Jim Brown has no time for games
Fifty years after standing with Muhammad Ali, the aging warrior is still working on his legacy of responsibility and economic empowerment
Jim Brown forgot his cane. A piece of breakfast is stuck to the front of his shirt. He has let his beard grow out, woolly and gray. It’s 7:39 a.m. outside the Cleveland Browns headquarters, across the street from Ohio Nut & Bolt Co. A backhoe has torn up the parking lot. Time to get to work.
The 81-year-old legend retrieves his walking stick from a black SUV, flanked by his wife, Monique, and loyal soldiers Rudolph “Rock Head” Johnson, James Box and Rob Wood. Everyone wears black except for Rock Head, a former Original Compton Crip, who is dressed in blue. They unload two rolling suitcases, one old-school valise without wheels and a raggedy cardboard box. Navigating past chunks of broken pavement, they enter the offices of the once-proud franchise.
Brown will not impart much football wisdom to his former team on this muggy day in May. No rah-rah to rouse the athletes after last season’s 1-15 debacle. His purpose here is as far removed from football as Cleveland is from its last NFL championship, in 1964, when Brown led the league in rushing for the seventh time, with 5.2 yards per carry.
Independent, intelligent and sometimes angry, Brown walked away from football at the peak of his abilities, for a movie career and to preach a gospel of economic empowerment, self-reliance and social justice. His thinking on those latter subjects is contained inside the suitcases: dozens of 142-page manuals titled The Amer-I-Can Program — The Responsibility of Self-Determination.
These are the textbooks for a 60-hour self-help course. They contain the heart and soul of Brown’s life and legacy. They illustrate both the greatness of Brown’s gifts and, after a half-century, their inevitable decline.
Thousands of people on three continents have benefited from Amer-I-Can since Brown founded it in 1988, an outgrowth of his earlier work with the Negro Industrial and Economic Union. Lives have been changed, even saved. But the Amer-I-Can foundation’s revenues have plunged 80 percent in the past few years, and far fewer people are studying the manual. Prominent staffers have been convicted of crimes. The curriculum is unavailable online and out of step with younger activists’ focus on structural racism and social media. Brown is hoping an infusion of cash from President Donald Trump’s slashed domestic budget can revive the program.
Still, he plows forward, dragging Amer-I-Can manuals from city to city with the determination that used to gain him as many yards after contact as before it. He says the program is far more meaningful than anything he did in the NFL.
This trip to Cleveland also shows that Amer-I-Can is fading away, along with the greatest football player of all time.
“The youngsters now have to catch up and become more involved in making this a better world,” Brown tells me, referring to the Browns players and coaches, most of them in their 20s and 30s, who are gathered inside the auditorium-style team meeting room. An Amer-I-Can manual rests on each of the 126 chairs.
Brown, who is employed by the team as a senior adviser, steps to the front, clutching his cane with huge, gnarled hands. He wears a faded baseball cap, not the famous red, black and green kufi. You need to strain to hear his voice.
“Communities across the country need us to take more interest in what’s going on,” Brown says. He takes a moment to decry African-Americans killing each other. “But you are football players here this morning,” he continues, “so we’re gonna concentrate on giving you a philosophy that you might already have, but we’re also going to include community work in what we hope will be your motivation to be the greatest players you can be.”
The players give Brown their full attention. His football résumé demands it. In nine dominant NFL seasons, all with Cleveland, Brown never missed a game or practice. Playing the 1963 campaign with a broken big toe, he set a record of 1,863 rushing yards — in a 14-game season. He delivered so much punishment, many defenders feared tackling him. He still holds the career record of 104.3 rushing yards per game. He retired at age 29, coming off his fourth MVP season.
But one of Brown’s most significant accomplishments occurred two years after he left football. Fifty years ago, on June 4, 1967, Brown organized the Cleveland Summit, a gathering of star black athletes who came to quiz and ultimately support heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War. The athletes Brown convened included Lew Alcindor, who would soon change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Celtics great Bill Russell; Carl Stokes, soon to be elected Cleveland’s mayor and the first African-American to lead a major U.S. city; and football stars who would become bankers, radio station owners and a U.S. ambassador.
