CANTON, Ohio – On the last of his many visits to Jim Brown's home in Los Angeles, Ray Lewis recalled the legendary running back being as powerful as ever.
As a feeble Brown, in the final months of his life, slowly approached the Hall of Fame linebacker, Lewis braced himself.
“He said, 'If I put this walker down, I still don't think you can stop me,'" Lewis said.
No one stopped Jim Brown.
With dozens of fellow Hall of Famers dressed in their signature gold jackets in attendance, Brown's extraordinary life — on and off the field — was celebrated Thursday during a moving tribute for a man NBC broadcaster and event emcee Mike Tirico perfectly described as “one of a kind, unique, complex and different from anyone you ever met.”
Brown, who died in May at the age of 87, was remembered for not only being one of America's greatest all-around athletes and one of the top players in NFL history, but a visionary for social change, his work with gang members in Los Angeles and an ability to unite people from different backgrounds.
The touching 90-minute event drew a varied crowd featuring a Who's Who of football royalty with Emmitt Smith, “Mean” Joe Greene, Ronnie Lott, Barry Sanders mingling with Commissioner Roger Goodell, comedian Dave Chapelle and rapper Flava Flav.
Following a video highlighting Brown's many accomplishments during nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns — eight-time All-Pro, three-time MVP and 12,312 yards rushing — along with his work during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam was the first of six speakers.
“He transcended football,” Haslam said. “Jim got into the entertainment business as an actor, and then Jim was into social justice before there was social justice.”
Rudolph “Rockhead” Johnson, a former California gang leader who spent much of his early life in prison, followed Haslam and expressed his deep love for Brown.
“He is the reason why I am in front of you and alive,” Johnson told the audience, which included hundreds of fans who waited in long lines to pay their final respects to Brown, who retired after the 1964 season.
Johnson recalled that after meeting Brown, he was invited to the star's home and went there carrying a .357 magnum handgun. He also explained that Brown talked him out of seeking revenge after his 15-year-old daughter was murdered — on his birthday.
“And for the first time in my life, I fought my bad negative feelings and I went against my own neighborhood,” Johnson said. "I started crying in front of a man, and I’ve never done that before in my life. That’s how much he meant to me.
“Because of him and what he stood for and what he helped me understand about myself, it allowed me to be a man today, a responsible father and hardworking citizen in our society. But Jim Brown was every bit of a man. He was a man among men.”
Bob Arum told two remarkable stories about Brown.
The 91-year-old sports entertainment maven was practicing law in New York, when Brown was the one who convinced him in 1965 to become a boxing promoter. The founder and CEO of Top Rank, Arum also recalled how it was Brown who organized the famed “Cleveland Summit,” when Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) and other prominent Black athletes met to promote economic empowerment.
Following Arum, singer Johnny Gill did a stirring rendition of Sam Cooke's “A Change Is Gonna Come,” with his final words bringing many in the auditorium to their feet.
John Wooten, one of Brown's former teammates, also asked the crowd to stand, raise their hands and pledge what was at the core of his dear late friend's message to others.
“Human dignity,” the 86-year-old Wooten said as the crowd repeated his words. “Respect everybody.”
Wooten then asked Lewis, who spent countless hours learning from Brown and referred to him as “Papa” to stand.
“This is the man that Jim chose to be the next leader of the athletes,” Wooten said, pointing toward Lewis. “He told me, ‘This is our guy.’”
The 48-year-old Lewis, who retired in 2012 after 17 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, delivered his remarks about Brown with the fiery passion of a Sunday preacher.
Lewis recently lost his son, Ray Lewis III, to an accidental drug overdose at the age of 28, and said if he had one wish it would be to ask God for one more conversation with his son and Brown.
In closing, Lewis offered advice while asking a favor from his mentor.
“A lot of fathers truly believe it’s what you can give your children that will make you happy," he said. "It’s not what you can give your kids, it’s what you can leave your kids. You leave your kids hope, faith, love, promise.
“Jim Brown,” Lewis said, pausing and looking skyward. “Jim Brown. A lot of people trying to figure out ways to go to the moon. Papa, if you don’t do nothing else, whisper to my son and let him know. I will see you both real soon.”
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