At the age of 47, 18 years after his retirement as the undisputed king of pro football running backs, Jim Brown is still in shape, still intense, still intimidating—and deadly serious about his much-debated plans for a comeback in the National Football League. "I will play," he says. "I will accept the challenge that very few guys are willing to accept—so-called humiliation."
Brown is willing to risk being a public spectacle because he is irked at the way Franco Harris, 33, of the Pittsburgh Steelers is chasing the legendary Brown career record of 12,312 yards rushing. Brown (who also scored a record 126 touchdowns and averaged a record 5.2 yards per carry during his career) claims that Harris, who now has 11,950 yards, is just postponing his retirement, playing at half-speed until he breaks the mark. "He can break the record at his convenience because he has the cooperation of his organization," says Brown. "That's not a feat by my standards. It has nothing to do with overall performance. It has to do with specialized circumstances to break a record. You want to give me those circumstances, I'll come back and break any record they set." (Franco has no comment on the charges.)
But it isn't only Harris and the Steelers that anger Brown. He is generally unimpressed by the quality of play in the NFL. A veteran of the hard-nosed school of gridiron grit—as former linebacker Sam Huff and dozens of other ex-opponents can attest—Brown gets mad when he sees ball carriers heading for the sidelines to avoid a tackle, or quarterbacks falling down to protect themselves, or players signaling to the sidelines when they want a rest. "I represented a certain amount of purity when I played," he says with a pride earned over nine tough seasons. "I went for the extra yard. I took the chances. That has a lot to do with who I am, and I'm not going to respect anything less. They say it's smart to run out of bounds. I don't care; I'm not going to respect it. When you accept this game, you accept a certain amount of violence. The nature of the game is hitting. If you can only do it for two years, then do it for two years and get out. Otherwise, you're taking away from the game."
Brown wants to make his comeback not with his old team, the Cleveland Browns, but with his current favorite, the Los Angeles Raiders. He likes the Raiders, he says, because they are a collection of tough cast-offs assembled by maverick managing general partner Al Davis, who successfully battled the NFL over moving his team from Oakland. "The Raiders are really America's team," says Brown. "Dallas could never be America's team. Dallas is like Middle America, like apple pie. America proclaims itself to be like that, but in essense America was built just like the Raiders—with a bunch of guys who came from all walks of life, mostly lowlife, and who pulled together and conquered this land. That's the true America." In response, the Raiders are complimentary about Brown but noncommittal about his offer to play for them. "Out of our great respect for the man and what he did on the field, we would listen to anything he had to say," says Raiders spokesman Al LoCasale, who added that the Raiders would have no further comment until after the play-offs.
Brown, too, has more immediate concerns than a 1984 comeback: Suddenly last month his friend Richard Pryor fired him from his job as president of Pryor's movie company, Indigo Productions. Pryor cites the standard Hollywood reason for the move—"creative differences"—but Brown tells a different story. "I was never given any reason for the action," he says. "The only thing Richard Pryor said to me after returning from [a vacation in] Africa was that he wanted his company back. His statement about creative differences was just something he made up."
Pryor's surprise move leaves Brown with more time to train for the rigors of the NFL, and he claims to have embarked on a regimen of running and weight training. "I will do the work and get ready," he promises. "I'll be in great shape." Still, a part of Brown is pessimistic—not about his own abilities but about the football establishment's willingness to let him try. "The chances are, they won't let me play," he says. "They don't want me to show up the present day crop. But if I can accept an awesome challenge like this, why shouldn't they let me play?"
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