Browns, Pro Football Hall of Fame commemorate Jim Brown

CANTON, Ohio -- Hours before the Cleveland Browns were set to kick off the NFL preseason Thursday, they honored their greatest all-time player, Jim Brown.

The Browns and the Pro Football Hall of Fame commemorated the legendary running back with a "Celebration of Life." Brown, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971, died in May at the age of 87.

"I never met a greater person," former Baltimore Ravens linebacker and fellow Hall of Famer Ray Lewis told the audience.

Several current Browns players and team officials attended the ceremony, held inside the Canton McKinley High School auditorium next to Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. That included All-Pro running back Nick Chubb. Over the summer, Chubb said he would be "playing for" Brown this season. Former Cleveland offensive tackle Joe Thomas, set to be enshrined into the Hall of Fame himself this weekend, also attended.

"He transcended football," Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said. "Jim got into the entertainment business as an actor, and then Jim was into social justice before there was social justice."

Bob Arum told two remarkable stories about Brown.

The 91-year-old sports entertainment maven was practicing law in New York, when Brown was the one who convinced him in 1965 to become a boxing promoter. The founder and CEO of Top Rank, Arum also recalled how it was Brown who organized the famed "Cleveland Summit," when Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) and other prominent Black athletes met to promote economic empowerment.

Following Arum, singer Johnny Gill did a stirring rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," with his final words bringing many in the auditorium to their feet.

John Wooten, one of Brown's former teammates, also asked the crowd to stand, raise their hands and pledge what was at the core of his dear late friend's message to others.

"Human dignity," the 86-year-old Wooten said as the crowd repeated his words. "Respect everybody."

Wooten then asked Lewis, who spent countless hours learning from Brown and referred to him as "Papa" to stand.

"This is the man that Jim chose to be the next leader of the athletes," Wooten said, pointing toward Lewis. "He told me, 'This is our guy.'"

Lewis recently lost his son, Ray Lewis III, to an accidental drug overdose at the age of 28, and said if he had one wish it would be to ask God for one more conversation with his son and Brown.

In closing, Lewis offered advice while asking a favor from his mentor.

"A lot of fathers truly believe it's what you can give your children that will make you happy," he said. "It's not what you can give your kids, it's what you can leave your kids. You leave your kids hope, faith, love, promise.

"Jim Brown," Lewis said, pausing and looking skyward. "Jim Brown. A lot of people trying to figure out ways to go to the moon. Papa, if you don't do nothing else, whisper to my son and let him know. I will see you both real soon."

Brown played nine seasons for the Browns (1957-65) and led the league in rushing in eight of those years. He was also named a Pro Bowler every year he played. Brown led Cleveland to league championship games three times, winning the title in 1964, and was named MVP three times.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.