Home sweet home: Brown returns to roots as owner of pro lacrosse team
Tucked away on Randall’s Island in the middle of New York City sits a comfortable 5,000-seat venue: Icahn Stadium. Home of the New York Lizards.
The most famous man in professional lacrosse is there, but pockets of empty seats dot the bleachers on an overcast Thursday night in June.Dozens, though, take the opportunity to meet second-year co-owner Jim Brown in the Lizards’ humble new home.
The living legend smiles as fans approach, whether they remember him for his football or his lacrosse, whether they saw him play or have only heard stories, whether they want a photo or just a chance to chat. Brown is more than willing to partake.
There are multiple facets to Brown at present day, but Icahn Stadium is his sanctuary.
“You’ve got to like people,” he said.
When Brown arrived at Syracuse, he was without a football scholarship, a guaranteed future in lacrosse or a black teammate in his locker room. During the next three years he’d pave the way for black football players, but as a freshman, he had to pave his own way.
Chuck Zimmerman, the Orangemen’s quarterback from 1956-58, occupied the locker next to Brown’s for two years.
Brown was something of a loner, Zimmerman said. He kept to himself in the locker room. He often went to the movies by himself. With the media, he was well spoken, but was otherwise quiet.
In his later years, he became a more gregarious person. He got into acting, wrote an autobiography and made public speaking appearances. He has butted heads with members of the Cleveland Browns front office and has been in and out of the organization.
“Jim really wasn’t that way so much in college,” Zimmerman said. “He was kind of quiet and reserved to himself.”
Brown’s senior season was a masterpiece. He was an All-American and led Syracuse to a Cotton Bowl appearance. The only thing missing was a Heisman Trophy.
It wasn’t until Brown’s successor, Ernie Davis, joined the Orangemen that a black player finally won the Heisman.
“I think he was a little bit ahead of his time,” Zimmerman said, “because I think that he really deserved to be in the running for the Heisman Trophy.
“I think looking back, a lot of people thought that Jim Brown probably didn’t get a fair shake as far as consideration for the Heisman because he was an African American.”
The legend of Jim Brown is complex. So much has been lost in time that only stories remain. He’s as much myth as he is an actuality.
He was the consummate athlete. A football, basketball, lacrosse and track star in college. A baseball star in high school. Simmons said he’s even an excellent golf and tennis player.
A typical spring day at Syracuse for Brown consisted of spring football practice in the morning, followed by lacrosse practice, topped off with some running with the track team.
It wasn’t hard, Brown said. “It did make you think, though.”
Another story says that a cradling rule was established because of Brown.
The bruising running back, always a downhill runner and never shying away from contact, played lacrosse the exact same way he carried the football. He pinned his stick to his chest — ball in the pocket — and charged through the defense.
That’s the myth.
The reality is that he hates the legend. He needed no extra advantages. He was considered one of the greatest athletes to ever walk the earth. He played like any other player, keeping the ball away from his body.
“I find it offensive,” Brown says, “because it says you don’t have the skill.”
He ran with the power and elegance he took on the football field and with a bizarre underhand shot to complement his massive frame; he was virtually impossible to guard.
But as the sport grew in popularity, his presence in it deteriorated.
It was his wife Monique Brown who found the opportunity for him to return. She knew his love for the sport and the enjoyment he would get out of being able to return home.
It’s nothing major, especially with all his other ventures — he only makes it to a few games a year — but after he was gone for so long, he can once again be a representative of the sport.
“He loved the game of lacrosse and said many times that it’s his favorite sport,” said Roy Simmons Jr., one of Brown’s lacrosse teammates at Syracuse.
To this day, Brown is closer with Simmons than anyone else from his days with the Orangemen. They chat frequently about lacrosse, college memories or whatever projects they’re working on.
For Brown, that’s a lot of lacrosse, a lot of social ventures and sometimes a little bit of both.
He just finished his second season as co-owner of the New York Lizards and he’s back with the Cleveland Browns as a special adviser, but most of his work is out in the community.
In 1988, he founded Amer-I-Can, an organization that helps young Los Angeles gang members get their lives on track. He and his wife are currently developing a Jim Brown Lacrosse League in Florida to introduce black children to the sport.
The sport was always good to him. While he was a bit more of a loner on the football team, lacrosse welcomed him with open arms. Now he’s the sport’s highest-profile ambassador.
“We made him comfortable,” said Simmons, who later became Syracuse’s most successful head coach. “The sport has never been racist. There’s never been a lot of blacks that play it because there’s no future in it.”
Brown said he would have considered playing lacrosse instead of football, but there was no professional league at the time.
Brown said he used to go up to the Onondaga Reservation to play box lacrosse and get his fix when his career with the Orangemen ended.
“We played because we loved the sport,” Brown said. “There was no pro level. It just cut off.”
In many ways a Lizards game is like any other professional sporting event. Youth teams get a chance to showcase their talents before games. Parking costs $20. The Lizards’ dance team parades onto the field dressed in skimpy outfits during breaks, even in the pouring rain.
“Are you kidding?” Brown says in the almost clichéd fashion, expected of a 77-year-old man.
But the children that play in those youth games spend the actual game parading the sideline in relatively cheap seats. The overpriced parking is easy to skirt with an array of parks and other athletic facilities surrounding Icahn. The dance team interacts with the athletes on Twitter — a strict taboo for most professional organizations.
But this is where Brown belongs. Back in his hometown. Back with the sport that has been his solace.
His box at Icahn Stadium is essentially just a platform at the top of the bleachers. He sits right against the front rail. The people with the worst seats in the house can sit just inches away from the Hall of Famer.
He likes to watch the games and all the Syracuse players on the roster, including former All-American midfielder JoJo Marasco — but only “if they’re good.”
And he’s just as happy to spend most of the evening posing for pictures and signing autographs. One fan, a Cleveland native, even plopped down next to him and spent an entire quarter talking about the Browns.
In the less glamorous world of professional lacrosse, Brown is an enigma, but he’s home.
“It’s incredible,” Marasco said. “He’s just — he’s a legend, so it’s great to see that guy around.”
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