After meeting with Ali, the 12 men stood in front of the cameras in downtown Cleveland, a united front of negritude that altered the course of the war, the civil rights movement and the nature of athlete activism.
“Can you imagine LeBron, Serena, Durant, Tiger, Simone Biles, Mayweather and Odell Beckham Jr. meeting to discuss the role of black athletes in the age of Trump?” says Leonard Moore, a University of Texas history professor. “That’s how powerful and impactful this meeting was.”
That meeting took place a few miles from the current Browns team meeting room, where the session is now being led by Box and Rock Head. The two facilitators will review two of the 15 chapters in the Amer-I-Can manual, which cover topics ranging from motivation and focus to family relationships and emotional control, plus details on how to behave in job interviews, set financial goals and avoid drugs. At every step, the program insists there are no excuses for failure: “Individual responsibility and determination are key factors,” it says. “Your success ultimately rests with you.”
Box steps to the front. “I grew up here in Cleveland, I’m 55 years old. I’ll just cut to the chase, we all men here. I spent 9 1/2 years of my life in the penitentiary, used to sell dope, gangbang, rob, steal, all that craziness.”
He discusses the “conditioning” he received as a child with no father and a mother addicted to heroin. Box speaks smoothly, without notes. He’s been working with Amer-I-Can for 27 years. He passes the mic to Rock Head, another Amer-I-Can veteran, who tells his own story of a misguided life, of the attitude change and motivation needed to succeed. Both facilitators use language straight from the manual. Both refer to Brown as their father.
At first, it seems like the presentation has little relevance for a team of highly paid athletes who must have had plenty of motivation and focus just to reach this room.
Then Box reaches Page 5, which he calls “the most intimate part of the training program.” It’s a list of 231 “feeling words.” Box tells the players he’s going to provide a topic, and they should say how it makes them feel.
“Father,” Box says.
The players start to open up. “I didn’t have a father,” one says. “He was a good guy,” says another. “Role model.” “Leader.” “Protector.” “I didn’t know him.”
“My father wasn’t there for the early part of my life. God was my father,” says linebacker Demario Davis (who was recently traded to the New York Jets). “But I was able to forgive, and now we’re best friends.”
Brown tells the players he saw his father only four times in his life. He asks for all the players without a good relationship with their fathers to raise their hand. About a dozen of the 100-plus men respond.
“The main ingredient to a lot of the problems we have in these streets is based on the fact that a lot of these young men do not have a father,” Brown says. “You’re an elite group of individuals. If you work together with other like-minded individuals, we can make a dent, a great dent, in the violence in our community. There are young people who need our help.”
Afterward, I ask Brown why he brought Amer-I-Can to the team.
“I know I could help them,” Brown says.
But Brown also needs help from the team — to keep Amer-I-Can going.
After giving the players a two-hour taste of Amer-I-Can, Brown and his crew met with Dee Haslam, who owns the team with her husband, Jimmy. Brown wants the team to take the full 60-hour curriculum and to help expand the program in the Cleveland community. Peter John-Baptiste, vice president of communications, said the team is trying to determine the best way to support Brown’s efforts.
In 2010, the nonprofit Amer-I-Can Foundation for Social Change had $1.15 million in revenue from grants, donations and contracts with local and state governments, according to public tax records. In 2014, the most recent year for which tax forms are available, the foundation had $182,489 in revenue — a drop of almost $1 million.
What happened? A decades-long contract worth six figures annually to teach the curriculum in Los Angeles County correctional facilities dried up. A major annual donor, shopping mall developer Mace Siegel, died in 2011. The former president of Amer-I-Can, Oregon State Police Lt. Col. Dean Renfrow, retired in 2011 and has yet to be replaced.
