Jim Brown Made the Earth Shake
Here on the Manhasset-Port Washington tectonic plate (if there is such a thing), some people still feel the rumbling from Jim Brown, local guy, who died Friday at 87.
They remember the earth trembling when Brown crashed into opponents in most of his five sports. (Correct: five sports.) They also remember the impact of his loyalty, when he chose to come home to Long Island.
Brown was many things to many people (including a felon serving a few months for misbehavior toward women.) Bad side and all, Brown was surely an epic figure out of ancient legends – from Beowolf to Babe the Blue Ox to John Henry, the steel-drivin’ man.
Some people remember, first-hand. I called my pal and neighbor, Paul Nuzzolese, who played three sports at Schreiber High in Port Washington. Paul’s family used to run a visible ice-and-wood business with trucks rumbling all over the metropolitan area.
Paul played guard in football, was on the basketball team, and was a lefty pitcher on the Port baseball team. The plan for Jim Brown was to throw off-speed, not give the big guy something he could hit.
And if you could induce Brown to chop a grounder, it was wise to avoid a collision.
Were baseball opponents intimidated by the sight of Jim Brown on the basepath?
Paul called me back Sunday morning after he recalled pitching at home against Manhasset, and being taken out when the game was tied after a regulation seven innings. That gave him a good view of Brown's 360-foot perambulation of the bases:
"Brown hit a squibbler down the first-line," Nuzzolese said. "You know how hard it is to field a squibbler."
Harder with fully-grown Jim Brown hustling down the basepath. (No names mentioned of the Port fielders.)
The ball got past the first baseman, into right field, and Brown took off for second, and continued toward third. The Port third baseman waited for the throw, but was wary of Brown barrelling down on him, and needless to say Brown wound up scoring on the aforementioned squibbler.
Port lost the game, but the fielders retained their knees, and their wits.
Still, like Jim Thorpe and Michael Jordan, Brown was not a great hitter.
“It was his fourth sport,” Paul said respectfully on Friday when he heard his old opponent was gone.
In order, Brown played football in the fall, basketball in the winter, was a high jumper in track and field, and somebody will have to explain to me how he managed to play baseball and lacrosse in the spring.
There are tales of Brown playing in a baseball game, and when Manhasset was not in the field, he would leap a fence to and take a turn at the high jump, and then return and take his turn at bat.
How did Brown come to Manhasset, at the base of Manhasset Bay, a few minutes from Port Washington?
Born on Feb. 17, 1936, in coastal St. Simons, Ga., Brown came north with his mother, who cleaned houses in adjacent Great Neck. But Manhasset introduced the young man to civic leaders and coaches who promised him he would be comfortable in their school, and he wound up registered at Manhasset. He soon made himself felt – particularly on the football field.
Paul Nuzzolese, 86, was a guard, bulked up over 200 pounds, who saw and felt Jim Brown up close. He recalls a fellow lineman -- “Big Joe, six-foot-three, built like Hercules, had a collision with Brown in the open field – never was the same.”
My friend was talking on the phone from Florida; I could hear the shudder in his voice. (I have to proudly add: My pal Nuzzolese is now a member of the Wagner College athletic hall of fame.)
As good as he was in football, Jim Brown was said to be the best lacrosse player who ever lived. It was impossible to dislodge the ball from the webbing at the end of his lacrosse stick, tight in his powerful hands.
The legend is that Lefty James, the football coach at Cornell, wandered over to watch a Syracuse-Cornell lacrosse game one spring and blurted, “My God, they let him carry a stick?”
(I think my late pal Dick Schaap, who played a bit of lacrosse, may have told me that story.)
The money was in the National Football League, and Brown was the best, or very close to it.
His path took him to the movies and some notoriety in his so-called private life and also a major role in Black activism of the ‘60s and well into this century.
All of that is covered in the great coverage in Saturday’s New York Times and surely everywhere else.
And then there were the homecomings.
