Jim Brown is welcomed home to Manhasset

NFL legend Jim Brown poses after being honored

NFL legend Jim Brown poses after being honored in his hometown community as part of a special program called "Hometown Hall of Famers" at Manhasset High School. (April 29, 2013) (Credit: Mike Stobe)

When The Legend comes to town, he can pack the house and he can bring the house down.

The Legend would be Jim Brown, 77, the multisport star from Manhasset High School who went on to become one of the greatest football players in college and pro history and a star of action films such as "The Dirty Dozen."

On Monday, students, teachers, former teammates and old friends turned Manhasset's indoor athletic complex into gym Brown, to unveil a plaque while displaying his retired Cleveland Browns No. 32 jersey and the No. 33 he wore at Manhasset.

An overflow crowd that included the school's marching band and all-boys choir celebrated the homecoming of a Long Island athlete considered by many to be the greatest of all time in both football (as a running back) and lacrosse (as a midfielder).

"I look at the body of work. I always looked upon myself as an all-around athlete that loved all the sports and competed in all the sports,'' Brown said of his legacy, which includes being foremost in any discussion of the best athletes in American history.

Asked if he had a favorite sport, Brown smiled and said, "Each one in its own season, and sometimes they overlapped.''

That certainly was the case from 1950-53 at Manhasset, where Brown won 13 varsity letters in five sports: football, basketball, track, baseball and lacrosse.

Among his achievements was winning the 1952 Thorp Award as Newsday's top high school football player in Nassau County and setting a still-standing county record by averaging 39.6 points per game in the 1952-53 basketball season.

Running wild in NFL

Yet if his amazing career was known at all to the Manhasset High teenagers who gladly stayed after school Monday to witness Brown's induction into the school's sports Hall of Fame -- as well as taking part in the Pro Football Hall of Fame's program of living history called "Hometown Hall of Famers" -- it was for his accomplishments wearing No. 32 for the Browns.

In nine NFL seasons (1957-65), Brown rushed for a then-record 12,312 yards, including eight seasons of more than 1,000 yards. He made the Pro Bowl nine times, eight as a first-team All-Pro selection, and still holds NFL records for yards per carry (5.2) and yards per game (104.3).

"I follow the NFL and we all know about his NFL stats, but no one really knows about how amazing he was in high school,'' said Kevin Overlander, a current Manhasset football and lacrosse player. "It's crazy to hear about it, but he was five times better in high school than he was in college or the NFL. We just see his football highlights; there's no tape of him playing lacrosse.''

Overlander was one of the more enlightened spectators. Brown drew big laughs when he said to the crowd, "When I look out and see a lot of young people, most of you do not know who I am!''

They do now. He's The Man from Manhasset, who went on to become The Legend at Syracuse (where he once participated in a varsity track meet, baseball game and lacrosse game on the same spring afternoon; his football exploits wearing No. 44 led to that jersey number becoming a tradition of greatness and being passed on to Ernie Davis and Floyd Little). Then Brown became The Greatest while playing for Cleveland.

Today, Brown is part-owner of the Long Island-based pro lacrosse team, the New York Lizards, offering him a chance to rekindle memories of another sport at which he is frequently referred to as The Greatest. "I love lacrosse and this calls attention to it,'' he said. "Being involved with the Lizards is a wonderful marriage.''

Fond memoriesHis courtship with greatness began on the streets of Manhasset, where a childhood friend and high school teammate, Edward Corley, a longtime reverend at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Manhasset, recalled: "Early on, we all knew Jim was special, a phenomenal athlete. There was a group of about 15 or 20 African-Americans in the Manhasset community and we played in sports leagues together. Jim was outstanding in all of the sports. I just wonder how he was able to play three sports in the same season.''

Corley, 76, played in the same backfield as Brown at Manhasset and Brown delighted the crowd when he said, "I hate to have to say it, but I think he was a little faster than me.''

But Corley recognized that it was Brown who was on the fast track to superstardom.

"I felt that he was destined for greater things,'' Corley said. "Jim was so determined on the football field that oftentimes in the huddle, he'd say, 'If you guys don't block for me, I'm running through you!' "

Brown's memories of his Manhasset days, when he was raised by his mother on the poor side of town, go far beyond athletic excellence. He turned serious as he told a rapt audience: "This school formed my life. It gave me my foundation. It gave me my confidence. It pointed out to me the value of education, the value of knowledge and wisdom. It taught me never to give up. It taught me that all of us are God's children.

"There is no feeling that is any greater, there is no award that is any greater than to come home,'' Brown continued as the gym turned silent. "And even though Manhasset was a very rich community, a very affluent community, at no time did I worry about racism or prejudice or see any of that. It was an example of how people should be treated.''

Brown's love for Manhasset touched Art Kaminsky, a sports agent, attorney and longtime resident of the community. As founder of the Manhasset High School Hall of Fame, Kaminsky said he had been working for seven years to bring back Brown for induction.

"This is the proudest I've ever been of my hometown,'' Kaminsky said. "This is the fulfillment of a dream for me. This man is at the pinnacle of American sport.''

And for one day at least, Brown's long-ago achievements bridged nearly 60 years of Manhasset sports.

"It's pretty cool, seeing him come home and learning about what he accomplished,'' Overlander said. "I've never met him, but it's cool to know that we're from the same town. So we've kind of put on the same jersey."

Overlander's lacrosse jersey number: 32.

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