and Jim found it humorous that director Keenen Ivory Wayans had Hayes’ “Shaft” playing on their car radio.
  • A four-sport athlete at Syracuse (he was also a baseball star in high school), Jim remained very competitive after football retirement. When we played golf, it didn’t matter if I shot 78 or 88, he always beat me by a stroke. He took a knee, laughing, when I sliced my drive deep into the woods at Torrey Pines in front of the TV cameras during the 1998 Super Bowl golf tournament.
  • One of my life’s most memorable moments came the next day, when I was flanked by Jim, Paul Warfield and Lou Groza at Super Bowl XXXII (Packers vs Broncos). The game was fabulous, but pre-game was really special when Jim got several of the Four Tops to join us to sing R&B and DoWap in the stands.
  • I was on a flight with a nationally ranked squash player who shared a story about Jim. The player was in a hotel with an upscale fitness center that included a court for squash and racquetball. Jim, almost 50 at the time and staying in the same hotel, was watching the guy hit by himself and asked if he could join him. Jim had never played squash, but after learning the rules he used his incredible athletic skills to overwhelm the ranked player that day. I also watched him play multiple people in chess, always winning. But golf was his real passion.
  • When Lee Elder became the first of his race to play in the Masters golf tournament in 1975, a female sportswriter from the black newspaper in Los Angeles became the first black reporter to be credentialed by Augusta National. Jim chauffeured her up Magnolia Lane.
  • Jim confirmed the squash story in one of our few conversations about his athletic prowess. He was proud of his skills. Some felt Babe Ruth or Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan were better athletes, but Jim relegated them to single-sport skills. He admired the talents of Wilt Chamberlain (basketball, volleyball and track), Bill Russell (basketball, track and field) and Bo Jackson (baseball and football). He felt only Jim Thorpe could compare to him athletically.
  • Jim and Bill Russell were very close friends and confidants. Russell had suffered terrible racial insults while playing in Boston. Jim and Russell were the key professional athletes when Jim organized the Ali summit in 1967. Prominent black athletes reviewed Ali’s draft situation and released a statement in support of the boxer.
  • Before the 2002 Super Bowl, only a few months after the 9/11 tragedy, former NFL stars appeared in various settings to recite portions of the Declaration of Independence. Jim’s set was the pool behind his house. He asked me and about 20 others to be part of the taping by FOX. That group included rehabilitated gang members, a few of his Amer-I-Can students and a Hindu priest. It was, to say the least, a memorable occasion and enjoyable to watch that year and several other times it has been repeated during Super Bowl pregame broadcasts. Particularly significant to me is that I can confidently say, “Jim Brown and I were the best athletes in that group,” certainly the only time that his name and mine could be in the same sentence about sports.
  • Jim didn’t behave like a star. Good friend Tom France visited me in Cleveland on an October Monday night. It was natural for Jim to invite us to watch the football game. I recall him asking Tom what he thought about particular plays and players. We were just three guys talking sports, having a few beverages and watching a game. While he was special, Jim did not feel a need to play the “special” role. Walking through airports, he would always take the time to stop and speak to anyone, from a bank president to the guy shining shoes. He treated both the same.
Jim Brown and Bill Futterer at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Like all of us, Jim Brown had ups and downs and did good things and bad things.

I believe him to be one of the great civil rights activists of the 20th century. To Jim, football seemed to just be one of the important experiences in his life — along with his groundbreaking movie appearances, his Amer-I-Can work, his time as Richard Pryor’s manager, his involvement in the music industry and his close friendship with Ali.

I am not sure where his unbeaten golf record against me ranked in his personal career pantheon.

Regardless, I shall miss him.

Bill Futterer is a Rockingham native with a career in sports, marketing and broadcasting. He was the NFL’s choice as Cleveland Browns president from 1996 – 1999, managing the return of the Browns to Cleveland after their 1995 departure from Cleveland to become the Baltimore Ravens. Futterer is president and general manager of Rockingham’s WAYN radio, which has been owned by the Futterer family since 1964.

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