Jim Brown, perhaps the greatest running back in NFL history, did not win a Heisman.
Winning the Heisman Trophy is a tremendous honor. It may be the most important individual award in sports — certainly at the collegiate level. Yet it hardly guarantees a seat at the NFL head table.
Consider this — what do Jimmy Brown, Joe Montana, below right, Johnny Unitas, Walter Payton and Peyton Manning have in common? None of them won a Heisman Trophy. Neither did Jerry Rice or Lawrence Taylor or Reggie White.
All of them are listed in the top 10 of the NFL Network’s 100 greatest players in NFL history, a list compiled by a blue ribbon panel of current and former NFL coaches, players, executives, and media.
The first Heisman Trophy winner on the NFL top 100 list was 1988 winner Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State, ranked 17th. Only five others on that list were Heisman Trophy winners:
40. OJ Simpson (USC, 1968)
46. Roger Staubach (Navy, 1963)
55. Earl Campbell (Texas, 1977)
77. Tony Dorsett (Pitt, 1976)
85. Marcus Allen (USC, 1981)
Only eight of the 78 Heisman winners are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – the six above plus Doak Walker (SMU, 1948) and Paul Hornung (Notre Dame. 1956)
A total of 19 Heisman winners were the first pick in the NFL draft, including the first winner — halfback Jack Berwanger of the University of Chicago, the first player to be drafted by the NFL in its inaugural draft in 1936. Traded from the Eagles to the Bears, Berwanger opted not to sign in order to preserver his amateur status and compete for a spot on the US Olympic team in the decathlon.
And since 1986, only three Heisman Trophy winners were number one picks in the NFL draft — Carson Palmer of USC in 2002, Sam Bradford of Oklahoma in 2008 and Cam Newton of Aubun in 2010.
Only three Super Bowl MVPs were Heisman winners — Staubach, Allen and Jim Plunkett, the only quarterback to start and win two Super Bowls and not make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Perhaps one day recent Heisman winners like Cam Newton (Auburn, 2010) and Robert Griffin III (Baylor 2011) will gain NFL immortality. And this year’s winner, Johnny Manziel (Johnny Football) from Texas A&M, is just a freshman. But it’s still way too early to make that call.
1. Name me a better football player than Jim Brown?
2. Name me a better baseball player than Babe Ruth?
3. Name me a better basketball player than Michael Jordan?
4. Name me a better hockey player than Wayne Gretzky?
Jim Brown faces Green Bay in his final game, the 1965 NFL Championship
What’s the best team in football history? Who’s the greatest all-time hitter ever? The best boxer pound for pound?
You can spark some lively debates with any one of those questions about sports, or thousands of others like them.
But when it comes to the question of who is the best running back in football ever, the answer is easy.
Jim Brown of course.
There are certain, well shall we say, certainties in life.
Water is wet. Fire is hot.
And Jim Brown is the best runner in football history.
Nine Years with Browns
Drafted sixth overall in the 1957 draft, Brown played nine years, all with the Cleveland Browns, and led the NFL in rushing eight times. Playing 12 and later 14-game schedules, he rushed for 1,000 yards every year but two, his rookie year of 1957 when he led the NFL with 942 yards, and 1962, when he lost five yards on his final carry of the season and finished with 996.
The following year, Brown set an NFL record with 1,863 yards rushing in 14 games. He finished his career with 12,312 yards gained rushing yards, which still ranks eighth all-time today.
In his career, he scored 126 touchdowns in just 118 games, averaging 104 yards per game, the only rusher in NFL history to average over 100 yards per game for a career. Brown still holds the career record for yards per carry (5.2).
For comparison’s sake, Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, finished with 18,355 yards — but he played in 226 games in his career, more than 100 more than Brown.
Before Brown, the NFL career rushing leader had been Joe Perry of the San Francisco 49ers, but Brown surpassed Perry’s 8,378 career yards in 1963, on his way to 12,312. Buffalo’s OJ Simpson broke Brown’s season record, rushing for 2,003 yards in 1973, and Walter Payton surpassed the career record during the 1984 season.
Four-Time NFL MVP
Brown was Rookie of the Year in 1957 and MVP in 1957, 1958, 1963 and 1965. Every year he played, Brown was voted into the Pro Bowl. He never missed a game in nine seasons, and earned an NFL title in 1964 when the Browns blanked the Colts, 27-0.
:”For mercurial speed, airy nimbleness and explosive violence in one package of undisputed evil, there is no other like Mr. Brown,” the noted sports columnist Red Smith once wrote.
Or as Sam Huff, former Giants linebacker, once described trying to tackle Jim Brown: “All you do, is grab hold, hang on and wait for help.”
In the summer of 1966, Brown stunned the sports world with the announcement that he was retiring from football to pursue an acting career. He entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
In 2002, Brown was named by The Sporting News as the greatest professional football player ever. Brown was every bit as good a lacrosse player, with the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame stating that he was “widely considered to be the greatest lacrosse player ever.” Sportswriter Bert Sugar named Brown #1 in his book The Greatest Athletes of All Time.
The Dutchess Dawgs, facing perhaps the two toughest games on their schedule, have signed a pair of free agents, Hall of Famers Dan Marino and Jim Brown.
With Drew Brees on a bye this week, and Clinton Portis off next Sunday, the Somers Division leaders are looking to reinforce their lineup with two of the NFL’s all-time greats.
