When the National Football League was largely unknown in Canada (one game-of-the-week on TV, period), a friend of mine followed American football studiously. Its most dominant player was Jimmy (later Jim) Brown and, while my friend educated me of his dominance, he always mentioned “Wooten and Hickerson” in the same breath.
Wooten and Hickerson were the Cleveland guards who blocked for Big Jim, credited with making Brown the star he was. Upon reflection, it appears Jim Brown would have been just as dominant if his blockers were Big Bird and Raquel Welch.
Brown was that good.
On Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs play Super Bowl LVII, the 57th in a row without Jim Brown. He is probably history’s best player this side of Tom Brady, and even that’s debatable, as I was reminded while watching “Jim Brown: A Football Life” — a documentary produced by the NFL.
Brown was the rushing champion eight times in his nine seasons. He played in three NFL title games, losing in his first and last seasons, and winning in the last championship shutout, 27-0 over Baltimore, in between. He was MVP three times, the first time as Rookie of the Year. He’s still the only player to average 100 yards rushing (per game) for an entire career. When he quit, at 29, it was months before Super Bowl I.
The NFL documentary was his story, warts and all, of which there is a few. Brown played life the way he played football, crushing anybody who got in his way. He was in jail three times, two of them involving domestic-related charges, and most people feared him because of a character flaw that even Brown finds unacceptable.
“I wouldn’t think of trying to do anything wrong now,” he said. “I’ve learned how to allow a person to ‘slap’ me, and turn the other cheek. I wish I’d had the intelligence to apply myself at a younger age, to make better decisions.”
Five days after the Super Bowl, Brown will celebrate his 87th birthday. He has been an actor (40 films) and an activist. In the documentary, Brown analyzed his style: “I’ll tell you why I’m the way I am — my strength was unbending when it came to accepting racial discrimination. That was the battle that raged, and I could use a lot of that on the field.”
And off it, he could also be constructive, in a way possible only by somebody with Jim Brown’s guts. He invited gang members to his home, high in the Hills of Beverly — many gang members — because he wanted, as somebody who had been on both sides, to make a difference. In 1988, he created Amer-I-Can, to help them rescind gang memberships. Then, in Los Angeles, there were 1,200 to 1,400 murders a year. In 2022, there were 382.
It is a positive in his post-football life.
“Most of the things you do that are really good,” Brown said in the documentary, “people never get a chance to know about them, and if you’re sincere you don’t care.”
It’s true that Jim Brown has lived a full life, and a flawed life. As a running back, he still stands alone…even without Wooten and Hickerson.