THE Number 32

You’ve probably heard, but Jim Brown–the greatest running back in pro football history and maybe the greatest lacrosse player in college history–died on Thursday at the age of 87.

Given that I grew up in Baltimore I was a huge fan of Johnny Unitas. However, when I imagined myself as an NFL player (hey, kids have dreams), I wanted to be a running back like Jim Brown, even though Brown retired before I started following football. When I started to create my career on paper, I gave myself height and weight measurements that were halfway between the two players.

Given my background and inclination I have to pepper this post with data. Brown led the NFL in rushing (most rushing yards gained) in eight of his nine NFL seasons. Yes, with fewer teams in competition it was easier for any single player to lead the league in a category, but 8 times in 9 years is amazing.

He is the only player in NFL history to average 5 yards per carry and 100 yards per game for an entire career. (As a side note: the last three games of Barry Sanders’ career, in which he gained just 164 yards on 58 carries, cost him that distinction. On a real tangent: I watched Sanders’ last NFL game in person, but like everyone else watching didn’t know it would be his last.)

Brown’s 1963 season was beyond amazing. In a 14-game schedule (the NFL plays a 17-game schedule now), he gained 1,863 yards and averaged an unbelievable 6.4 yards per carry. Historically, NFL teams average about 4 yards per rushing attempt; in 1963 the average was 4.1.

For my football book, the one The Wall Street Journal called without a doubt the best book of its kind ever written, I used a simple Yards Above Average metric to put running back rushing totals in context. Sports analysts argue that, especially in baseball, player performance needs to be compared to something called “replacement level” and not the average. Of course, no one really knows what replacement level is although for baseball it’s supposed to be an average Triple-A player, the minor league level just below the majors. Football’s minor league is college and I suspect replacement level is much closer to average in pro football than in major league baseball.

Brown’s Yards Above Average figure in 1963 was +669 yards. (6.4 yards per carry for Brown minus the league average of 4.1 times Brown’s 291 rushing attempts is 669.) That would have been the eighth best total in the NFL that season! In the season where the murderer who also wore number 32 became the first NFL player to rush for 2,000+ yards in a season, his Yards Above Average was +631 yards.

Brown retired at age 29, having once again led the league in rushing during the 1965 season, to appear in movies. His career total of 12,312 rushing yards remained the NFL record for almost 20 years.

Brown’s life outside of football is more complicated. He is noted as a social activist, but also was arrested at least seven times for assault. Virtually all of us are neither all good nor all bad.


“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

– John Donne







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