Think about Jim Brown, and you think about football.
You think about No. 32 in orange, brown and white, barrelling down the sideline with a mixture of grit and grace, dancing around defenders and running over those who dared try to hold their ground.
A founding father of the fullback position, Brown was an eight-time All-Pro — one nod for every season he won the league’s rushing title — and was named league MVP three times. He made the Pro Bowl in all nine of his NFL seasons and was one of the first to receive the Bert Bell Award as Player of the Year. His all-time record of 104.3 rushing yards per game set a standard that’s unlikely to ever be broken, and his powerful stride may forever go unmatched despite many attempts. He was a no-brainer first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer for his efforts, putting on the gold jacket in 1971, and donning it at various events as an active ambassador of both the NFL and his beloved Cleveland Browns.
From his first down in the fall of 1957 to his final just two days into 1966, Brown wrote his name into football lore, and there it will remain now that he has passed away at the age of 87.
But to say Brown’s life in sports was defined only by what he did on the gridiron would be a historical inaccuracy. Others knew him for a line on his athletic resumé that had nothing to do with football. Before he became Jim Brown the NFL legend, he was known to many in the sporting world as Jim Brown the star lacrosse player — and one of the finest athletes the historic game has ever seen.
Inside Syracuse University’s Carrier Dome, an 800-square-foot tapestry adorns a wall, flanked by championship banners and the numbers of other legendary athletes to wear the Orange. The tapestry features two pictures of Jim Brown: one depicts the star running back of the football team and the other shows Brown the lacrosse player. Across the bottom, the words: “Greatest player ever.”
The son of a professional boxer, Brown was born in St. Simons Island, Ga., in 1936. He spent the second half of his childhood on Long Island in Manhasset, N.Y., where he was a star high school athlete. It didn’t matter the sport — basketball, baseball, track and field — Brown was bound to excel in it, but the fields in which he carved out his athletic legacy belonged to football and lacrosse.
In football, his greatness was measured in the 2,091 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns tallied through just 24 college games across three seasons at Syracuse. That he wasn’t awarded the Heisman Trophy after his senior year that saw him register 986 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns — plus 84 points as the team’s kicker — remains one of the biggest snubs in the trophy’s history.
We know how talented Jim Brown was on the football field, and how revered he continues to be — in 2020, almost seven decades removed from his college days, he was named No. 1 on ESPN’s list of the 150 greatest college players of all time.
Now, imagine handing that athlete a lacrosse stick and plenty of room to run.
“Lacrosse allowed you to use all of the athletic traits of many sports,” Brown said during an ESPN interview in 2016. “It was quick, it was skillful, it was powerful, and you could be as good as you wanted to be if you practised that stick day and night, and became really great with it. It set you aside, and I really liked that.”
In lacrosse, where stats weren’t kept as strictly and game film is scarce, Brown’s greatness has become the stuff of legend. As a Syracuse midfielder armed with a lethal underhand shot, Brown scored 43 goals in 10 games in his senior year in 1957, earning first-team All-American honours in the process. The North-South Senior All-Star Game, played at Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood Field in the lacrosse hotbed of Baltimore, was for many the first — and only — opportunity to see him play live.
“Their jaws dropped. They could not believe what they were seeing. He scored five goals — and he only played one half,” USA Lacrosse archivist Joe Finn told Sportsnet.
“It’s kind of a running joke down here that if everybody who said they saw Jim Brown play in the North-South game had actually been there, the crowds probably would’ve stretched all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “The stuff of urban legends.”
The same qualities Brown was known to possess as a football player — power, speed, smarts, grit, strength, endurance — were what made him the kind of talent that led long-time Syracuse coach Roy Simmons to call him “the greatest lacrosse player I ever saw.”
“I could fully express myself in lacrosse,” Brown told the New York Times in 1984, upon being inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. “I could run 200 yards at a stretch. I could duck between players. I felt free to make plays that suited me best.”
At the time Brown played, there wasn’t a professional lacrosse league to pursue.
“After he graduated from Syracuse, there was nothing more he could do [in lacrosse],” said Finn. “He really didn’t have any outlets, for playing pro or even the club level.”
Perhaps the very reason he couldn’t forge a career in the sport was the same reason he loved it so much: “There was no publicity. You had to like it,” Brown told the Times. “There was no pressure, just great competition.”
His dominance in the sport prompts many what-ifs: What if lacrosse had taken off the way other major sports, like football or baseball, did?
“I’ll guarantee you that if lacrosse had taken off that way, he would be right up there amongst the Babe Ruths of lacrosse,” said Finn. “He was definitely on a very short list of one of the greatest lacrosse players there was.”
Instead, of course, he went on to be the Jim Brown of football.
Still, his legacy and impact in both sports lives on.
“I would say one of the things that he really contributed to the sport was that he gave it some street cred. Because you’re talking someone who was a very well-known football player, an outstanding pro player … and here, this very accomplished athlete also plays the game of lacrosse,” said Finn. “And we could say, ‘Well, you know, Jim Brown played lacrosse,’ and this gave it a certain amount of prestige back in the days when it probably didn’t have a whole lot of prestige outside of Baltimore.”
Brown also devoted time to the game later in his life, forming a partnership with the Premier Lacrosse League, established in 2018, and serving on the league’s advisory board. The league even named its MVP trophy the Jim Brown Award, honouring the great’s “ever-lasting influence” on the sport.
In 2019, he addressed a group of all stars from the newly formed league.
“Lacrosse is my favourite sport,” he told them at the time. “It was the most beautiful game that I have ever played.”
“Lacrosse is the Most Beautiful Game That I’ve Ever Played”
Jim Brown speaks to PLL All-Stars before game time. pic.twitter.com/LbUbqOYOLs
— Premier Lacrosse League (@PremierLacrosse) July 22, 2019
Ending his speech, Brown encouraged the PLL all-stars to keep building the sport he loved.
“Play hard, play fair. Be mean. Be quick. Be fair as far as your sportsmanship. Carry this game to where it should be.”