Marino will replace Chad Pennington at the helm when the Dolphins visit Denver this Sunday. And Brown will carry the mail for the Browns the following Monday night when Cleveland visits Buffalo.
The legendary, dynamic duo promise to give the Dawgs a boost when they face New York Division leader Evil ZITO on Sunday, and Nightcap defending champion Ari’s Dealmakers the following week.
“It’s only natural that the best should play for the best,” said Dutchess president, GM and coach Big Dawg Bowser. “Marino is one of the top quarterbacks in football history, and Jimmy Brown is the greatest running back ever to roam God’s Earth. Why not shoot for the moon? After all, this is fantasy football.“
Rob Brown plays Syracuse running back Ernie Davis in “The Express.”
Just like USC is known for producing tailbacks and Penn State linebackers, Syracuse University was once a football factory for running backs.
The new Universal Pictures football movie “The Express” tells the story of one of those backs, Ernie Davis, the first black man to win the Heisman Trophy, who died of leukemia before playing a down in the NFL.
Davis was a tremendous talent, the second of five running backs to dominate Syracuse football in a 13-year period from 1954 to 1967 under coach Ben Schwartzwalder. He followed Jim Brown, who many consider the greatest running back ever. Jim Nance, Floyd Little and Larry Csonka completed the SU list.
Best of The Orange
Jim Brown (1954-56)
Ernie Davis (1959-61)
Jim Nance (1962-64)
Floyd Little (1964-66)
Larry Csonka (1965-67)
Davis was a sophomore running back when Syracuse won its only national football championship in 1959. The Orangemen were unbeaten that year and beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
Davis, right, is seventh all-time in rushing for Syracuse with 2,386 yards. In his junior year, he set a record of 7.8 yards per carry and was the third leading rusher in the country with 877 yards, having rushed for 100 yards in six of nine games.
The number-one pick in the 1962 NFL draft, Davis was the first black football player to be taken first overall. Selected by the Washington Redskins, his rights were then traded to the Cleveland Browns. He was also drafted by the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League.
Davis signed a three-year, $200,000 contract with the Browns in late December 1961, the most lucrative contract for an NFL rookie up to that time. However, the Browns’ dream of pairing Davis with Jim Brown in the backfield took a tragic turn when Davis was diagnosed with leukemia during preparations for the 1962 College All-Star Game.
Davis never played a game as a professional, with his only appearance at Cleveland Stadium coming during a 1962 pre-season game, in which he ran onto the field as a spotlight followed him. Following his death in 1963, the Browns retired his number 45 jersey.
Jim Brown entered Syracuse University in 1954, and was one of the greatest athletes in the school’s history. In addition to football, Brown ran track, played basketball and in his senior year was named a first-time All-America in lacrosse and tied for the national scoring lead
Brown scored 23 touchdowns in his career, and ranks eighth on the all-time Syracuse scoring list. In 1956, in a regular season finale 61-7 rout of Colgate, he scored 43 points on six touchdowns and seven extra points. Then in the Cotton Bowl, he rushed for 132 yards, scored three touchdowns and kicked three extra points. But a blocked extra point after Syracuse’s third touchdown was the difference as TCU won 28-27.
Brown led the NFL in rushing eight times in nine years, and established the single-season rushing record in 1963 with 1,863 yards. For his career, Brown rushed for 12,312 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. The NFL’s leader when he retired before the 1966 season, Brown still ranks eighth all-time in rushing yardage and fifth in rushing touchdowns with 106. Brown won MVP honors in 1957, 58, 63 and 65 and led Cleveland to the NFL championships in 1964.
The next great Syracuse back was Floyd Little, whose 35 rushing touchdowns are still a Syracuse record.
In 1967 Floyd Little was the sixth overall selection of the first common NFL-AFL draft. He was the first ever first-round draft pick to sign with the AFL’s Denver Broncos.
Little led the NFL in rushing for the six-year period from 1968–73, including AFL rushing titles in 1970 and 1971. Little retired as the seventh leading rusher in NFL history with 6,323 yards rushing and 54 touchdowns, but is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Number 44 Retired
Davis, Brown and Little all wore #44 for Syracuse. The number was retired in 2005. It is permanently displayed in the Carrier Dome, honoring the legends who have worn it for the Orange.
Jim Nance started for three years at Syracuse beginning in 1962, and led the Orange (then the Orangemen) in rushing in 1964, scoring in 10 straight games. In 1963 and 1965 Jim Nance was the NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion and received All-America honors.
A late-round draft choice of the Patriots in the 1965 AFL draft, Nance led the AFL in rushing in both 1966 and 1967, and was 1966 AFL Player of the Year.
In his three seasons at Syracuse, Larry Csonka rushed for a school record 2,934 yards, ran for 100 yards in 14 different games, and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. He was the first pick of the Miami Dolphins in the 1968 draft.
He eventually emerged as the offensive leader of the Dolphins, and a key component on the team that went undefeated in 1972 and appeared in three straight Super Bowls, winning in 1973 and 1974. Later Csonka played in the World Football League and with the New York Giants.
In 1978, Joe Morris, a 5’7″ running back, would enter Syracuse as a freshman and eventually break the all-time records set by the illustrious group before him. But that’s another story for another blog.