Adversity is often an obstacle on the path to greatness.
Before Jim Brown could become great on the field, he had to fight through adversity off the field.
Lots of it.
In modern times, it would not be difficult for Brown to be courted by major Power Five schools. He already stood at 6-foot-2 and weighed 230 pounds at Manhasset High School in Long Island. Brown played football, lacrosse, baseball, basketball and ran track in high school, setting records while doing so. However, he had trouble finding a college to enroll in the first place.
That’s because Brown’s college years came in the mid-1950’s, when America was still the better part of a decade from the height of the Civil Rights movement. And even though Brown’s talent was evident, he couldn’t find a college because he was black.
It took lobbying and persuasion from Ken Molloy, a former two-time All-American lacrosse player at Syracuse, to get officials from the Central New York university. Even then, Molloy said that Syracuse didn’t want black athletes and that the university didn’t give the talented Brown a scholarship.
So Molloy raised money to pay half of Brown’s tuition for his first semester at Syracuse. Molloy himself paid the other half. And because a deal wasn’t honored, Molloy paid in full for Brown’s second semester.
Meanwhile, Brown had to deal with many limitations at Syracuse during his first year on campus. From being housed in a non-athlete dormitory to playing other positions than his natural running back, Brown immediately had to face adversity in its most common form during that time: discrimination because of his race.
Most people today wouldn’t stay in athletics, much less at Syracuse, after all of the trouble Brown faced before and during his time on campus. Even more so, if someone did stay after all of that turmoil, it would be hard to maintain the athletic standard that Brown showcased in high school.
But after finally getting a scholarship in his sophomore year, Brown showed no drop in from. He was the second-leading rusher on the team. The next year, he averaged 5.2 yards per carry. The following year, Brown was a consensus first-team All-American.
Brown’s NFL accolades are well known at this point as well. He was a three-time MVP and an NFL champion, leading the league in rushing in all but one of the seasons he played for the Cleveland Browns. However, the NFL was not where he started to cement his legacy as the “Greatest Player Ever.” That came at the school that was so reluctant to admit him in the first place.
Brown still set a single-season school record in his senior year by averaging 6.2 yards per carry while opponents yelled racist slurs and hit him in ways they wouldn’t hit others on the field. Before the 1957 Cotton Bowl, executives tried to get Brown set up in a different hotel than his teammates. He still rushed for three touchdowns in the game.
But Brown’s legacy is not limited to football. He is largely considered the greatest lacrosse player ever, forcing the NCAA to change multiple rules to limit his dominance. Brown would sometimes play lacrosse games and participate in track and field events on the same day, sometimes at the same time. He has two awards named after him in two different sports: the Jim Brown Award for the best running back in the NFL and the Jim Brown MVP award in the Premier Lacrosse League.
When you think of “game changers” in regards to athletes, we often gravitate towards on the field performance. And Brown certainly delivered on that with the records he achieved in multiple sports. However, his accomplishments came with many outside forces attempting to stunt his ability to perform on the field. In order to become a world-changing athlete, widely considered to be the best athlete ever, facing racism, discrimination and adversity like Brown did, you cannot just be a normal person.
You have to be a game changer.