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Jim Brown, legendary NFL running back who left the game to become an activist and actor, has died at age 87

<i>Greg Doherty/Getty Images</i><br/>Jim Brown
Greg Doherty/Getty Images
Jim Brown

By Steve Almasy and Matt Foster, CNN

(CNN) — Jim Brown, the transcendent athlete-actor-activist who ran roughshod over the NFL and its record books in the 1950s and 1960s and won multiple MVP awards before retiring abruptly at age 30 to focus on the civil rights movement and a career in Hollywood, has died, his former team and his widow said Friday. He was 87.

“It is with profound sadness that I announce the passing of my husband, Jim Brown,” Monique Brown wrote on Instagram. “He passed peacefully last night at our LA home. To the world he was an activist, actor, and football star. To our family, he was a loving and wonderful husband, father, and grandfather. Our hearts are broken…”

The sole team Brown played for, the Cleveland Browns, tweeted, “Jim Brown Forever.

“Legend. Leader. Activist. Visionary.

“It’s impossible to describe the profound love and gratitude we feel for having the opportunity to be a small piece of Jim’s incredible life and legacy. We mourn his passing, but celebrate the indelible light he brought to the world.

“Our hearts are with Jim’s family, loved ones, and all those he impacted along the way.”

Brown was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.

“Yardage isn’t the big thing. Having your team win the championship is … That’s what I work for, winning the championship, and this requires a certain standard of performance,” Brown said, according to the Hall of Fame webpage honoring his career.

Before leaving the game, Brown made his film debut in 1964 in the Western, “Rio Conchos.”

He surprised sports fans two years later when – at the height of his career and following threats of fines by his team’s owner of fines for missing days of training camp – Brown, the reigning NFL MVP, announced his retirement from football from the set of the World War II film, “The Dirty Dozen.”

He appeared in more than 50 film and television projects in the years that followed, most recently “Draft Day” in 2014.

“I could have played longer. I wanted to play this year, but it was impossible,” he said in 1966, according to Sports Illustrated. “We’re running behind schedule shooting (on the Dirty Dozen set), for one thing. I want more mental stimulation than I would have playing football. I want to have a hand in the struggle that is taking place in our country, and I have the opportunity to do that now. I might not a year from now.”

He added it was the right time to quit football. “You should get out at the top,” he said.

Brown also made his mark as a civil rights activist and by working with inner-city gang members and prison inmates. In June 1967, Brown organized “The Cleveland Summit,” in support of Muhammad Ali, who refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War. Other famous Black athletes attended, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor.

“When I was 20, Jim Brown invited me to attend the Cleveland Summit,” Abdul-Jabbar tweeted Friday. “This was my first public support for Muhammad Ali and it was the first of many steps I would take as a civil rights activist. Jim’s dedication to the fight for equal rights was a lifelong effort and something that enabled me to maintain our friendship for over 50 years. The world and I will miss him greatly.”

In 1988, Brown founded the Amer-I-Can program, an organization dedicated to stopping gang violence and helping individuals “take charge of their lives and achieve their full potential.”

“His commitment to making a positive impact for all of humanity off the field is what he should also be known for,” Cleveland Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam said. “In the time we’ve spent with Jim, especially when we first became a part of the Browns, we learned so much from him about the unifying force sports can be and how to use sport as a vehicle for change while making a positive impact in the community.

“Jim broke down barriers just as he broke tackles. He fought for civil rights, brought athletes from all different sports together to use their platform for good. Many thought Jim retired from football too soon, but he always did it his way.”

But Brown also made news for his own legal issues

Brown went to jail in 2002 after refusing the terms of probation for a misdemeanor charge of vandalizing his wife’s car three years earlier. After turning down counseling and probation, he was sentenced to six months in jail and served four.

After his release Brown told reporters, according to the Los Angeles Times: “Incarceration doesn’t work. It doesn’t make our communities any safer.”

In 1978, he spent one day in jail for beating and choking his golfing partner, Frank Snow. Brown was also fined $500 and receives two years’ probation.

There were other more serious charges, including a rape accusation, but that case was dismissed due to inconsistent testimony and two assault cases that went to a jury resulted in acquittals.

In another infamous incident in 1968, Brown was charged with assault with intent to commit murder after model Eva Bohn-Chin was found beneath the balcony of Brown’s second floor apartment. The charge was dismissed after Bohn-Chin refused to name him as her assailant. Brown did pay a $300 fine for striking a deputy sheriff during the same incident.

While the abuse allegations cast a shadow on his career, he will be remembered by many as the greatest running back and by some as the best player of any position.

Brown, the 1957 Rookie of the Year and MVP, led the NFL in rushing a record eight times in his nine seasons and rushed for a record 12,312 yards.

He went to nine Pro Bowls and was an NFL champion in 1964. In his final season, Brown rushed for a league-high 1,544 yards.

“Jim Brown was a gifted athlete – one of the most dominant players to ever step on any athletic field – but also a cultural figure who helped promote change,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in statement. “During his nine-year NFL career, which coincided with the civil rights movement here at home, he became a forerunner and role model for athletes being involved in social initiatives outside their sport. He inspired fellow athletes to make a difference, especially in the communities in which they lived.”

Earlier this year the NFL renamed its annual league rushing title award as the Jim Brown Award.

Brown is also considered one of the greatest lacrosse players in history, earning first- and second team All-America honors while scoring more than 70 goals in two seasons at Syracuse University.

He was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1983.

Some NFL rushing legends tweeted their tributes:

  • Emmitt Smith, the current all-time NFL rushing yards leader: “My heart aches at this very moment after hearing of the passing of Jim Brown. He is and was a true legend in sports and in the community using his platform to help others. Thanks King.”
  • Barry Sanders: “You can’t underestimate the impact #JimBrown had on the @NFL. He will be greatly missed. Additionally, his generosity and friendship with my family is a gift that we will always treasure. Our thoughts & prayers are with the Brown Family & @Browns fans at this time.”
  • Tony Dorsett: “There isn’t a man who played running back in the NFL who didn’t see Jim Brown as an iconic legend on and off the field. Rest easy, my brother.”

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Kevin Dotson and Megan Thomas contributed to this report.

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