It was Dismaying to a boy when Jimmy Brown took his dad’s job.
When I was a child my father worried me. Every Sunday during the fall he would come home physically battered. His arms were swollen and contused, and his right shoulder usually drooped lower than his left. Once he came in with 12 stitches in his bottom lip and another time his thumb had been yanked so far out of its socket that for months Dad had to shake hands with only four fingers. Always his fingers were sprained and scraped raw.
Dad, where do you go every Sunday? You can tell me, I won’t tell Mom. Who does this to you, huh? Tell me and I’ll help you fight ‘em! Nobody pushes my dad around. But Dad…. Why? Why do you do it?
On Sunday evening after he had collapsed in his big chair, I walked over to him, carefully climbed up on his knee and demanded an explanation. He hugged me tight against his chest and whispered in my ear, “Mickey, I do this so you and your mother can have plenty to eat and nice clothes to wear.”
I questioned my mother when Dad was gone: “Where does he go every Sunday and why does he come home looking like that?” She told me that he went to work. Well, my buddies all had dads who went to work, but none of them came home pounded out of shape like mine.
One Friday Mother and I went to the airport to wave goodby to Dad. We watched as he boarded the plane with a crowd of men who all resembled on another; everyone had short hair and big shoulders. Mom said that Dad was going to Los Angeles in California.
That Sunday after church I went upstairs to my room. Mom was busy in the basement. I was quietly looking at a book when suddenly I heard yelling downstairs. I raced down and found Mom alone, sitting on the couch watching the TV set. I walked over to her and put my hand on her shoulder, but she didn’t seem to see me or feel me. She kept staring at the TV, biting her nails and jiggling her legs up and down. I glanced at the television and saw something very peculiar — a man wearing a numbered costume and a strange hard hat was running with a ball and everyone was trying to slam him to the ground. I sat down next to Mom on the couch, put my arm around her and watched the fighting in amazement.
“Oh, Mickey, that’s your father! Do you see him? There he is … No. 36. That’s Daddy!”
Sure enough, the TV announcer kept repeating Dad’s name. So those are the guys who beat him up.
“But Mom, it’s not fair, all those guys picking on Dad at once!” Mother then finally explained my father’s job.
He arrived home late that Sunday from the West Coast. This time his other shoulder drooped and one of his eyes was swollen shut, but he wore a wide grin on his face. My dad picked me up, tucked me tightly under his arm like the football I had seen him carrying and started pacing around the dining-room table telling Mom all about the game. Suddenly our house was filled with people. Everyone kissed Mom, and the men shook hands with Dad and playfully slapped him on his bad shoulder.
Mr. Jordan kept following Dad around the house, slapping his shoulder and calling him a “champ.” Mr. Jordan lived across the street and he never uttered a basic seven-word sentence without using three or four cuss words. Champ wasn’t in my vocabulary then, so knowing Mr. Jordan, I thought it was a profanity directed toward my father. I watched Dad closely to see how he would react. He kept smiling. I overheard Mrs. Krupinski whisper to Mom, “Whatever are you and Ed going to do with all of the championship money?” The next morning before I left for school, I asked Mom what champ and championship meant. She said that it meant that Dad’s team was the best. “So that means Daddy is the best player in the whole wide world, right, Mom?” She chuckled and I think she nodded her head.
The next season my neighborhood buddies and I started watching football on TV and every Sunday we went through the same ritual. We would all gather in my basement to see the Browns play. At halftime we would rush into the street, pick teams, throw the ball around and then rush back down to the basement to view the second half. At the crack of the final gun, we all raced back outside to begin the game of imitating our heroes.
To transform a potholed street into a gridiron requires a bit of creative vision. Two telephone poles were chosen as goalposts. Approximately halfway between them was a fireplug that, if passed, was an automatic first down. The outer edges of the sidewalks served as sidelines. Trees and parked cars were extra blockers. For two hours late on Sunday afternoons we put our own identities aside and became Renfro, Graham, Groza, Gibron, Lavelli or Modzelewski. We each took one of our T shirts and brown paint and put our alter ego’s number on the front and back. Once after I darted from the pole, Gordon, the fat kid who was the permanent center, whispered to me as we huddled for the extra point, “Geez, Mick, you run just like your dad!”
The season finished in December with Cleveland on top and we clobbered the guys from two streets over. Summer came quickly and Dad said goodby. He left in early July to go to training camp. We shook hands firmly and I promised to take good care of Mom. I didn’t see him again until one day in late August when Mom and I drove out for a visit.
For a youngster, the Browns’ training camp was a comfortable place. Dad moaned about camp, curfews, not seeing Mom and the double practices. I couldn’t sympathize with him. Cows and horses were all around, and you could run through acres of green fields without any telephone poles in the way.
After practice we walked over to a large shady tree and sat down. I couldn’t keep still, so I ran down to the practice fields and charged at the tackling bag as I had seen the big guys do. I kept calling to Dad to watch me, but he ignored my pleas and I ran back toward the tree to attract his attention. When I got close, I could hear that he and Mom were conversing in low voices. That meant that I should be silent and not interrupt. I sat on the grass to listen. Dad kept repeating two phrases over and over, “The handwriting’s on the wall,” and “I feel like the guy who played behind Babe Ruth.” I knew who Babe Ruth was and I couldn’t figure out what he had to do with football and my father. I didn’t understand what he was talking about, but I knew Mom did because she was dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
When the season started, something was terribly wrong — my father didn’t play. Someone else was the fullback, someone I never had seen before. I was accustomed to seeing 36 out there, but now suddenly it was 32.
