Superman’s Feet of Clay

George Rose/Getty Images
Jim Brown, 1983

Unbendable, unbreakable, and on the playing field unbeatable, the football great Jim Brown once loomed as the standard against which other men were measured and found lacking. In a Sports Illustrated profile in 2015, Tim Layden conveyed the majesty of Brown’s dominance of the NFL as a fullback for the Cleveland Browns: “Brown towered over the league, a physical and intellectual force like none other in American sports history.” At his most exalted Brown was christened the “Black Superman,” his powers far beyond those of mortal beings. (His ill-fated friend Richard Pryor joked in one stand-up set that fire was afraid of Jim Brown, imitating Brown brushing off flames as if they were annoying dandruff.) Even now, at the age of eighty-two, reliant on a cane, Brown projects a force of personality, charisma, and deep-down purpose that can subdue any room he enters; he remains somebody you wouldn’t want to trifle with.

The title of Dave Zirin’s Jim Brown: Last Man Standing strikes a chord of valedictory tribute to a bronze idol embodying an era and an ethos soon to pass into history and gladiator lore. It’s partly that—how could it not be?—but Last Man Standing is not some jock aria or nostalgia trip. A frequent contributor to The Nation whose previous books include What’s My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States and Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports, Zirin isn’t that kind of journalist. He utilizes a larger analytical toolkit. An NFL hall of famer, Hollywood star, and radical political activist, Brown represents a black pillar of lifelong achievement who has always cleaved to his convictions, but he’s also a questionable figure who’s never had to face the music, and by music I mean a #MeToo reckoning. Zirin wants to hasten the reckoning before Brown runs out the clock.

To do so requires going over a lot of familiar turf, establishing the political-historical-racial background, and all that. The blood, sweat, and dirt of the Jim Brown saga has been told before in other biographies, Brown’s own autobiography Out of Bounds (1989), football chronicles, and video documentaries—the most provocative being Spike Lee’s Jim Brown: All-American (2002)—but prodigious exploits lose little in the retelling. (As the ever-expanding shelf of titles devoted to Muhammad Ali attests.)

In Brown, all of the constituent parts of athletic prowess—not only strength but speed, agility, mental preparedness—were welded together into a phenomenon who dominated not one but two sports, while also excelling in basketball and track and field. As a lacrosse star at Syracuse University, Brown wielded his stick with Kendo master skill as he powered to the net, the opposing players futilely bouncing off his juggernaut thighs like elves. “Brown was bigger, faster, and stronger than anyone the sport of lacrosse had ever seen by a ludicrous margin,”…

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