At the age of seventy-nine, Jim Brown is much more myth than man at this point. Actually, maybe he's almost always been that way I suppose. Well before the 24-7 news cycles and never-ending social media updates, Brown's time at Syracuse University is part fairy-tale, part biblical verse, part history book. The student-athlete who couldn't be tackled on the football field, couldn't be denied on the lacrosse field, couldn't be defeated on the track, and who was a blur on the basketball court, worked his magic here nearly six decades ago. To get even a partial idea of what Brown did back then, you have to hit the books, not YouTube.
So seeing Brown back at SU, out on the Carrier Dome carpet like he was last weekend, was almost eerie. It was as if there was a haunted house and all 36,000 people or so inside actually saw a ghost at the exact same time. He was here and then in a paranormal-flash he was gone. And just like his other short visits back, we're all left to wonder if that will be the last time we see him.
Yes, he's come back before. And yes, it was a little weird then, too.
Maybe the off-putting vibes come for the fact that Brown has spoken openly of his troubles at Syracuse. For the longest time it was rare for Brown to really acknowledge his past successes in college. The story goes that Brown wasn't even on Syracuse's radar coming out of high school. Despite going to a New York high school (Manhasset High) and having roughly 30 schools wanting him, SU reportedly had to be talked into accepting Brown. And even then, the kid who would eventually be inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Lacrosse Hall of Fame, and College Football Hall of Fame, wasn't even given an athletic scholarship.
His time on the Hill was full of hardships, no question. Some of which was because he was supposedly a hothead who challenged any and all authority. Some of which was due to the fact that Brown was a black man in the 1950's, and that fact alone was enough for some white people to try and make his life miserable. From early on, Brown along with black teammates were housed in different dorms than white teammates.
And the real-life reason Brown, who averaged 38 points per game in high school, didn't start in hoops at SU was due to the "Rule of 2." It was a stipulation putting a cap of two blacks in the starting lineup, keeping Brown on the bench despite his scoring 15 points per game during his sophomore campaign. That's not something from the Deep South, that was accepted life in Syracuse, New York. It's no wonder Brown contemplated transferring more than a few times.
Imagine if the Internet and its Twitter or Facebook were around back then? How would that have gone for the kid who would eventually become a megastar? Would he have used the online platforms to express himself and expose potential injustices? Or would those outlets undercut his eventual rise before it ever began? Either way, Jim Brown would have been one of the biggest stories on a regular basis, a combination of heroin, Five Hour Energy and Jolt for the Stephen A. Smiths of the media world.
"He plays sports, but is he worth the trouble? Or is he speaking up for those who can't be heard? He's tough to deal with, HOWEEEVVAAAAA!!!"
Once he left Syracuse and entered the National Football League, it seemed as though he took everything with him. All of that talent and all of that baggage. An eight-time All Pro at the next level, Brown is considered by many to be the best football player ever. Not "best running back," but best player. In nine pro seasons, the former Orangeman led the NFL in rushing in eight of them. He also co-wrote a book about himself, "telling his side of the story" while he was still playing for the Cleveland Browns.
A year later, Brown was charged with assault and battery after an "incident" at his hotel room with an eighteen-year-old woman. Brown was eventually found not guilty, but his legal trouble would only continue after retiring from football.
Those troubles, serious accusations like "assault with intent to commit murder" and rape, would most certainly ruin him today. Even though he was never found culpable for the serious offenses, Brown probably would have had a much different career and legacy if his prime hadn't been so long ago. Nowadays, someone like Ray Rice is on the outside looking in. And while a monster like Greg Hardy can still be on a team, he's clearly a pariah with plenty of enemies. It's a different world and Brown's probably a little lucky for that.
Which is interesting. For so many reasons, Brown would have benefited playing now. And for just as many reasons, Brown would have probably never come close to his fullest potential playing now. It's this weirdly perfect dichotomy that seems very Jim Brown: Complicated. It also seems very Syracuse to have a transcendent son with many public transgressions to call its own.
It's strange. It's always been strange. He's a figment of our best and possibly worst imaginations.
But I guess we're on the other side of all of it. The past passed by many years ago. That's probably a damning indictment on someone, maybe all of us, but I'm not sure. (Sean captures this elegantly.) Right or wrong, though, Brown represents something to thousands of football fans. A living flashback. A walking highlight montage come to life, still alive. On Saturday, during a break in the action, he stood before many of his Syracuse supporters. As long as he is around, in person or in theory, there will always be something about Jim Brown.
Wobbled by age he still cut that very much imposing figure standing on that field, Syracuse University's field. The whole thing just awe-inspiring. Some fifteen or twenty years ago, that would have seemed impossible. Yet, there he was, the main character of many short stories told by dad to sons in that moment during the Orange's game with Clemson. "He was the greatest ever! And he played for Syracuse. Seriously! Syracuse used to be really good. I mean, really good!"
Every SU fan knows of, or needs to know of the '59 team, which went undefeated and took home the program's only national championship. But many may not realize that from 1950 through '71, a Syracuse football team never finished below .500. For comparisons sake: A Syracuse team has finished below .500 in eight of the last eleven seasons (counting 2015).
To try and convince everyone of that history, the powers that be try to remind us. It's why statues are unveiled -- even if they're tucked away at the practice facility. It's why Brown's banner hangs at the Dome -- even though he never played a single down there. There are also numerous and obvious references to 44, inspired by Brown -- even though that's been a little lost in translation over the years. And Syracuse still plays football, of course -- even though it's nothing at all like it did when Brown suited up for Ben Schwartzwalder's Orangemen.
It's why Jim Brown was trotted back out on national television with Syracuse University playing against one of the nation's top teams. To remind everyone: That's the G.O.A.T. and he played for SU! It was a long time ago but it happened. It did. Now? Syracuse has a team now in the middle of a seven-game losing streak and program that very well could have its fifth head coach since 2004 soon enough. It's just consistent chaos now. Instability.
There was plenty of that in way back when, but the Jim Brown Era (which includes the years even after his departure) always had one constant: Winning. That's what's being clung to so publicly to this very day.
It's also why seeing Brown out there again at a Syracuse home game was so stunning: It didn't seem real to have him back because it's almost unbelievable that he ever went here in the first place.