Date: 07/24/2016

A Career Transition, Inspired by One of NFL’s Best

My role model for forceful endings was Jim Brown.

Brown was 29 years old in July 1966 when he stunned the nation by announcing his retirement from the Cleveland Browns.

I was a Cleveland Browns fan.

My high school coach, Sherman Howard, had played for the Browns, my favorite receiver was Paul Warfield and I’d learned how to run a post pattern by studying Gary Collins.

And of course, there was the great Jim Brown.

When the Browns opened camp in 1966, Brown was among the missing. He was in London, filming “The Dirty Dozen.” Shooting had been delayed because of weather, but the Browns’ owner, Art Modell, didn’t care. He wanted his star running back in training camp and made his dissatisfaction public. Modell threatened to fine Brown $100 a day if he did not show up for training camp. (Mike Freeman, in his biography “Jim Brown: The Fierce Life of an American Hero,” put the figure as high as $1,500.)

Brown responded to Modell by holding a formal news conference on the movie set and announcing his retirement from football.

Perfect. And stunning.

What impressed me about Brown, especially when I was 15, was the self-confidence he must have possessed. He was leaving a team with which he had been identified for nine seasons. He was leaving a game he loved to pursue other opportunities.

I thought about Brown last week when I decided that Monday would be my final day at The New York Times, and that this would be my final Sports of The Times offering as a full-time columnist at the paper.

Our situations are different in that there was no confrontation, no pressure for me to leave — or stay.

After nearly 35 years at The Times and 26 consecutive years writing the Sports of The Times column, I simply decided, as Brown did 50 years ago, that this has got to end at some point. I took control of the narrative, as he had.

“I wanted to definitely retire on top,” Brown said. “I wanted to go out on top, on my terms.”

I spoke with Brown on Saturday to let him know I was leaving. I also wondered how he felt 50 years ago when he walked away.

“I never wanted to be a nuisance, or to be half of my abilities or making excuses for my decline,” he said. “I never wanted to have that be part of my life.

“The last thing I wanted anybody to see was me not being able to shift gears and get the speed I had, and the quickness or the power.”

I understood the idea of wanting to go out on top and all of that. But what intrigued me about Brown was the way he left and the underlying reasons for leaving as he did.

Brown had been the league’s most valuable player in 1965. He had led Cleveland to a second N.F.L. title game and was already regarded as the greatest running back — no, one of the greatest football players — ever.

Yet Modell called Brown out. He was making a power play to assert his control, to put his star fullback, who was gaining fame as an actor, in his place.

Modell saw himself as a liberal and would always remind Brown that he gave more to the N.A.A.C.P. than Brown probably did.

“That plantation type of attitude, I hated that,” Brown said. “I was fortunate to have enough talent that allowed me to have an attitude that they would accept.

“They had to decide whether they wanted to use the talent or whether they wanted to teach me a lesson. They decided to use the talent and let me just look like a guy who was never smiling and always grumpy.”

Brown was the first in a succession of highly visible black athletes who helped shape my attitude toward power and the need to challenge and resist authority.

In 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted. In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos celebrated winning gold and bronze medals at the 1968 Mexico City Games with a silent protest on the victory stand. In 1969, Curt Flood took on Major League Baseball by refusing a trade. In 1970, Oscar Robertson filed a class-action suit against the N.B.A.

Brown’s retirement stands out because he defied a wealthy white owner who insisted on controlling the narrative.

Players always say that what they miss most about the game when they leave are their teammates.

I have certainly savored my relationships with my co-workers, conversations with editors about column ideas and their execution, and press box interactions with colleagues from across the country and throughout the world.

What I have appreciated more than anything has been the interaction with readers. Times readers in particular are sophisticated, insightful, critical and curious. I’m grateful to all who over the years have taken time to read, respond and, of course, critique.

When I spoke to Brown about our respective decisions to move on — his in 1966, mine in 2016, he pointed out a critical difference.

“You still have your mind, and it’s as sharp as ever and for the next 10 years it might be the same way,” he said. Brown said he knew that had he continued playing, “it was only a matter of time before the physicality of the game would have caught up with me.”

“If I had the chance to play football and just use my mind, I might be trying to play now,” he said.

In July 1966, the sense I got from Brown as he announced his retirement was that he was merely moving from one stage to another. And he was. Brown would become an actor, an activist and an author.

So it is with me.

There are more games to play.

Rather than say goodbye, let me simply say: “To be continued.”

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