Syracuse’s Jim Brown is considered by many to be the greatest football player ever. Yet fifty-four years ago, Brown finished fifth in the Heisman voting. The winner, Note Dame’s Paul Hornung, wasn’t even on a winning team. We look back at the greatest injustice in the history of the Heisman Trophy, with racism that permeated the media and even his own team.
Jim Brown almost didn’t go to Syracuse. In fact, at the time he was being recruited by schools, Colgate and Cornell had better programs than Syracuse. Brown was actually destined to play for a powerhouse football program, and that program was going to be Ohio State.
Brown loved the idea of playing for one of the best teams in the country’s best conference. The one hesitation he had was that Columbus, OH, was a long way from his hometown in Manhasset, NY, on Long Island. Brown wasn’t thrilled with the idea of leaving home.
That’s when a prominent local personality from Manhasset named Kenneth Molloy spotted Brown. Molloy was a Syracuse alum and, after having watched Brown play and dominate at Manhasset High School, thought Brown would be great for his alma mater and also be close to Brown’s home. The problem was that Syracuse didn’t want Brown. In fact, they had never even heard of him. And at that time, the school didn’t recruit black players.
This stemmed from the recruitment of a black player named Avatus Stone in the early ‘50s. Despite Stone’s immense talent, much of the players and coaches hated him. He was ostracized and forced to live and eat separate from his teammates. When Stone’s frustrations boiled over, he’d lash out at others on the team, sometimes physically attacking them. He was then labeled a trouble maker and eventually fizzled out.
Syracuse hadn’t had a black player since.
Molloy knew very well that Syracuse wouldn’t offer Brown a scholarship. They’d barely let him on the team. But Molloy made coach Ben Schwartzwalder promise that if Brown had proven he was good enough, then he’d get a scholarship.
In order to get Brown to Syracuse, Molloy had to stretch the truth. First he told Brown that Syracuse was an up-and-coming program. Hardly the case. He also told Brown that he could get him a scholarship to play at Syracuse, also a lie. But Brown decided to go to Syracuse, not knowing that the coaching staff and players barely wanted him there or that Molloy raised money from locals to pay for Brown’s first year of college.
The blatant racism at Syracuse was still evident to Brown. Despite his immense talents at running back, his coaches were constantly trying to move him to the defensive line. When he was put in the back field, he’d be buried on the depth chart behind much less talented runners.
Brown became angry and bitter but never lashed out. He did, at times, become very defiant. In one instance, Brown went to a far corner of the practice field alone and laid down with his arms and legs spread, refusing to move. At other times, Brown would sometimes storm the field and come close to quitting the team entirely, even getting to the point of packing away his equipment.
Brown once said: “No pain on the football field can match the pain of discrimination.”
Despite the discrimination, Brown’s superior athleticism was too much for coaches to ignore and Brown earned a scholarship for his second season. Coaches continued to shuffle Brown up and down the depth chart, putting him everywhere but the starting position.
But thanks to the violence of the game, injuries to other backs eventually forced the coaches to give Brown playing time. In his first game, he rushed for 151 yards. He still battled discrimination from the coaches and in 1955, his junior season, the coaches moved him down to second-string after one off game.
The slight angered Brown so much he almost quit. Instead he took it out on the starting defense in practice, scoring four touchdowns on five plays. All the hard work and dealing with adversity paid off and Brown had his best season to date, 666 yards and seven touchdowns. This set up his ’56 season where he gained 986 yards and had 13 touchdowns – massive numbers for the day. Oh, and he did it in just eight games.
Knowing the hardships and racism Brown faced at Syracuse helps explain how Brown, arguably the greatest college athlete ever, finished just fifth in the Heisman voting. Part of it was racism from the voters themselves. In fact, following the vote, legendary sports writer Dick Schaap vowed never to vote for the Heisman again.
The racism was made all the more apparent when a blond-haired, blue-eyed player with movie star looks nicknamed “The Golden Boy” won instead.
Steve Delsohn went a step further and wrote: “Hornung didn’t deserve it. Not with three touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. And not on a 2-8 team. The Heisman should have gone to Jim Brown. The magnificent Syracuse fullback averaged 6.2 yards a carry, gained 986 yards, and scored (13) touchdowns. But, in 1956, Jim Brown had the wrong color skin.”
Brown also didn’t have his school’s tradition on his side. The Fighting Irish played big time college programs around the country and were almost always in the top half of the polls, despite an off year in ’56. Brown, however, played for a Syracuse team the country knew little about. Sports writers scoffed at the schedule the Orangemen played, thus the competition and games were hardly noticed by people on the East Coast, let alone the county.
The racism of Brown’s coaches also prevented him from truly becoming a star on the team until his junior season. If, for instance, the coaches had decided to start Brown his freshman season, there’s a good chance that despite Syracuse’s lack of history or tradition, the country would’ve heard of the running back on the East Coast putting up large numbers.
Brown’s status as a football player would’ve been much higher going into ’56, where he would’ve had a much better shot at the Heisman during a year where there was a lot of competition. Racism played a major part in Brown not winning a Heisman. But it was racism from his own team that hurt his cause as much as racism from the media.