Jim Brown sits pensively in his home, Tuesday, Sept. 19,...

Jim Brown sits pensively in his home, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 1984, Los Angeles, Calif.  Credit: AP/Lennox McLendon

There were iconic American athletes before Jim Brown, of course.

But mostly they played baseball, like Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig or Joe DiMaggio, or perhaps they boxed or ran footraces or golfed. Heck, some even were horses.

Professional football, though, took its time in becoming our unrivaled sports passion, and when it did, Brown was there to usher it into the spotlight.

From the time he showed up in the NFL until decades after he was gone, he was the standard, to an extent post-Baby Boomer fans might not fully appreciate.

Quarterbacks eventually arrived to challenge his throne, first Joe Montana and in this century Tom Brady.

But the original NFL GOAT was Brown, who died on Thursday at age 87.

You would have to be 65 years old or so to recall watching him play live, but for those of us even a bit younger than that, the answer to the question of the greatest football player who ever lived always was an easy one.

Then Brown added to his aura by giving it all up in his prime to become an actor.

Sure enough, for a kid growing up in the late ’60s, the only thing cooler than being a pro football player was being a guy starring in “The Dirty Dozen.”

Brown’s off-field life was complicated, in good ways and bad, from his social activism to accusations of violence against women.

All of that belongs on his resume and in his obituaries, of course.

But football made him famous, and relevant, and there was nothing to tarnish that legacy, and nothing that ever will.

Around here, he gets bonus points as one of ours, having grown up in Manhasset as a multi-sport high school superstar in an era when Long Island was booming in population and visibility, on a rise parallel to pro football’s.

Famously, he might have been even better at lacrosse than football, but the latter was a clearer path to fame and fortune, and he took it.

He retired before the Super Bowl era, but when LeBron James led the Cavaliers to the NBA championship in 2016, he was taking the baton from Brown, who led Cleveland to its most recent previous pro sports title — with the 1964 Browns.

The highlights have stood the test of time, even if the video is a little grainy and Brown retired 14 years before “SportsCenter” premiered.

He went both over and around would-be defenders and never missed a regular-season game in his nine seasons — 118-for-118.

In 2023, running backs have become devalued as a position, as we have seen in Saquon Barkley’s quest to get a long-term contract out of the Giants.

But there was no devaluing Brown’s role in his time, when passing was less a part of the game than it is now and grinding out yardage in the late-season dust and mud of converted baseball fields was the path to victory.

Brown rightly was voted the best football player of the 20th Century in 1999. Eleven years later, NFL Films ranked the greatest players of all time and named him No. 2 behind receiver Jerry Rice.

All he did was lead the NFL in rushing in eight of his nine seasons. At the time of his retirement, he held career records for rushing yardage (12,312) and rushing touchdowns (106).

Brown is a member of the college football, pro football and lacrosse Halls of Fame, and he arguably is the greatest athlete ever to come out of Long Island.

The pity is that he played his entire career in Cleveland, unlike another of Long Island’s Mount Rushmore jocks, Julius Erving, who won two ABA championships close to home with the Nets.

Brown’s post-playing days were complicated, to say the least, and his admitted anger issues at times led him down dark paths.

But he never was bland or shy on any topic — from football to the wider world.

The man was 87, so his death cannot be considered a shock. But his life was, is and always will be a uniquely American tale, including helping to usher in the era of the quintessential American sport.

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