Dad was talking on the phone one night early in the season with my Uncle Dick, a defensive tackle with the New York Giants: “Yes … yes, he’s everything they said. Paul figured it would take him a year or two to pick up the system, but he is coming fast … yes … Dick, mark my words, he’s going to be a great one … yes, even better than Motley. He’s a natural back with fluid power. … What? … Yes … well, I have a feeling that I may be traded to this new expansion club out in Dallas … I don’t know … Yes, I may go ahead with the restaurant. As long as Jimmy Brown is in Cleveland, the Browns will be a threat. … Dick, mark my words, this guy can carry a team … ”
About that time, Dad started taking me to practice with him every Saturday morning. I sat on his dressing stool and looked over this new man Brown. I refused to believe that my father could ever have his job taken away by anyone human, but after studying Mr. Brown I had to make an exception. Watching him move, whether it was in the locker room or out on the football field, was a lesson in kinesiology. He was like Nat Cole’s music: smooth and deliberate with absolutely no wasted motion. When he walked naked around the locker room, it seemed that while a few of his leg muscles flexed, all the others were resting, in a peculiar way that left them relaxed, but still poised.
One Saturday Mr. Brown came over to borrow a jockstrap. He looked down at me as he spoke with Dad and my cheeks became flushed. He smiled an easy grin and put out his hand for me to shake. It was huge and was covered with red nicks just like Dad’s. I put my hand in his and closed my eyes thinking he would squeeze it hard, but as soon as my fingers touched his, he was gone.
I also started going to the Browns’ home games at Municipal Stadium. Those Sundays were special to me. I never felt as alive as I did sitting with 80,000 other people cheering for Dad’s team. My spine tingled every time Cleveland scored, and I always broke out in pregame goose bumps during the player introductions. The public-address announcer would boom out 11 names and after each we would roar our approval. Brown was always the last one out. For all I know, the announcer never said his name; all I ever heard was, “And at fullback ….,” then the crowd would scream as 32 jogged slowly under the goalpost with the bright orange helmet in his hand.
For the next 2 ½ hours the stadium would resound with cheers and thundering applause for Brown. A wall of tacklers would surround him, but 32 would either find a slight crack — or make one — and slip through. He humiliated linebackers and defensive backs one-on-one in the open field. He allowed them to make preparations. They would plant their feet and position themselves at the proper angle with their heads up, tails down and eyes on his belt buckle. Then, once they committed themselves and flung their bodies at his, Brown would dip a hip or stick out a well-timed stiff arm and leave them sprawling.
Brown always seemed to save a special move for late in the game when Cleveland needed a big play. After being gang-tackled, he would slowly get up from the bottom of the pile and drag himself back to the huddle. He gave the appearance of being utterly exhausted, of being unable to run another step. It was a psychological ploy he used over and over. He coaxed the defense into thinking it had sapped him of his strength. He made them relax and feel confident that they had finally gotten to him. Then on the next play he would dash past them with a burst of fresh speed.
I practiced this technique in my own games. I called it the “J.B. Shuffle.” After being tackled, something that happened pretty often in our rough brand of touch football, I would wobble, limp, stagger, drag my feet and barely make it back to the huddle. On the next play, all the defense would see were my heels as I sprinted past the fireplug on my way to the telephone pole. In our street games I had become someone new and I had another T shirt with 32 painted on it.
Soon Dad retired from football to go into the restaurant business. The Browns held an Oldtimer’s Day before one of the home games and during the ceremonies they presented him with his jersey. He gave it to me, but I was No. 32 then and couldn’t change. After all, Jimmy Brown was the best running back in the NFL and I was the leading rusher in the neighborhood.
When the restaurant opened, I worked there as a busboy. Visiting teams would come in the night before their games with the Browns to eat steaks and gulp down a few beers. I always looked forward to seeing the Giants because my uncle would introduce me to the players. I would collect all of their autographs and then pass them out to my friends. At that time New York had the best defense in football and the tacklers would sit up on the terrace, talking all evening about how they were going to stop Jim Brown. Sam Huff usually talked the loudest.
In the restaurant I got a view of the professional football player that was far different from what I saw from my seat in the upper deck of Municipal Stadium. During those long Saturday nights, I learned that football players were people. A sure-handed end who could catch any ball he got a finger on was constantly dropping ketchup all over himself or knocking his drink into someone’s lap. Once a halfback leaned too far back in his chair and ended up flat on his back in the middle of the floor with his legs waving in the air. I began to realize that football players aren’t immortal. Quite a few of those burly linemen got cramps and spasms in their backs just getting up from the table. They had to walk out bent over like old men.
As I poured water or cleared away plates, I heard some of the men talk about retiring. When they talked about women, food or Brown, they always spoke in loud voices, but when they talked about retiring they whispered and glanced around before they spoke. One night I overheard a bald old quarterback mumble, “The mark of a real pro is that on the way out he leaves some of himself, some of his experience, behind with a rookie.”
Those words disturbed me. They lingered on my mind for a long time because I didn’t understand what they really meant. I thought that if someone deliberately took your job away, you should resent him and never speak to him. You should bear an eternal grudge. I was wrong and years later Jim Brown himself explained it all to me in his book, Off My Chest.
“In a way Ed Modzelewski was much bigger than I or, for that matter, Babe Ruth. The son of Polish immigrants, he had come out of the Pennsylvania coal fields and made a good life for himself in football. Yet even while his friends were trying to prevent me from eating his lunch, as the saying goes, Big Mo was going out of his way to help me. In practice whenever I couldn’t remember my assignment, Mo would whisper it to me with no coach the wiser.”
A couple of years ago, while I was packing to go away to college, I found Dad’s Browns’ jersey at the bottom of a drawer. As I unfolded it and saw the big brown square 36 stitched on the white cloth, I felt proud, very proud, of the way he wore it. And the way he took it off.