I bought a ticket and stood in line and got Jim Brown’s autograph, just like everyone else. It meant a lot to me. I have always considered him to be the greatest football player of all time, even though I am not old enough to have seen him play. He was my dad’s favorite player, and my dad, who was a football player in Canada and the same age as Brown, talked about him a lot. He would sit in his chair with me as a baby in his arms while he watched Brown, who retired before I turned two. So technically, I guess I did see him play.
I have two interesting autographed 8 x 10s that I have collected over the years.
One is of Jim Brown, that I got at the 2006 National in Anaheim. It was my first National after my career at Pinnacle/Collector’s Edge/Shop At Home/Pacific ended a year earlier, and I was there both as a collector and as a member of the hobby media.
That photo is on the wall in my sports cathedral n a row with 8x10s of other superstars I have collected over the years – Gordie Howe, Yogi Berra, Jean Beliveau, Muhammed Ali, Bobby Hull, Joe Namath, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and a few more. It’s a great wall, and as a collector, I look at it a lot.
But while I have Jim Brown up on that wall, I am still trying to figure out what to do with my OJ Simpson 8×10. He was also one of the great players in NFL history. I didn’t stand in line for his autograph, nor have I ever met or interviewed him. His autographed photo is mounted on a plaque that was on the wall of a local sports bar that sold off their memorabilia collection when they became a casualty of COVID-19. I bought a package of six of these plaques at an auction – mostly because of the Julius Erving autograph – and there was an OJ Simpson in there with it among the random assortment of athletes.
One of the first things I saw on Jim Brown’s passing was a post on Twitter made by Simpson. As a fan, and as a collector, the whole thing made me think about the fine line of how the world and the hobby sees both men.
And as a member of the hobby media, I did get on a quick, cliché-filled obligatory interview session with Brown that did not last nearly long enough or dive deep enough into his career of who he was. But his tone, his eyes, his body language, his intensity and his mannerisms all said a million things.
A Small Dose of Jim Brown
When I make small talk with an athlete, particularly a football player, before an interview, I sometimes mention my background. I had a great college career and a long semi-pro football career wrapped around countless pro tryouts in the CFL, NFL and USFL that saw me play zero regular season games. But, technically, because I did get paid to play on certain teams I was with, technically I am an ex-pro.
Sometimes that conversation can open a door in an interview with an athlete. With Jim Brown, I wouldn’t dare go there. Not only was I, technically, the least successful player in pro football history, but when I got there, it was as a punter. Sure, I played quarterback in high school and saw paying time filling in at other positions as needed, but when you get to college and you can kick 60 yard field goals and punt a ball 65 or 70 yards, they send you to another field with a bag of balls and a kid to shag kicks and tell you to be back in 75 minutes and not to hurt your hamstring.
Do you think Jim Brown had any respect whatsoever for punters and kickers? I wasn’t going to take that chance. I stay in my lane – the one for the bottom feeders of the football food chain.
During the chat, Brown wasn’t overly engaging. He said the right things, like that he appreciates that fans still wanted to meet him and get his autograph 40 years after he had retired. He seemed genuine about that, but I always felt their was an opinion on sports collectibles shows and appearances ready to erupt but never did.
He did talk a little bit about the work he did as a civil rights leader and an activist, and the legacy his work is creating.
“If people want my autograph, it would mean more to me if they wanted it because of the work I do in the community to help underprivileged people and to bring positive changes to the African-American community,” he said. “But it’s not about that. For many people here, everything is centered around Michael Jordan. He is a nice person and is very likeable, but I always think of the things he could do with his power and money if he made more of an effort to spend time as a role model for people in the inner cities. It’s not his fault. Everything that he and the other superstar Black athletes do is controlled by agents and managers and business managers and accountants. It’s sad because he is on a stage with every Black person in America watching him and listening to every word, just like Jackie Robinson was. But because of the situation he is in, he won’t make a difference. Imagine if you had all of these extremely rich and popular Black athletes today pouring their resources in time into programs that could encourage and teach young Black kids about the importance of a good education?”
