clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Jim Brown: From Browns consolation prize in the NFL draft to early retirement at his peak

The future Hall of Famer was in his athletic prime

Cleveland Browns Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

When Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown entered the 1957 NFL draft, he had his eye on two gifted quarterbacks: Lenny Dawson of Purdue and Stanford’s John Brodie.

Cleveland’s starting quarterback, Otto Graham, had told Coach Brown that 1954 would be his last season. After beating the Detroit Lions 56-10 in the NFL Championship Game, Graham publicly announced his retirement.

In the following training camp, Graham’s backup and now new starter George Ratterman was having a difficult time with the offense and Coach Brown was not happy. He discussed with Graham the possibility of coming back for one more year. Graham agreed but informed Coach Brown that the 1955 season would really be his last.

QB Otto Graham: 1955 NFL Championship Game - Cleveland Browns vs Los Angeles Rams - December 26, 1955

The Browns won their second consecutive NFL title with a 38-14 win over the Los Angeles Rams in the 1955 NFL Championship Game. It was the franchise’s seventh pro football title in their 10-year existence.

For that final year, Graham was the league’s passer rating leader, named First Team All-Pro, and selected as the NFL MVP. But now, he was done for good.

Graham had an appliance business and also sold insurance. Just about every player in pro football had to have another job in the off-season, and many had businesses that they could work at after the current season was over. Y.A. Tittle had an insurance business in Palo Alto, California which he owned and managed up until his death.

Two years after Graham retired, he became the assistant coach of the Chicago Charities College All-Stars which played the reigning NFL champs in an annual charity contest each preseason. The following year, he was named the head coach and defeated the reigning champions Lions 35-19. Despite owning two businesses, he had gotten the coaching bug and was later announced as the head coach of the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut, a D-2 program.

So for 1956, Coach Brown was in unfamiliar territory without Graham at the helm. Ratterman struggled as the starter. After a 1-3-0 beginning, he was replaced with QB Babe Parilli who started the next three games and went 1-2-0. Cleveland was now 2-5-0. Next up was QB Tommy O’Connell who guided the ship to three wins against two losses as the Browns finished 5-7-0.

This was the first time in Coach Brown’s coaching career that he ended a season with a losing record at any level. The closest he had come was his first year at Massillon (Ohio) Washington High School in 1932 which finished 5-4-1.

The 1957 NFL draft, Coach Brown thought, would change all that. It had to. He needed Graham’s replacement or one losing season could just as easily become the norm.

No choice but to choose Jim Brown

With Cleveland always in championship form, they were used to selecting at, or near, the bottom of each round of the draft, but in the 1957 NFL draft they owned the sixth pick. Coach Brown considered the two quarterbacks as exceptional athletes and thought at least one should be available when his club’s turn came up: He didn’t care which one, he just needed another Otto Graham to run his offense.

After the Green Bay Packers took Heisman Trophy winner RB Paul Hornung with the first overall selection, the Rams selected RB Jon Arnett. Then the San Francisco 49ers at three chose the quarterback, Brodie. Green Bay had a second choice in Round 1 with pick #4 and chose WR Ron Kramer. Perennial losers Pittsburgh Steelers was now up at five. Their pick was Dawson.

Going into this draft, what Coach Brown wanted most was a successor to Graham. The quarterback was a vital part of Brown’s offense and he needed a stud. He had viewed only two men as elite passers, and now each was no longer available.

Now what?

Milt Plum of Penn State? Maybe, but he could be available later in the draft. UCLA’s Ronnie Knox or Bobby Cox of Minnesota? Both should be there in Rounds 4 or 5.

Football Player Jim Brown Tackling Halfback

“And with the sixth pick in the 1957 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns select, Jim Brown, fullback, University of Syracuse.”

The Browns already had Ed Modzelewski installed at fullback who was very capable and just 27 years old. Their starting running back Preston Carpenter had gained 756 yards the year before. So actually, Coach Brown was satisfied with his running back situation. And now, another ball carrier? Without a franchise quarterback?

Besides, while at Syracuse Brown had only gained 986 yards with 13 touchdowns in his senior season. The 6.2 yards per carry really stood out, but really, was he deserving of being the Number 6 pick? His production numbers did not scream out “game-changer.”

Also, Brown was an All-American midfielder on the lacrosse squad helping undefeated Syracuse capture the National Championship. There weren’t any professional lacrosse teams or leagues at the time, but that is where Jim Brown was truly great.

And if Brown was so good in football, explain why he finished fifth in the Heisman voting. Back then, the Heisman winner was almost always the first pick assumed that if he had been named the best player in college football, then he must be pretty special. And fans love pretty special athletes which means they will pay to see him play.

In fact, there were two other backs that had garnered more Heisman votes than Brown.

After taking Brown in the first round, Coach Brown did select Plum with the Browns’ draft choice in Round 2. Not that he was happy about it. Not at all. Four average quarterbacks on the roster and now suddenly, a crowded running backs room.

A man among boys

Jim Brown hit the professional ranks running – literally. Right out of the gate, he was a beast. Syracuse must of just not utilized his skills because otherwise he would have dominated the college game and won every award there was to win.

Except for the Heisman.

That prestigious award wasn’t ready to be held by a man of his skin color quite yet. In 1939, RB Kenny Washington of UCLA, a black man, led the nation in total offense yet wasn’t even on the Heisman ballot nor was invited to any post-season All-Star games.

But Brown came to play in Cleveland and Coach Brown featured him in his offense as a run-oriented scheme which was the norm back then. The year before Brown’s arrival in 1956, the NFL passing leader was Tobin Rote of the Packers with 2,203 passing yards. This alone states the run was used to set up the pass.