In 1984, Brown had mellowed enough to accept the induction into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame, but obdurate as he was, he would only show up if the ceremony was held in his adopted hometown of Manhasset. He honored Ken Molloy, civic leader, and Ed Walsh, football coach, and others who treated him with respect, more than just a five-star athlete.
I made the short drive to cover Brown’s induction. In the informal moments, I introduced Brown to my son, then 14 years old.
“Nice to meet you, David,” Brown said, in that deep voice, shaking hands vigorously.
I distinctly remember a crunching sound, although David does not quite remember it being quite that bad.
Brown came home other times. One of his Manhasset teammates, Mike Pascucci, had done well in business, and had become a booster of one of the great institutions on Long Island, or anywhere – then named Abilities, Inc., now named the Viscardi Center, after the founder, Dr. Henry Viscardi – in nearby Albertson, L.I., where people are helped to work, to play, to live.
(FYI: Edwin Martin, a frequent contributor to this site, was a long-time leader of the Viscardi Center and is a pioneer of services for the disabled; his wife Peggy has been an activist for easing young people into jobs.)
Clearly, the Viscardi Center attracts good people. Once a year or so, Pascucci would invite his old teammate to visit the center.
“They had a celebrity night,” Paul Nuzzolese recalled Friday, “They’d get athletes like Jack Nicklaus, Gale Sayers, Mike Schmidt, signing autographs. I saw Jim Brown get down on his knees and talk to those kids, and he would say how proud he was to be there.”
Jim Brown never lost his dedication to causes. I ran into him in the ‘90s, at some gathering in the city, I cannot remember the cause – health care and support for broken old football players, or racial causes. Whatever. Jim Brown was wearing a fez over his rugged skull, displaying a familiar hard look below the fez.
Omigosh. I felt we were back in the late 60’s maybe in People’s Park in Berkeley, maybe outside Madison Square Garden or some other place that needed an attitude adjustment.
The old days were back: Harry Edwards. Bill Russell. Roberto Clemente or Curt Flood giving writers a seminar in the clubhouse. Richie Havens. Nina Simone. Protest songs. The hallowed John Lewis.
I saw a puzzled look on the face of a Black journalist, half my age, and I kind of giggled.
Jim Brown’s scowl made me feel young again.
And on the Manhasset-Port Washington peninsula, the earth still shudders from the powerful athlete who once played here.
I did the healthy thing and did not watch a moment on Sunday night. While I read a book, the next generation kept me posted -- good reviews for the ladies, terrible reviews for the TV babblers. Some of our family were early Mahomes fans; I'm happy for them. Ditto for my friend Bill Wakefield, ex-Met, who chose his home town over his adopted Bay Area. I have that righteous (probably smug) feeling I have on Jan. 1 after going to sleep before midnight..
Now I have a three-word mantra for other true believers:
Pitchers And Catchers!!!
* * *
After covering 10 or 11 Super Bowls (*), I still did not truly understand the broad appeal of the event -- until Friday evening.
While watching the Republican majority in the Senate dump on the impeachment trial, I became aware of the magnetic pull of the Big Game on everybody – not just the deaf, dumb and blind Senate majority but even the broadcasters on cable news, who referred to the Super Bowl in just about every other sentence.
People made jokes about home-region teams -- nicknames, rivalries, ancient games -- as if that mattered more than a real hearing, a real trial.
I got the impression that even news TV people with connections had the promise of a ticket and a flight to South Florida, as long as the Senate did not take its job seriously and keep working into Saturday. Plus, four Democrat senators could now rush out to Iowa to peddle their wares before the caucus on Monday.
Take it from me, up close the Super Bowl is just another football game – but with more logistical annoyances, more noise, more stupid stuff at halftime, more clichés, and in the end just a bunch of running and passing and tackling and blocking and kicking and commercial timeouts.
It really isn’t much of a consolation that the Senate cannot officially toss the impeachment into the Dumpster until Wednesday.
Does this mean Trump won’t swagger around South Florida on Sunday….and strut into the State of the Union speech on Tuesday….and make pointed remarks about how the Democrats couldn’t prove a thing. He’s been getting away with stuff all his life. But at least his latest escape won’t be official until Wednesday.
