MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. With the Super Bowl this weekend, football fans are renewing a perennial debate about the game's best players, but not just this year, of all time. Jerry Rice is arguably the best wide receiver. Linebacker Ray Lewis, who will play Sunday for the Baltimore Ravens, gets mentioned, alongside Mike Singletary and Dick Butkus, even Lawrence Taylor.
BLOCK: But one name in the greatness debate stirs little argument, and that's Jim Brown. He played nine years for the Cleveland Browns, and no other running back has ever matched his combination of speed, power and toughness. NPR's Mike Pesca caught up with the 76-year-old Brown this week at a pre-Super Bowl event in New Orleans.
JOE HORRIGAN: What most people don't realize is that even before the NFL existed...
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Joe Horrigan, vice president of the Football Hall of Fame, is giving a tour of a traveling exhibit called "Gridiron Glory." While attempting to detail the finer points of the Pottsville Maroons' 1922 season, he keeps being interrupted.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Pleasure to be in your company right now. You don't mind if I take a picture with you all?
PESCA: Because for all the old equipment and game-worn jerseys on display, there's no greater exhibit of football greatness than the man he's giving this tour to: Jim Brown, Hall of Fame running back, movie star, activist and, perhaps uniquely in the annals of the NFL, the one player from the days before the championship game was called the Super Bowl never left the public consciousness. Ask modern running backs like Ray Rice about Jim brown.
RAY RICE: Jim Brown, probably the hardest running back ever to tackle, steamroller. He was a man among boys.
PESCA: You get a similar response if you bring up Jim Brown to Barry Sanders, who's second on the all-time list of yards gained per game.
BARRY SANDERS: He dominated the game in a way that no other runner ever has.
PESCA: After retiring, Brown chose to stay in the public eye, fighting for social causes. He's always stood up for justice, even perhaps perversely when he accepted jail time instead of a reduced sentence after he trashed his wife's car. We mentioned before that Sanders was second on the yards-per-game list. Brown is first, the only back in NFL history to have averaged more than 100 yards a game, but that is not one of those statistics that impresses Jim Brown.
JIM BROWN: Sometimes numbers tell the truth, and sometimes they don't.
PESCA: Brown cites two statistics that he puts some stock in. One is the fact that he never missed a game. The other is his average of 5.2 yards per carry, meaning give the ball to Jim Brown twice, chances are you'll be rewarded with a first down. Brown's personal standards, however, went beyond the quantifiable.
BROWN: I've never looked around to test whatever greatness I had because I was a soldier to my duties, and I wanted to excel for myself.
PESCA: Brown's legacy - and he's averse to using such words - clearly is a combination of on-field performance and off-field leadership. He left the game before he turned 30 and still cuts a powerful figure. Brown is slightly stooped but continues working to eradicate inner city violence and continues mentoring younger players. Ray Rice marvels at the life lessons Brown has imparted over a chess board.
RICE: I'm wiping the board, and I got Jim Brown beat. He looked at me and said: Are you ready? Five moves later, he put me in checkmate.
PESCA: The lesson from the man who retired with every NFL rushing record and is still using the platform that gave him is that once you're on top, you've got to finish the job. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.