I saw Brown’s eyes look around. He was in a world of predominantly white sports card dealers in a room with thousands upon thousands of predominantly white collectors, all trying to buy and sell and collect cards and autographs and memorabilia of Black athletes like himself, Jordan, a young LeBron James, a maturing Kobe Bryant, Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice, LaDanian Tomlinson, Andre Johnson, Chad Johnson, Ryan Howard, Barry Bonds, and Tiger Woods.
“One of the questions I am asked a lot when I meet fans at signings is why I retired at such a young age,” Brown said. “I tell them that the football chapter in my life was over and it was time to move on and do other things. I had accomplished everything I needed to. I loved acting and being in movies and doing TV commentary. I made almost as much money in my first year as an actor as I did in my entire football career.”
I never asked him if the money he made at shows like the National and the autograph circuit is more lucrative for him than playing was. I wanted to ask him, but I was afraid he would misread my question and be offended.
Luckily, he went in a different direction.
“People were upset and didn’t understand when Barry Sanders retired,” he said. “Barry Sanders was a great football player, but at some point, you just know when you are not enjoying football enough to keep playing, or if it is no longer worth it to put yourself through another season. Barry was at that point. He was just done playing, just like I was.”
OJ Hung On
OJ Simpson was not one of those players who retired early. He broke the 2,000-yard barrier in 1973 with the Buffalo Bills. After he injured his knee, he attempted to come back but was never the same. My father always said, if only they had figured out how to scope a knee five years earlier, we would have seen a lot more of Bobby Orr and OJ Simpson.
“Jim was probably as competitive as anybody could ever be,” Simpson said on his Twitter video. “I often wondered how tough it must have been for him in the 50s, going into those early 60s, being a Black star. It couldn’t have been easy for Jim. Jim was a man. Jim was a He-Man. He didn’t take nothin’ from nobody.”
Simpson and Brown both had more than their share of legal troubles. Simpson’s problems were far more public and it was always interesting how they were tied to the hobby. In the 1990s, Simpson famously signed football cards for Signature Rookies while in jail. The Las Vegas event in September, 2007 that led to his imprisonment was over a theft of sports memorabilia that Simpson claimed was his.
Simpson was finally released from prison in December, 2021, and is now a free man. Any value of OJ Simpson cards or memorabilia has obviously been hurt by what occurred in the 1990s, which is why I was able to pick up my autograph for next to nothing.
With all of Jim Brown’s football accolades and the tireless work he did as a civil rights activist, he also has a history of violence, particularly allegations of violence against women.
In 1968, Brown was 32 when he was arrested on suspicion of assault with intent to commit murder against his 22-year-old girlfriend, Eva Marie Bohn-Chin. Bohn-Chin, a model, was found semiconscious and moaning on a concrete patio 20 feet below the balcony of Brown’s apartment. Deputies reported finding blood and patches of hair inside the apartment.
Bohn-Chin told investigators she fell. The district attorney did not prosecute.
There were multiple allegations involving Brown and violence against women. The charges were always dropped.
Had Eva Marie Bohn-Chin not survived her fall from Brown’s balcony, who knows how the hobby would see its troubled hero.
Perhaps Los Angeles Times columnist LZ Granderson summed up Jim Brown best.
“For many, Brown is a hero.
“For many others, he is a woman beater.
“For me, he is both — a complicated figure who was as brave as he was cowardly.”
And as I look at his autographed 8×10 on the wall, there is so much to think about. I think about him as my dad’s favorite player. I think about him as the greatest player of all time, and getting the autograph along with the various Jim Brown cards I have in binders in my collection. And I think of him as a complex person that I briefly interviewed at a sports card show. The fire burning from within that drove him to be the greatest football player and a relentless advocate for civil rights was also a tempest that he could not control in relationships.
That photo, along with my OJ Simpson autographed 8×10 and various cards in my collection, remind us that our heroes aren’t really heroes at all. They are people, just like anyone else, who have flaws and darkness. They just happen to be really good at football.