The big game this weekend is that Americans can ignore the reality that Trump forced Ukraine to survive without promised weapons for many crucial days last summer while Trump pursued a personal and political goal and jeopardized Ukrainian people and befouled the honorable career of a diplomat assigned to Ukraine
Thanks to the Republican majority in the Senate – who will be pursued by emerging facts in days and weeks to come -- the menace and the lies get to take a few days off now.
Democracy and justice have been kneed in the groin, have “had their bell rung,” as the football broadcasters used to bray, have been tripped and elbowed, have been clotheslined by a neck-high tackle.
The big game will be run by tighter rules than the Trump Frolics, but that makes sense.
After all, what’s more important - an impeachment trial or a Super Bowl?
* * *
(*) -- I originally thought I covered nearly two dozen Super Bowls, but it just seemed that way. When I checked, it was only 10. Maybe 11. Some of them numbed my mind but I do have memories: Preservation Hall jazz in 1970; having to trek over snowy fields because VP Bush's arrival halted all traffic around the Silverdome in 1982; John Riggins' superb traction on a slick Rose Bowl field in 1983; enjoying the Bears, my favorite childhood team, winning in NOLA in 1986; and watching southern drivers try to negotiate icy interstates before Atlanta game in 2000. Who says there is no fun at the Super Bowl?
Out in the driveway was the Sunday Times, with a well-reported article about the precipitous decline of boys playing American football.
The trend is so worrisome that football supporters held a private summit about the potential drop in candidates to get their brains scrambled in the next generation.
I can remember covering Congressional hearings in which the National Football League’s answer to brain concussions was to malign expert witnesses.
The most telling detail in the Times article was the graph showing the vast dropoff – in Texas.
Sounds like Texas high schools now have Friday Night Lights for soccer – with cheerleaders, and college scholarships, and crowds, but without nearly as much residual brain damage down the road.
While I was reading the paper, my son-in-law texted me from Deepest Pennsylvania. Sometimes he texts about Christian Pulisic, the lad from Hershey who has scored 5 goals for Chelsea already this season, probably the best showing by any American in a top European league.
At first, he and his first-born, Mister George, were planning to watch the big Liverpool-Manchester City match in a pub, not any pub, but a Liverpool soccer pub in the area. Shortly after, they decided to watch at home. From his early days with the FIFA computer game, our grandson has been a Liverpool fanatic. This is where the country is heading.
Both Liverpool and Man City have charismatic managers – Jürgen Klopp of Liverpool, a German, and Josep (Pep) Guardiola of Man City, a Catalan who speaks five languages. In the same issue of the Sunday Times, their ingenuity was discussed by Rory Smith, the Times’ expert in Europe.
In the meeting of the current masterminds, Liverpool drubbed Man City, 3-1. I skipped that match to work out at at the high-school track, where I spotted a soccer match between two teams of girls, fit and competitive, in their mid-teens. Two other teams were waiting to play on the turf field.
My soccer-watching for the day was going to come later -- the championship match of Major League Soccer, now in its 24th season. The league started with 10 teams and now has 24, soon to be 30.
Nobody claims MLS is at the level of Champions League or World Cup powerhouses but the league has improved drastically. Last year the best MLS team I ever saw, Atlanta, won the title with an open attacking style, with finesse and good coaching, but Tata Martino was scooped up to manage the Mexican national team, and one of Atlanta's fleet stars, Miguel Almiron, was scooped up by Newcastle of the Premiership, (he is yet to score in 24 appearances) and Atlanta did not reach the finals this year.
Instead, Toronto played at Seattle, in front of the largest crowd ever to watch a sporting event in Seattle – 69,274 fans, demonstrative and knowledgeable. There were familiar faces, including two long-time stars of the American national team, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, both with Toronto. Altidore was still hampered by a strained quad, and could not start. and it cost his team,
Soccer, as all fans know, is a capricious sport. Toronto outplayed the home team well into the second half but no goals were scored. While Altidore warmed up, Toronto yielded a fluke goal when a defender deflected a shot heading wide. (It should have been listed as an own goal, but was not – shame on the league for allowing that scoring decision.) Then Seattle scored twice more before Altidore pounded in a header. Neither team matched the firepower of the super Atlanta team last year, but the league gets better every year.
