Those lucky enough to be able to say they saw Jim Brown play have no doubt: He was the greatest NFL player. This statement does not disparage anyone else; it simply recognizes the unique combination of power, speed, grace and vision that Brown possessed.
Nobody has had it since.
Tonight, the Cleveland Browns will put Brown’s name in the team's Ring of Honor, a gesture that didn’t take place last season because Brown and then-president Mike Holmgren were going through a public spat. Brown’s principles would not allow him to go along with Holmgren’s wishes after Holmgren changed Brown’s role with the team.
Jimmy Haslam brought Brown back and put him back on the payroll, and tonight is his night.
Try to explain Brown's greatness in a few hundred words. There’s the old films, some grainy, of Brown bouncing off tacklers, sometimes leaning backward. There’s the games in which he accelerated past people as if they were standing still. There’s the short-yardage run against Dallas when he ran left and somehow scored despite the entire Cowboys defense having a chance to stop him. The game was different then. Defenders weren’t as fast or strong. But Brown’s game would translate to any era, any style.
There’s the stats. Brown averaged 5.2 yards per carry in his career. He had at least 1,200 yards in seven of his nine seasons. In three of those seven seasons he played 12 games; in the others he played 14 -- and never had fewer than 1,400 yards. He averaged more than 100 yards per game seven times and averaged 104.3 per game for his career. In 1963, he averaged 133.1 yards per game, 6.4 per carry.
No other player in NFL history has averaged more than 100 yards per game in a career. Brown did it starting 118 of his 118 games.
He finished his career with 12,312 yards -- and retired at the age of 30 because of a spat with former owner Art Modell over his return from the filming of "The Dirty Dozen." Those 12,312 yards came in nine seasons, meaning he averaged 1,368 per year.
Brown also starred in lacrosse at Syracuse. To this day, he is considered one of the best lacrosse players ever, if not the best.
He achieved all he did as an African-American playing a sport in a time when “blacks not allowed” signs were posted in cities where he played. Prejudice shaped his attitude -- but on the field, talent and drive shaped his play.
The great journalist Red Smith once wrote of Brown: “For mercurial speed, airy nimbleness, and explosive violence in one package of undistilled evil, there is no other like Mr. Brown.”
There still has been no other like him. Tonight, he'll have his moment in front of the Cleveland fans.