The MMQB presents NFL 95, a special project—unveiled every Wednesday from May through July—detailing 95 artifacts that tell the story of the NFL, as the league prepares to enter its 95th season. See the entire series here.
JIM BROWN QUITS FOOTBALL FOR THE MOVIES
The Associated Press headline wasn’t exactly true. Jim Brown quit football at 30 years old for Jim Brown, as he would later tell it. For starters he was bored, just a few months after winning the league’s MVP award for 1965. “I wanted more mental stimulation than I would have had playing football,” he said on July 13, 1966, the day of his retirement, And Brown, then the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, didn’t want to fade away in the manner of a Joe Louis or, later, a Muhammad Ali. “People had sympathy for them,” Brown would say in coming years, “and you should never have sympathy for a champion.”
And yes, he wanted to be a movie star. The Dirty Dozen, a World War II action film about a group of Army convicts who are turned into an elite commando unit for a suicide mission, set him on the right path: Brown filled director Robert Aldrich’s vision for the first militant black hero in an action film. As modern-day movie critic Gary Susman notes, before Brown’s Robert Jefferson role, audience-friendly black characters typically turned the other cheek. Jefferson, on the other hand, slugged a character who called him a “n—–.”
Dirty Dozen co-star Ernest Borgnine wrote years later that Aldrich was urged by MGM execs to drop Brown’s death scene, in which he is gunned down after laying waste to a chateau full of German soldiers and civilians. The film would win an Oscar, they told Aldrich, if he cut it. He refused, and the scene upset audiences across the nation. In that way, Aldrich’s film seemed to mimic Brown’s unpopular and unexpected choice to leave football after nine brilliant seasons. Dozen character Samson Posey, played by Clint Walker, may have said it best: “I reckon the folks’d be a sight happier if I died like a soldier. Can’t say I would.”
— Robert Klemko