The MLS season is over but the European season is in full gear, and will more than carry me over to the Mets' season. And really, what else is there?
* * *
We are learning that the National Football League provides equal-opportunity fairness.
While encouraging male athletes to ruin their brains, one club has also put female cheerleaders in danger by shuttling them out of the country, confiscating their passports, and telling them to get naked around wealthy creeps.
Just about all sports are corrupt – from so-called “college” basketball and football to gymnastics to the National Hockey League. I’m not even getting into the steroid era of baseball.
The N.F.L. is the most popular sport in the U.S. as well as the most pompous, overlooking the fact that in recent years former athletes have been shooting themselves in the chest to preserve their brains for the autopsy that will confirm the trauma.
Now, my colleague Juliet Macur has written a grim and comprehensive article about the expectations of the Washington football team (that goes by a racist nickname.)
Under owner Daniel Snyder, the cheerleaders were expected to do more than the traditional NFL duties of performing while network camera-wielders wriggle on the ground for the so-called “honey shot.” (One TV production guy became famous for encouraging up-close-and-personal glimpses of cheerleaders.)
The Washington cheerleaders were encouraged to take evening cruises on the Potomac as part of their “job” (for which they receive minimal compensation, unless you want to count photo shoots observed by leering rich guys with yachts.)
In Macur’s excellent article, the female overseer of the cheerleaders expressed shock, shock, that some of her charges felt used by these experiences.
In fairness to the N.F.L., the league has been busy lately, dealing with evidence of brain damage – over 100 former players, by recent count. The league had third-and-long defensive specialists and snapping specialists for punting but for many years, for its neurological expertise, the N.F.L. relied on a doctor who, well, knew nothing about brains.
But don’t worry, the owners are vigilant about something: they are all over the kneeling demonstrations by some players during the national anthem.
In other recent sporting developments, it turns out that the sainted Karolyis, Bela and Martha, had a glimmer of the widespread abuse by the now-convicted gymnastics doctor in Michigan.
Martha Karolyi heard about it years ago but, in classic boarding-school in-loco-parentis tradition, she did nothing to warn the girls and their parents. After all, she and Bela had to keep the production line humming at their gymnastics ranch in deepest Texas.
Then there is the National Hockey League, which traditionally tolerated the unofficial but very real job of “goon” – a player paid to fight opponents. To its credit, the league has cut back on mass brawls that were common a generation ago, but too late to help Jeff Parker, a former enforcer who died last year at 53 and was diagnosed, posthumously, as having
C.T.E., or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
The N.H.L. seems to be taking its medical advice from the long-time avoidance tactics of the N.F.L. At least the N.H.L. does not stoop to confiscating passports from cheerleaders ferried out of the country.
Enough of this sordid business. It’s time for a truly clean sport: Coming up next month – from Russia! – the FIFA World Cup.
One of the most thoughtful of readers who connect to this page, Brian Savin, calls himself a “contrarian.” He has a point of view about Michael Sam, the college linebacker who has announced he is gay.
In the previous posting about the Mets, Brian wrote this:
In this day and age being gay gets you lead articles in the NYT, WSJ and a story covered in the first 60 seconds of every morning TV news show???? This is 2014 (albeit with a little 1964 Ed Sullivan thrown in yesterday). And they claim this Defensive Player of the Year is "projected" to be drafted in mid-third round?????!! You know what I think? (I'll tell you anyway.) I think this kid has latched onto the greatest sports agent who ever lived. He just somehow, some way moved the kid up to high second round, or maybe even first, and several million dollars. I'd like to hire this guy to be my agent for my retirement portfolio. Good hunting, Mr. Sam.
GV replies: I don’t think any athlete would welcome this kind of publicity strictly for its own sake. Any athlete knows there are players in his or her locker room who are prejudiced for religious or other reasons.