In Cleveland, the Amer-I-Can program lost support when Box was charged with inappropriate sexual contact with two women participating in a court-ordered program that he facilitated. He pleaded guilty in 2014 to attempted abduction, assault and unlawful restraint and was sentenced to three years of probation. In 2016, Cleveland Amer-I-Can staffer and former Browns receiver Reggie Rucker was sentenced to 21 months in prison for embezzling money from Amer-I-Can and other nonprofits.
The engine of Amer-I-Can has always been Brown. He raised a family of facilitators in cities across the country and improvised ways to fit his curriculum into existing endeavors at schools, prisons, community centers, even FBI training centers. Amer-I-Can’s only formal structure seems to be the curriculum itself. Dozens of Boxes and Rock Heads, from all walks of life, were drawn to Brown’s passion and empathy. His message of self-responsibility appealed to conservatives; his attacks on injustice excited liberals. Brown’s family and friends say he’s too proud to ask for money, but when the Hall of Famer showed up in a troubled city and talked up Amer-I-Can, rich folks found their checkbooks and politicians found room in their budgets.
But the magic is wearing off. His fierce intelligence remains, but facts can slip and he is starting to forget things. He tells the Cleveland Browns that Amer-I-Can is 15 years old, instead of 29. He tells me that former President Barack Obama has never explained his feelings about his mixed racial background, which was the subject of Obama’s best-selling book, Dreams From My Father.
Rock Head used to be paid $6,000 per month as a facilitator. Now he’s driving an Uber and running a youth basketball foundation in California. Box’s salary has dried up too.
Most of Brown’s income comes from speaking engagements, memorabilia signings and his Cleveland Browns salary. Through Amer-I-Can, he and his wife paid themselves modest annual salaries of $18,000 to $50,000 from 2010-12. Brown’s salary was $120,000 in 2011, when revenues were $1.1 million. He was paid nothing in 2013, when revenues were $310,000, and nothing in 2014. Unless the Browns are paying, Brown often flies coach. On the trip for the team seminar, he stayed at the airport Sheraton.
Many members of the extended Amer-I-Can family told me there was money in Trump’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budget for the program. Brown voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but after the election he accepted an invitation to Trump Tower to meet with the president-elect. He hosted an Amer-I-Can fundraiser in Washington, D.C., during the inauguration.
But specifics are scarce on the Trump budget promise. Monique Brown says Amer-I-Can has “basically been approved,” but she won’t elaborate. Messages left with HUD and the House committee overseeing the budget were not returned.
When I ask Brown how he thinks Trump is doing as president, a flash of his famous fight emerges. “What kind of question is that?” he growls.
“Trump is the president sitting in the seat of power … so my way of looking at my contribution or our contribution is that we can’t ignore that seat and just call names of the person that’s sitting in it,” he says. “Calling names won’t do anything.”
It’s right there in the manual: Your success ultimately rests with you.
“If I analyze myself, what am I doing?” Brown continues. “Not what Donald Trump is doing, what am I doing to make this a better country?”
Swinton “Sweet Sue” Brown, a boxer, gambler and womanizer, left a few weeks after James Nathaniel Brown was born Feb. 17, 1936, on St. Simons Island in Georgia. Two years later, Theresa Brown left baby Jim with her mother and grandmother to work as a maid on Long Island, New York. Jim didn’t rejoin his mother until he was 8.
Sweet Sue lived down the street from Theresa with his new family. On the rare occasions that Sweet Sue visited, he argued bitterly with Theresa. “They would fight in one part of the room, and Jim would just sit there in another part of the room and not say a peep,” Ed Walsh, Brown’s high school football coach, said in Mike Freeman’s unauthorized biography of Brown.
After becoming a football star in the 1950s, Brown hit the sexual revolution and indulged to the fullest, including while he was married to his first wife, Sue, from 1958 to 1972. He appeared in his first film, Rio Conchos, in 1964, and became a movie star with 1967’s The Dirty Dozen. Brown filmed some of Hollywood’s earliest interracial love scenes. He bought a home in the Hollywood Hills above Sunset Boulevard, with a commanding view from his rear deck of Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean, where he still lives today.
