Photo Credit: Taj Stansberry
“I’d rather be a free man in my grave than to live as a puppet or a slave.”
Those lyrics from reggae great Jimmy Cliff’s 1972 song, “The Harder They Come,” have stuck with NFL legend Jim Brown over the decades.
“I always really liked reggae,” the ex-gridiron great says, “because [the] music was always about something—I mean about pretty girls and all that too—but it was always about something. [Bob] Marley was a revolutionary, and so was Jimmy Cliff. Those guys had a greater consciousness than the entertainers in this country, and they were making music to that consciousness. I was right up in there, one way or the other, because of the kind of life that I lived.”
Life that I lived. Those four words hang in the air like the clouds of dust Brown routinely left in his wake when he dominated at fullback for the Cleveland Browns from 1957 to 1965. As the (gulp!) 80th birthday of the controversial yet compelling man approaches on February 17, Brown—considered by many to be the greatest running back who’s ever played on the gridiron—ruminates over his life not just as the athlete, actor and activist who continues to champion economic and political equality for African Americans, but also on how aging has influenced his evolution. We sat down with Brown in Southern California, where he’s lived since 1966 when he shocked the sports world by walking away from pro football at the top of his game for a full-time acting career on Hollywood’s big screen. More than 35 film credits later, he moves a lot slower, needs help getting up from a couch and doesn’t stand 6-foot-2 like he once did. There are touches of grey in his eyebrows but his signature thick black mustache is still intact—as is the charisma he exuded decades ago.
In his rich baritone voice that complemented his chiseled body well during his sex symbol days−he was featured in Playgirl in September 1974−he reveals what pleases him most about himself at this stage in his life.