July 18, 2008

Tough and Kindly Speaker

For nine seasons from, 1957 to 1965, Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns was the Cleveland Browns to many fans. He was arguably the greatest running back and toughest man to tackle in the history of the National Football League. He retired at 29, in the summer of 1966 while making The Dirty Dozen with tough-guy actors Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin. This is a film about convicted murderers on a mission to assassinate German officers during World War II. Mr. Brown would appear in many films in the 1970s, mostly as the tough guy, before turning to working with prisoners and other acts of good.

On June 12, Mr. Brown was the final speaker at the Rhode Island ALS Association's annual fund-raising dinner, in Warwick, to benefit efforts to cure Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, often called Lou Gehrig's Disease, after the famous baseball player. Jim Brown is 72 now, and did this as a favor to a friend, former Rhode Island House Speaker John Harwood. The star flew from California and sat through the dinner and preliminary speeches. When his turn came he walked haltingly to the podium and began by saying, "Thank you for honoring me by including me in your celebration tonight. I have a little spinal problem from football, but I had a mother in Georgia who taught me to realize that other people's problems are usually greater than yours. All of you who deal with ALS are heroes, and I am so honored that you have included me in your work.

"When I speak to 900 men at San Quentin Prison, I always say, 'Now I'm going to say something that everyone here will agree with.' There is always chatter and laughter when I say that. Then I say, 'If there's anyone here who does not wish to be loved and cared for by a fellow human being, will you now please stand up?' No one ever does."

Jim Brown went on in this vein of humility for not more than 10 minutes, seeming the antithesis of the public image of the running back and movie actor. The audience was rapt.

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