Jim Brown’s Best Sport Was Lacrosse
A tenacious Army lacrosse team fought its way back to a major upset in the opening round of the NCAA Championship Tournament last week when the Black Knights beat No. 2-ranked Syracuse, 9-8, in overtime at the Carrier Dome.
Syracuse had won the title each of the last two years, but this was the second time in two years that an unranked Army shocked the Orange. Early in the 2008 season, Army traveled to Syracuse and beat the No. 1-ranked Orange.
Those two big triumphs by the West Pointers brought back memories of a game at Syracuse 53 years ago when the Cadets ran up against one of the best lacrosse players to ever wield a rawhide stick. That time, the Cadets tried hard as always but just could not overcome the greatest player of his day.
The unstoppable Syracuse senior was a big, strong, fast and near-perfect athlete who achieved much more fame as a football player than as a lacrosse player. Yet most coaches and other sports experts claim lacrosse was Jim Brown’s best of the many sports at which he excelled.
At 6 feet 2 inches and about 230 pounds, Brown was bigger, faster and stronger than just about every opposing player he faced as a Syracuse midfielder. He easily bowled over most foes to score either right-handed or left-handed, underhanded or backwards over his shoulders.
Back in those days, the intercollegiate national championship team was decided by a vote of college lacrosse coaches. Then in 1971, the NCAA staged its first Division I Lacrosse Championship Tournament, which was won by Cornell.
Syracuse had a 9-0 record before its final game of the season against Army on Saturday, May 18, 1957. The Orange, who had not gone undefeated in lacrosse since 1922, were certain to be voted national champions if they could beat the Cadets. But Army is Army and, therefore, always a formidable opponent.
Arnie Burdick, the 90-year-old retired sports editor of the Syracuse Herald-Journal, told me last week, “We hadn’t beaten Army since 1934 and had lost to them 18 times in a row when that game was played. They always managed to beat us somehow.”
Burdick was an attack man on the Syracuse lacrosse team before graduating from the university in 1941.
But on that day in May of 1957, Jim Brown was even better than ever before in his finale as a Syracuse athlete. During a long afternoon of numerous competitive challenges for Brown, fans in old Archbold Stadium on the Syracuse campus might have thought they were watching the caped man from the planet Krypton. It was an amazing five hours of unequaled athletic accomplishment by this 21-year-old from Manhasset, Long Island.
Burdick, who lives in retirement on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, told me by phone, “Brown was simply amazing, simply amazing. Nobody could stop him. I never saw anything like it before that day and have never seen anything like it since. It all started with a track meet that began about one o’clock and ended with his beating Army in lacrosse that began around 3:30.”
That Superman day for Brown opened with a Syracuse-Colgate track and field meet in Archbold Stadium, where Brown performed on the grassy field he would later play on in the lacrosse match against Army. Because of Brown, Syracuse beat Colgate, its neighbor from Hamilton, N.Y., by 13 points in the track meet.
Brown single-handedly scored the margin of victory, or 13 points, for Syracuse by winning the high jump and discus throw and finishing second in the javelin. The scoring was on a 5-3-1 basis.
Shortly after Brown made his last javelin toss, the meet ended and the lacrosse match was about to begin. Brown did not even have time for a proper change of uniform. Without even going to the locker room, he pulled on his lacrosse jersey over his sleeveless track shirt and quickly changed from the light track shoes to the more bulky, football-like lacrosse shoes of those times. He was still wearing his brief track shorts during the lacrosse match.
The 1957 Orange had another outstanding all-American lacrosse player. He was the team’s goalie, Oren Lyons, a Native American of the Iroquois Confederacy.
Under coach Roy Simmons, Brown and Lyons devised a regular form of quick scoring. It was similar to a basketball fast break score off a defensive rebound.
Lyons, who was quick as a cat, would catch opponent shots in his oversized stick net and quickly toss the ball high and far toward the center of the field. Immediately upon seeing Lyons stop such a shot, Brown would run for that midfield spot faster than anyone else on the field and pick off the ball to lead a three- or four-man quick attack on the opposing goaltender.
Using that fast break against Army, Brown had three assists and one goal in Syracuse’s 8-6 triumph over the Black Knights that glorious day at Archbold Stadium. Thus the 10-0 Syracuse team was voted national champion for 1957.
A few days after that victory, Jim Brown was graduated from Syracuse and on his way to becoming the National Football League’s superstar tailback for coach Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns. Oren Lyons graduated from Syracuse a year later.
Both of these Syracuse stars, who are members of the Lacrosse Hall of Fame, have long been prominent activists for their races. Jim Brown, who became a movie actor after his NFL career, has served in civil rights movements for African-Americans. Oren Lyons, an artist by trade who was planning director for Norcross Greeting Cards before becoming an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, has devoted his life to all things pertaining to native indigenous peoples, not just in the United States but all over the world.
Ed Walsh, Brown’s high school football coach, said years ago, “Lacrosse was his best sport. He had all the skills and his skills were better than all the opponents.”
Lloyd Elm, an outstanding Native American lacrosse player of Brown’s era, said, “He was so damned fast in the open field, no one could touch him. You could hit him and no one could move him. If you had five guys around him, you might stop him, but then look at all those other free players who could and did score.”
Jim Brown is the only person to be inducted into the pro football, college football and lacrosse halls of fame. He was a fine baseball player who tossed a number of no-hitters in high school, and he was one of the nation’s best decathlon athletes in the mid 1950s.
I covered him many times playing football for Syracuse and then the Cleveland Browns. In his prime, Jim Brown was one of the two or three finest all-around athletes I covered in nearly half a century as a reporter. No wonder Syracuse finally managed to beat Army in 1957.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
More like this story