Just look at the front page of the NYT on Sunday, about gay men being whipped in northern Nigeria. We’ve got some psychological hand-choppers in various religions right here in the U.S. I know some.
Thank goodness for Pope Francis asking, "Who am I to judge?" The funny thing is watching his cardinals trying to walk back the Pope's comments.
It sounds as if Sam has been surrounded by support in his college career. It may be a smart business/life decision to get this out before the meat-market workouts by the NFL, coming soon. It’s out. No whispers. Will this make money for Michael Sam – or get him shunted to a lower draft round because he did not “test out well?”
Let me ask this: with all the big men, regulars or backups, getting injured this NBA season, has Jason Collins, one of the most positive professionals, gotten a call since coming out last year? Good luck to Michael Sam.
Two Morals to the Super Bowl
The aggressive swarm of Seattle Seahawks reminded me of a young HC of the NYJ.
Not Bill Belichick, but Pete Carroll.
Carroll was the new head coach in 1994. He had an outdoor basket put up in the Jets’ bunker, on the theory that team members might enjoy shooting hoops in their spare time.
Some football people snickered at this unorthodox maybe-Left-Coast way of doing things. The Jets went 6-10 and Carroll was fired by the owner, Leon Hess, the oil man who used to tell a Times reporter to please not write that Hess had visited Jets’ camp because he was supposed to be in the office.
Carroll later coached the Patriots and won a national title at Southern California, where he ran around at night with youth gangs, urging members not to tear up their world.
Now the Seahawks have humbled the Broncos, showing not only speed and power but also the flexibility to make big plays. They could react, not just follow orders.
I thought about the outdoor basket at the Jets’ bunker, and the new coach who had a somewhat different way of doing things.
* * *
There was another moral to the Super Bowl. The NFL tempted fate by putting a Super Bowl in a northern clime, in what is turning out to be a nasty winter. Some gloom-and-doom types, no names mentioned, forecast a blizzard.
But the Giants built pro football in New York by selling a few hundred extra tickets on Sunday mornings when rain or snow or chill somehow dissipated and people felt like going out to watch a game. In New York, this glorious tradition is known as Mara Weather, after the family that still owns half the team.
The Super Bowl was played on an early November or early April day. Mara Weather. Never, ever, forget it.
(Thirty years ago I wrote this sports column in The New York Times.)
November 21, 1983. Monday
The Game Stopped
We were playing touch football when the President was shot. The fiancee of one of the players came running through the park, calling: ''The President's been shot in Dallas. They've closed the Stock Exchange.''
We knew enough to pick up our extra sweatshirts that had served as yard markers and quietly to go our separate ways to whatever security our homes would offer us. The news on our car radios told us what we did not want to hear.
We were mostly in our 20's, a collection of young journalists and baseball players whose vagabond hours allowd us to play touch football at midday all through the fall. We had short haircuts and nicknames like Killer, Joe D, Big Ben, Rapid Robert, Jake, Little Alvin and Richie Swordfish.
As I look at our old photographs, I am struck by the optimism in our faces. It seemed like a very good time to be in our 20's, and starting our adult lives. I think John F. Kennedy had something to do with that.
Since the day we picked up our sweatshirts and trudged off the field, I have often thought of the double irony of playing touch football in Kennedy Park, named after early settlers of Hempstead, L.I., not for those Kennedys. Today the name Kennedy is on New York's major airport and public schools all over the country. Eight days ago in Frankfurt, my wife told me that the broad boulevard on which we were driving was named Kennedystrasse.
Just playing touch football at the moment the shots rang out was irony enough. Looking at the old publicity pictures of him now, in the 20th-anniversary glut of memories, I am struck by how awkward and poorly conditioned John F. Kennedy looks holding a football. Of course, for years there have been suggestions that he suffered from Addison's disease, and he was in no shape to play football with his more robust relatives and friends.
History has come to round out the picture of John F. Kennedy, but on that morning, we would have agreed that we were playing the same game the President played in his family compound at Hyannisport, Mass. We were young and so was the President of the United States. That meant a lot to me.