Shirtless Jim Brown Shakes Coach’s Hand
Jim Brown with Browns’ head coach Paul Brown

As a rookie, Brown gained 942 yards on 202 attempts with nine touchdowns and a 4.7 yards per carry average in just a 12-game season. He was named NFL Rookie of the Year, was the NFL rushing yards leader, and NFL rushing touchdowns leader, was selected to the Pro Bowl, was named First Team All-Pro, and was chosen as the NFL MVP.

As a rookie. In just one season. Good thing Coach Brown “settled” for him in the draft.

His rookie campaign was just a glimpse of great things to come for Cleveland.

Brown’s career during the off-season

Every pro football player and a lot of coaches had jobs during the off-season. The money they made in the pro game was a lot better than a regular job but did not cover all their bills for 12 full months.

Jim Brown found work in the off-season as an actor and had gotten a few roles. He liked the opportunity to be on-screen and considered it a new challenge.

Brown was a big man who was physically able to perform action scenes. He was rugged yet handsome. And he was already famous. Plus, he was a black man in a world where men of color were usually cast as the butler or the groundskeeper. Yet, here was Brown in a prominent role.

His first role was in the 1964 western movie “Rio Conchos” produced by 20th Century Fox. The storyline centered around four men who try to stop a former Confederate colonel from selling stolen rifles to renegade Apaches. Brown was one of those four leading men.

From there Brown had bit parts in two TV shows: “I Spy” and “Valentine’s Day.” It was his work on “I Spy” that got him noticed for a major role in the 1967 World War II film “The Dirty Dozen” by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

While other NFL players sold real estate, were substitute teachers, or worked at their dad’s tire store during the off-season, Brown found work as an actor.

“The Dirty Dozen” was a major film with an all-star cast and a huge budget. The premise was an Army Major who would select 12 prisoners and lead them into a mass assassination mission of German officers. Each prisoner chosen had their own crime specialty that throughout the film became useful. Brown’s role was one of the dozen men, and his character was just another face on the screen instead of wondering why they cast a black man in a prominent role.

“The Dirty Dozen” would become the quintessential “guys on a mission” movie. It’s script possessed a new spin on the usual World War II stories of defeating the Germans flick in that the characters all had flaws and knew going in they would all die, or face the firing squad back home which was already their fate. As the film rolled along, the audience began to like the criminals individually and then as a whole.

Screen legend Lee Marvin, with the assistance of his Sargent (Richard Jaeckel), had the duties of training this motley collection of felonious misfits for a suicide mission behind enemy lines. The cast included Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, Clint Walker, Donald Sutherland, George Kennedy, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan plus Brown.

This was basically Brown’s breakout role centered in a major motion picture with a prominent cast backed by a large studio. It was nominated for 14 awards and came away with five wins.

The end of a fantastic football career

Here is what happened. First, let’s set the stage with Brown’s production to get an idea of what he meant to the Browns.

After the 1965 season, Brown went to Europe to begin filming “The Dirty Dozen.” In 1965, he had gained 1,544 yards on 280 carries with 17 rushing touchdowns plus had 34 receptions for 326 yards and an additional four receiving touchdowns. All in a 14-game schedule.

Jimmy Brown Carries Football in Game

The accolades for 1965 include Brown being named to his ninth consecutive Pro Bowl, being selected First Team All-Pro, the NFL rushing yards leader, the league rushing touchdowns leader, plus being elected league MVP. He was considered the heart and soul of the Browns’ offense.

The 1965 season was Brown’s ninth. During his pro career, he had been named to the Pro Bowl all nine years, selected First Team All-Pro eight seasons, led the league in rushing yards eight of nine seasons, and was a Five Time NFL rushing touchdowns leader.

The year before Cleveland had won the 1964 NFL Championship, their seventh league title, so Brown was also an NFL Champion.

Now that you know that Jim Brown was as a football god at the conclusion of the 1965 season, let’s continue.

For 1966, the Browns were set to open training camp in July at Hiram College, their training camp home since 1952. Back in those days, training camp was exactly what it meant: to train players to get back in shape while going over new plays and formations, then deciding which players to keep and which to release.

“The Dirty Dozen” was filmed primarily in England. Filming had begun during the 1965 season, and after the Browns finished their year Brown flew to Europe to begin taping his scenes. England is well-known for its inclement weather and during Brown’s stay there this was no exception.

As Browns’ training camp approached, Brown called Cleveland owner Art Modell and informed him that he was going to be delayed for about two weeks because of weather delays. He fully expected to play again in 1966. Modell told his superstar that he would fine him $100 a day if he wasn’t in camp. Despite all the accolades his 30-year-old running back had achieved, Modell didn’t want to set a precedent among his other players.

Cleveland Browns Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

1966 was to be the last year of Brown’s three-year $60,000 a year contract anyway, so Brown thought about it overnight.

The following day, Brown telephoned his friend OG John Wooten and told him that he was retiring effective immediately. Wooten informed Cleveland Plain Dealer sports editor Hal Lebowitz and educated him about Brown’s decision. Next, a press conference was held in London by the movie’s production company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Brown sent then-Browns’ head coach Blanton Collier a letter regarding his retirement.

In the book When All the World Was Browns Town, Modell admitted he forced Brown’s hand. “I may have acted hastily (with Brown) in 1966. If I had told him to just forget training camp and show up when he could, I think he would have returned. But it wasn’t fair to the coaches and players (for Brown to miss camp).”

He played only nine seasons. He was in the prime of his professional football career when he quit. Out of those nine seasons, he was the NFL rushing leader eight different seasons. As each game would progress, defenders became less compelled to attempt to tackle him.

Jim Brown would ultimately become the face of the Browns organization.

Accolades in NFL since his retirement:

Accolades at Syracuse: