Thursday, December 26, 2013

Things I Learned about Jimmy Brown from Reading Terry Pluto’s Things I’ve Learned from Watching the Browns

In case you don’t know, I’m a Browns fan. Cleveland Browns. NFL Football. I don’t always wear it on my sleeve, but it’s always there like a genetic disposition. I was born in Cleveland in 1952 and my earliest memories were formed during the glory years of the Cleveland Indians and the Browns. Even though I moved away in my twelfth year and have spent the rest of my years elsewhere, the Browns have never moved far from my heart. Browns fans everywhere know this feeling.

Back in those days the sports page each week would print the rosters from both teams so you could learn the numbers of all the players and follow them during the game. Bill Glass, Vince Costello, Lou “The Toe” Groza, Gary Collins, Leroy Kelly, Frank Ryan and our hero of heroes, Jimmy Brown.

From nearly the beginning the Browns training camp was at Hiram College, which just happened to be where my parents met as students and eventually married upon my dad’s early graduation. This may have contributed to our Browns fandom, though proximity to Cleveland gave the primary impetus. It also gives one a bit of Browns cred to be able to say “My dad once watched the Steelers play the Browns from the Dawg Pound.” (It wasn't really the Dawg Pound yet, though. They were the cheap bleacher seats in the end zone where the beer turned fans into rowdies.)

In the fall of 1963, my last full year in Ohio, I opened a pack of football cards and got a Jimmy Brown card. It was as if the gods had smiled. Life was good. And then the unthinkable happened. Some of the packs of football cards we acquired had been stolen. My younger brother was caught red-faced and red-handed, and a police car paid our home a visit. Somehow the punishment seemed excessive because Ronnie had been the thief, but all of our football cards were to be burned, including mine. As the cards were being dropped onto the flaming charcoals I found myself holding Jimmy Brown and could not bring myself to do this dastardly thing. I ran to the garage and slid the card in between the cinder blocks that formed its foundation. I would never see the card again, but knew it would be preserved from the fire. (Several decades later I visited my childhood home and that garage, along with its treasure, had been demolished.)

Terry Pluto is one of the great sportswriters of all time in my estimation. He’s certainly a most respected journalist in Cleveland where he has remained a faithful advocate for high ideals and all things good there.

If you are a Browns fan and do not already have Pluto’s Things I’ve Learned from Watching the Browns, then you're missing something special. Every chapter is a treasure, beginning with “Being a Browns fan is completely irrational. But you already know that.” Ten pages later the story every Browns fan needs to read is about the Fumble. Pluto demonstrates unequivocally that “The Fumble didn’t cost the Browns a chance to go to the Super Bowl.” Every Browns fan knows which fumble we're talking about here.

So now let’s talk about Jimmy Brown, the greatest running back of all time. Chapter 9. The Browns almost didn’t draft Jim Brown. How Jim Brown became a Brown is a story in itself. If the Hall of Fame Browns quarterback Otto Graham hadn’t retired when he did, the Browns would have continued to be a great team. In his last three seasons as QB the Browns only lost six games. But the year after he retired the Browns were so weakened that it became their only losing season in their first 28 years as a pro franchise. The upside was a chance to get a high draft pick in the first round.

Coach Paul Brown (another great chapter in this book is dedicated to this “greatest Browns Brown”) was eager to nab a quarterback to replace Graham, but the three he had his eye on were snatched before he could get his mitts on them. Upshot was this Son of Hercules, this Superman of an athlete who became a Browns legend.

Man on the move, Jim Brown.
Most of us who watched Jimmy Brown as fans knew how powerful he was, and we also knew the psychological game he played with opposing players. After every run he got up slow. You’d think he had exhausted his strength, or was hurt in some way as he lumbered back to the huddle. Then he would explode again into the line, dragging opponents downfield, sometimes carrying them on his back. We knew, too, how he never made a show when he scored a touchdown, as if to say, “Been here before. Will be here again. All in a day’s work.” Brown’s greatness was unquestioned and to this day no runner has ever averaged more yards per game over an entire career than Jimmy Brown. In fact, he is the only player to average more than 100 yards per game (104.3) lifetime.

Terry Pluto gives Browns fans an overview of the star's college achievements and amazing high school stats as well. Brown earned 13 high school letters in five sports. His senior year he averaged 38 points per game in basketball. He set new records in track. He averaged 14.9 yards per carry in football. Seems like having Brown on the team would have been an unfair advantage for any school.

Once with the Browns Jim Brown not only played every game, he never missed practice. One year he played an entire season with a broken wrist. He was tough, not just physically but mentally as well. Said Brown, “If you were a marked man like I was back then, you had to be tough. You had to take the pain.”

In Brown’s autobiography Out of Bounds, he shared how opposing defenders would sometimes take gravel or dirt and fling it in his eyes to blind him after they tackled him. Pluto tells how when tacklers got their hand inside his facemask, he would bite their fingers. These images of the game aren’t always visible from the stands.

There's plenty more to tell, but that's it for now. The rest of what I learned is there in the book. And much, much more.

Thank you, Terry Pluto, for yet another gift for Browns fans everywhere.

The team I remember best was the best. 

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