Many people today will consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Harry S. Truman or Dwight D. Eisenhower as their President. Others may have the same feeling about one of those who came later. For me, John F. Kennedy will always be my President.
In 1960 five very important things happened in my life: I was hired by a newspaper, I was graduated from college, I turned 21, I was married, and John F. Kennedy was elected President. For me at least, the narrow victory of the Senator from Massachusetts was a comet blazing across the sky, signaling that the 60's were going to be good years, different years.
The words now seem full of dust from the history books, but in those days people talked excitedly about ''vigor'' and ''charisma.'' John F. Kennedy was an attractive young President before the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, before ballplayers used hair dryers and appeared in underwear ads. In 1960 he was all the glamour we had, he and his wife who spoke French and looked terrific in an evening gown.
The touch-football pictures were partly hyped; the photographs with John-John playing under his desk must have been staged. But after the musty 50's, after Ike, after a President who could not articulate outrage about segregation or Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, after a President who played a marginal athletic activity like golf, some of us were good and ready for a new decade.
Then the Kennedys hit the stage like a tumbling act in the circus, full of blaring horns and rolling drums, and with lots of photographs of John F. Kennedy about to throw a sideline pattern to Bobby or Ted.
Once in the summer of 1959, at a beach in Southampton, L.I., I found myself waist deep in the surf a few yards from John F. Kennedy. Politically, it was no thrill; we were Stevenson Democrats in my family. But a Presidential hopeful who had young- looking friends, who went to the beach on a Sunday, seemed pretty good to me.
The Kennedys became associated in my mind with sports and crowds and youth and good times. One afternoon in 1961, in an amusement park in upstate New York, my wife was almost knocked down by Robert F. Kennedy, who was making a fast visit with his wife, Ethel, and some of their children. He stopped and excused himself before rushing on. In October 1963, covering a football game in Annapolis, Md., I was almost mowed down by Robert Kennedy, who was leaving early through the press box. The Kennedys moved fast.
Starting adult life the same year the youngest President was elected set up a visceral sense of identification: the Kennedys lost a child; my wife went through a difficult but successful first delivery. I could only wonder why the dice had been rolled that way.
In this anniversary month, many historians now criticize John F. Kennedy's actions toward Cuba and Vietnam; I will never be convinced he would not have been smart enough to find sensible options toward both countries. But his time, Malcolm X's time, Robert Kennedy's time, Martin Luther King Jr.'s time, and Allard Lowenstein's time all ended too soon.
In the days after the shooting in Dallas, football twice added to my sense of loss and revulsion. The National Football League went ahead with its games two days later, while the President was lying in state, a gesture of disrespect I have never been able to forget. And a week later, on a train heading for the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia, I heard some whisky-slick officers and their wives talking too loudly about how they had never been able to stand the Kennedys in the first place.
In the years since Nov. 22, 1963, many of us who came of age in the early 60's found no elected public figures to admire. Some of us admired the feminists and Bob Dylan's songs and Lech Walesa and Bishop Romero of El Salvador, and we could not help but notice that a Black Muslim boxer named Muhammad Ali did more to get us out of Vietnam than any President did.
I mourn the loss of a President who seemed so intelligent and courageous and witty and youthful at the time. I admit that I keep up with bits of news about John F. Kennedy's children, and I root for Jacqueline Onassis in her battle for privacy. And I cannot watch young people throwing a football in a park without thinking of that day when the fiancee of one of the players came running across the grass to tell us something that would end our game.
* * *
(I still pretty much feel the same way. I remember the feelings of intense hatred emanating from Texas in the days before the Kennedy trip. I’ve come to have more mixed feelings about the Kennedy myths. He was more sick than we understood; also more personally reckless. I’m not sure he would have advanced civil rights and anti-poverty programs as much as LBJ did; then again, I think JFK would not have led us much deeper into Vietnam, but we will never know, and that is part of the sadness. My thanks to the Times for letting me express myself, then and now.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.