By Dennis J. Freeman
Hollywood-NFL Hall of Fame Jim Brown had an amazing career on the gridiron, breaking one record after another and establishing many more.
But what Brown has done off the field since he retired from football in 1965 at the peak of his career, has been nothing short of remarkable.
Heck, you may even say it’s downright phenomenal considering what Brown has done to improve and save the lives of tens of thousands of young people.
A longtime civil rights and community activist during his NFL playing days, Brown formed the Amer-I-Can program from the living room of his Hollywood Hills home in 1988.
The passion that Brown once exhibited on the football field and made him the greatest running back in the history of the game, is even greater for the youth of America. Brown wants better for them. He wants kids off the streets.
He wants to end the cycle of violence that plagues so many urban communities. Most of all, Brown care enough to want to see lives changed and communities become better for it.
Thanks to the holistic, practical approach of Amer-I-Can, Brown has been able to infiltrate and influenced some of the streets heaviest hitters to do better with their lives and take responsibility for their actions.
As a result, Amer-I-Can has grown to become perhaps the most powerful and successful life skills-based curriculum organizations in the country, forging chapters in multiple states and over a dozen cities.
“A lot of these powerful, negative individuals started to buy into how to turn their lives around and became real productive citizens,” Brown said in a recent interview with news4usonline.com. “I’m talking about individuals who were real shot-callers in some of the most notorious gangs in the city and across the country.
“These men have really adopted the philosophy of self-determination, taking care of their children and contributing to their communities. Amer-I-Can is the catalyst, but the men have to buy into it and then they have to execute and work with the system.”
Because of Brown and the work of the Amer-I-Can program, tens of thousands lives have been changed. Many more have seen their lives spared because of the 15-step, 60-hour program. Rudolph “Rockhead” Johnson is one of those individuals.
Johnson, who joined a long list of people paying tribute to Brown at his 75th birthday gala at Club Nokia in Los Angeles, considers the ex-NFL and Hollywood film star his father.
Johnson credits Brown and the Amer-I-Can methodology for helping him to get on the right path of life. Brown and the makeup of the curriculum of the program forced Johnson to remove himself from the streets and gang banging mentality that saw him get shot 11 times and landed him in prison for 19 years.
Johnson even lost his older daughter to the streets, an innocent victim who was shot and killed by the same type of violence that he himself perpetrated as a gang shot-caller.
Johnson’s hard-time mental makeup changed when he angrily drove his car to Brown’s home to confront him after the NFL legend called him out about his behavior during a conversation the two had over the phone. Johnson also brought a gun with him. But after Brown opened the door and spoke to him, Johnson backtracked.
“When I looked into his eyes, I knew I had to respect him,” Johnson told news4usonline.com. “That was the first time in my life that I respected a man. He challenged me and stood right by my side. Although I was rough, disrespectful, he stayed with me.
“When we met, I was very disrespectful. I was forceful. I was who I was: “Rockhead” from Compton. And he gave me my respect still. He pursued me, and we built a relationship that I can honestly say he is my father.”
Like some of the young men coming through the program, Johnson, who is now national director of Amer-I-Can and oversees the program’s ICan All-Stars, which has put over 150 athletes into college, has never known his biological father. Johnson doesn’t see Brown just as a surrogate father. Brown is everything a man, a father and a responsible individual should be, he said.
“He made me realize so much more than I can imagine,” Johnson said. “With Jim on my side and with the curriculum, it made me a totally better person.”
Cornell Ward is a better person today as well. If not for Brown and Amer-I-Can, Ward could very easily be behind bars or six feet underground. Ward was a heavy drug dealer in Los Angeles, eventually becoming the top aide to drug kingpin “Freeway Ricky Ross” (not rapper Ricky Ross). Ward said his average haul for peddling dope was usually between $150,000 to $250,000 a day. The largest amount he made was $750,000 in one hour.
While the reputed Ross received an extended stay in prison, Ward was fortunate to walk. He credits Brown and the teachings of Amer-I-Can for steering him in a direction away from his criminal behavior.
“He guided me and set me on the right path because of what he believed in with the Amer-I-Can program,” Ward said. “It (Amer-I-Can) gives one an opportunity to speak life into a dying situation. He just spoke life into a dying situation. I was going into another direction and back into the streets. My life took a turn for the better versus the worst.”
The term “giving back” would serve only as an insult when you view the body of work Brown has put together in scouring the country, going into prisons and holding summit meetings with gang rivals to help negate urban violence and usher in a new of thinking for those individuals.
Perhaps one of the most understated aspects of the Amer-I-Can program is that the curriculum is applicable to everyone, not just gang members.
“The interesting thing about the curriculum is it supplies the basic fundamentals that people must utilize in order to have a successful life,” Brown said. “Normally, you were given those fundamentals through your family. Usually the mother and father teach you how to make good decisions, solve problems and set goals. These things are all fundaments that allow a person to develop self-esteem and know how to function within society. It is the basic fundamentals that Amer-I-Can supplies that are needed in all of our lives.”