In his 1989 autobiography, Out of Bounds, Brown devotes an 18-page chapter to his seduction methods, orgies he hosted at his home and his preference for petite women — the younger the better.
Near the end of Out of Bounds, Brown says he has “slapped women. … In a perfect world, I don’t think any man should slap anyone, and I don’t consider slapping people a sign of strength. In my case, it’s related to a weakness. If I’m dealing with someone, and they do something I feel is wrong, I’ll tell them that, and that I don’t like it. If they continue to provoke me, I’ll say, ‘Okay, you leave now, or leave me alone.’ That means we’re at an impasse, and I’m about to lose my temper. At that point, in that situation, I have slapped women, and put my hands on men. … I regret those times, I should have been more in control of myself.”
Authorities have accused Brown of violent acts seven times, five of them against women. Two accusations remained tattooed on his reputation.
One involves the model Eva Bohn-Chin, whom Brown met while filming The Dirty Dozen. In 1968, Bohn-Chin moved in with Brown when he also was dating Gloria Steinem. As Brown recounts in Out of Bounds, at home one night in L.A., “I slapped Eva and she slapped me back.”
Police found Bohn-Chin beneath the rear deck of Brown’s home. Authorities said Brown threw her over the railing. Brown maintains that after police arrived, Bohn-Chin jumped off the balcony trying to escape the situation.
Bohn-Chin gives a cryptic explanation in Spike Lee’s documentary Jim Brown: All-American. “He came toward me, and I found myself in the hospital the next day,” she said. “I was not able to jump. … I was a young, good-looking person who loved life. Why would I jump?” Brown was charged with assault with intent to commit murder, but charges were dropped after Bohn-Chin would not name Brown as her assailant.
The second incident came in 1999, when Monique Brown called 911 after her husband smashed the window of her unoccupied car with a shovel during an argument over whether he was having an affair. Brown was convicted of vandalism and served several months in jail rather than accept the sentence of counseling and community service.
By phone from Los Angeles, Monique Brown tells me that questions about domestic violence make her angry.
“The people that know Jim, obviously we’ve had our ups and downs like any other marriage, we’ve been together for 22 years, but more ups than downs. There’s no marriage of that length that hasn’t gone through things, but I’m far from abused.”
Jim and Monique met in 1995, when she was 21 and he was 59. Monique was a model making an appearance at a TV station in her native Buffalo, New York, that was interviewing Brown. The day after meeting Brown, she went to an Amer-I-Can meeting.
Monique Brown, now 43, majored in liberal arts at Denison University in Ohio. She speaks as passionately about Amer-I-Can as her husband does. They live in the Hollywood Hills home with their 15-year-old son, Aris; a 13-year-old daughter, Morgan; and two pit bulls adopted from a shelter. Brown has a mostly distant relationship with his three children with his first wife, as well as three children with three other women.
He’s no longer the same man who wanted to fight teammates over locker room debates or assaulted a golf partner over the placement of a ball. “He’s way more tolerant of differences and opinions,” Monique says. “He doesn’t have to have the last word or, things don’t always have to be a personal offense just because you disagree on certain things.”
“Having that purity in our hearts for what our purpose is that’s bigger than us has really been a unifying factor,” she says. “No matter what we’re upset at each other about, we’re still committed to what we’re doing. Like, yeah, you know what? You pissed me off, but that’s not gonna stop the work.”
As long as people are suffering, the work remains. The work will outlive Brown.
“It’s like understanding the secret of life that we’re all going to die,” Brown tells me. “Old age is a challenge, but when you’re fortunate enough to have your business in order, your family will be all right, you’ll leave something that can be built upon, and you go away.”
“I’m very happy because I think that my wife and the babies will be all right. I think my friends can build upon what we set up. I think the country can benefit, and consequently the world. When I say benefit, I’m not talking about changing the world or changing everything. I’m talking about just contributing to something positive.
