SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Heh-heh-heh.
Jim Brown laughed that slow-but-sincere laugh, smiled that trademark little half smile, and went backward in time to the day when he dominated his favorite sport — lacrosse.
“I loved the game,” said Brown, 69. “We played because we loved it.”
And nobody played it quite as well as Brown did a half-century ago.
Regarded by many as the greatest running back in the history of the NFL — where he intimidated foes with his icy glare, head-straightening stiff arms and bruising runs in nine record-breaking seasons with the Cleveland Browns — imagine him in his heyday playing lacrosse.
Imagine trying to stop a 6-foot-2, 235-pound tower of muscle in a sport where players wear virtually no protection, except gloves and a helmet, and most stars usually weigh in at around 160 — soaking wet.
“I can’t even imagine playing against a guy like that on the football field with his pure athleticism and aggression,” said Brian Crockett, who led the Orange lacrosse team in scoring this season. “I can’t even imagine him on a lacrosse field. No one could keep up with that guy. Fortunately for us, there aren’t too many lacrosse players with that build and that athleticism. Otherwise, we’d all be out of a job.”
Brown, the only person to be inducted into the halls of fame for pro football, college football and lacrosse, was an All-Star lacrosse midfielder at Manhasset High School on Long Island.
“Lacrosse was his best sport,” said 92-year-old Ed Walsh, Brown’s football coach in high school. “He had all the skills, and his skills were better than all the opponents.
“I had a college lacrosse coach who came to watch him play when he was a junior in the big game against Garden City,” Walsh said. “I took this coach to the sidelines and stayed with him so he could do anything he wanted to. All he did was write notes, and when the game was over, I said, ‘Any way you could sum up what you wrote and tell me?’
“He said, ‘Jim Brown is better than anybody on our college team and better than anybody we coached against.”’
Thanks to the efforts of Manhasset attorney Ken Molloy, who played lacrosse at Syracuse, Brown enrolled in 1953 and immediately came under the watchful eye of Orange lacrosse coach Roy Simmons Sr., who also was an assistant to football coach Ben Schwartzwalder. One of the few black athletes on campus, Brown struggled to get noticed.
“Ken told my dad about this great athlete, and Ben Schwartzwalder was not interested,” said Roy Simmons Jr., an honorable mention All-America attackman on Syracuse’s unbeaten 1957 lacrosse team. “Jim didn’t play lacrosse his freshman year because he had to prove to the football coach that he deserved a scholarship. He was a walk-on in football, so he had to bust his butt in fall ball and spring ball to prove that he deserved a football scholarship.”
Because Brown concentrated so much on football, was the second-leading scorer on the basketball team and also starred in track and field in the discus, high jump and sprints, he didn’t play much lacrosse until his junior year. Still, it didn’t take long for opponents to notice his prowess.
Brown left an indelible impression on Lloyd Elm, who played on a team from the nearby Onondaga Indian Nation, where the Native American sport is a way of life.
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