Before OJ there was the OG. The Original Gangster. In fact he was front and centre of an action-packed film with almost that very name (titled the slightly more streetwise Original Gangstas). Many sports stars have transitioned from the stadium to the screen, remaining in front of the lens with rehearsed acts rather than the spontaneous, unpremeditated performances that made their name first.
Before his fall from grace in 1994, O.J Simpson had become as much an uncontainable personality away from the gridiron as he was on it. He smashed NFL records like he did defences, including becoming the first NFL player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. As a balancing act, Simpson cashed in on his celebrity, appearing in both television series and film productions.
But this isn’t about The Juice. This is about the man he could have been. The man O.J Simpson would clean the boots of, and be grateful for it. For before Simpson there was an even greater running back, and one that tired of bulldozing through defences and started bulldozing through barriers.
Even today, if God descended from the heavens and created an American football player in the ideal image that could aesthetically evolve into a cultural icon, it would struggle to compete with Jim Brown.
“Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap buildings in a single bound,” his NFL tribute borrowed from the description of Planet Krypton’s favourite son, “The pro game in the pop age had a number of superstars, but only one Superman. And he was Jim Brown.”
Brown was arguably bigger than the sport itself. And he walked away from it when he was just 29 years old. Now 84, he existed in the pro spotlight for just a fraction of a lifetime, just nine short years, before trailblazing from the sports scene into cinema. An American All-Star who would also best the majority in basketball, track, and lacrosse, with the sixth pick in the 1957 NFL Draft the Cleveland Browns became the Cleveland Jim Browns. He would go on to lead the league in rushing for eight seasons, the most rushing titles in the game’s history, twice as many as any other nearest contender. On 20 October 1963 Jim Brown set the then NFL single-season rushing record with 1,863 yards and 12 touchdowns. This short supernova single-handedly ignited the National Football League.
“Jim thought on Sundays - and these are his words - that he was a God,” said fellow movie star, friend, and co-star in 100 Rifles, the late Burt Reynolds, “That nobody could hurt him. That nobody could touch him. That nobody was better. And he proved it every Sunday.
“He always shocked everybody, I think, how fast he was, and then you tack onto the 225lbs. A mean, tough runner.”
Brown got to the top alone. And he shocked the world by bowing out just there, though not before breaking through the ceiling that was installed to suppress his 6ft 2inch, 225lb frame. He was the one that reached the apex of his sport and left it, and himself, better off.
When the 1965 NFL season ended, Brown journeyed to London to film a new picture. He had dabbled in acting before, including in the TV series I Spy. But this was bigger. Directed by the acclaimed Robert Aldrich and featuring an all-star cast including Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Charles Bronson, Brown would be one of The Dirty Dozen. Delays in filming threatened to encroach on the NFL preparation, as he prepared to enter the final year of a two-season $60,000 per year deal with the Browns. If he wanted to play the next season and collect his money, The Dirty Dozen would have to become ‘The Dirty Eleven’.
Browns owner Art Modell issued a statement with an ultimatum and began fining Brown $100 for every day that he didn’t show up for training. The crossroads was clear. Brown dismissed the threat, continued filming in the British capital and hung up his pads and helmet. The Dirty Dozen became a commercial success and helped Brown land the lead in The Split, a film that earned him a $125,000 paycheck, more than twice what he was making each season at the Browns. Chapter One had finished. Chapter Two had begun.
Brown, atypically, did not go gently into that good night. He closed out the 60s with a statement. In the aforementioned western 100 Rifles, the Brown-led picture was designed to stir, depicting the protagonist steamily cavorting with white woman Raquel Welch in one of the first American interracial love scenes to be shown on screen. As a result, he was becoming a leading visible figure in the Black Action Cinema of the 1970s, appeared in some of the most iconic television series of the 1980s, later battling Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man, and acting for both Tim Burton (Mars Attacks) and Oliver Stone (Any Given Sunday).
In those later appearances Brown was continuing to give his all at a time when the talk of athletes-come-actor turned immediately to the reputation O.J Simpson had now engendered for himself. When Brown should have still been getting the plaudits for a long-standing, outstanding duel domination of both football and cinema, the conversation was no longer regarding the mix of disciplines, only about the scandals.
Simpson might have the fame - or rather infamy - but Brown was brilliant, black, and unblemished, with his story even being given the Spike Lee treatment in the 2002 documentary Jim Brown: All-American that proclaimed him as a true Stars and Stripes icon. He is what the American people hoped O.J to be, and Brown’s story should be championed as much as Simpson’s should be seen as a vicissitude of unbelievably epic proportions.
Footballer Brown was first and foremost.
In 2016, after the New England Patriots defeated the Cleveland Browns, team manager Bill Belichik - the record SuperBowl-winning coach - ordered his triumphant side to visit the bronze Jim Brown statue outside the Ohio stadium.
“I think honestly any person, football player or otherwise, can learn a lot from Jim Brown and what he represents and what he stands for,” Belichick explained, “Jim Brown is in my opinion the greatest player that ever played.”
“I played nine seasons and never missed a game, and never got laid out on the football field,” Brown himself once said about his on-field career, before producing a statement that could be as reflective of his screen performances.
“I might not have the greatest ability of everybody, but the one thing that stands was when it was time to play, I was there.”