“What age tells you is that it’s not complicated. It boils down to being the best person you can be and helping others wherever you can. What else can you do?”
Brown’s contribution is real. He conquered a violent game, then used that strength to help people from some of the most troubled pockets of America.
Rock Head was a hardened criminal with years of prison under his belt when he led a caravan of 60 Compton Crips to Brown’s house in 1991 as part of a peacemaking effort. But when he saw news cameras, he left in disgust. Brown kept phoning him, but the gangster wouldn’t answer. Finally, Brown got him on the phone and asked, “Are you a man, or a b—-?”
Rock Head recalls grabbing his .357 and rushing to Brown’s house. Brown answered the door.
“What did you say?” Rock Head demanded.
“I said are you a man, or a b—-? Are you gonna shoot me, or come inside and deal straight up with your problems?”
They talked for five hours and have been together ever since. When Rock Head’s daughter was shot and killed, when Rock Head himself survived being shot 11 times at point-blank range, Brown talked him off the ledge.
“He is my father,” Rock Head says. “When people ask what I do, I tell them I work for my dad.”
Erica “Tati” Carey grew up gangbanging with the Mansfield Hustlers in West Los Angeles. She was introduced to Brown through her longtime boyfriend Ronald “Loon” Barron. Around 2002, they began taking the Amer-I-Can curriculum together in a gang intervention program. It changed their lives. Their graduation ceremony was held at Brown’s home.
“Loon used to kill, steal and destroy. He ended up being one of the most effective gang intervention facilitators in all of America,” Carey says. “I was with him for 10 years. The program 1 million percent did it.”
Barron was killed in 2010 by a 16-year-old he tried to stop from writing graffiti on a wall. Carey now is a skin care specialist with her own line of products and celebrity clients such as Floyd Mayweather. “Amer-I-Can changed the way I make decisions,” she says. “It can change the perception of one’s entire life. You can change. It explains very specifically how to make a change.”
Amer-I-Can changed East Hartford High School in Connecticut, where the dropout rate plunged 50 percent after principal Steven Edwards secured a $50,000 per year state grant to offer the curriculum in the late 1990s. “We spend so much time on content and high-stakes testing, essential skills just don’t get taught that are needed not just to thrive, but survive in life. Amer-I-Can filled that void,” says Edwards, who is now an education consultant.
The program also helped keep good kids on track. “It was a head start of guiding me,” says Roy Roundtree, an assistant football coach at Indiana State University, who experienced Amer-I-Can at his middle school in Canton, Ohio. “I could have been on the wrong path. Growing up in the ’hood, you have a lot of distractions. I learned a lot of core values.”
Memories of these victories push Brown forward. He wants to duplicate as many as possible, change a few more lives before he’s gone. He wants his wife and Amer-I-Can children like Rock Head and Box to keep his legacy alive.
“If it’s not set up right, it will [fail],” admits Rock Head. “I’m worried. We all worried. We want to show that although the engine of Amer-I-Can is Jim Brown, that he does have enough guys that he respects and loves enough to run this program. I’ve been with him since ’91, ’92, never went back to jail, no trouble, never accused of anything. I’m a true example of change.”
But there is only one Jim Brown. Without his celebrity presence, without him carrying Amer-I-Can into ghettos and owners’ suites, the manual is a nice collection of inspirational quotes and pragmatic advice.
One man can only do so much. Your success, after all, ultimately rests with you.
When the players have left the meeting room, I ask Brown whether Amer-I-Can is his greatest accomplishment.
“I don’t think that way. That’s almost like standing back looking at yourself,” he says.
He gestures at the empty room. “This is the Cleveland Browns, man. That guy used to be Rock Head Johnson. We’re sitting here with Rock Head Johnson giving the Cleveland Browns a lecture. This guy was incarcerated. So was this guy,” he says, pointing at Box.
“But they’re sitting here now in a National Football League team headquarters. That’s not bad.”