ASHEBORO — When Willie Gladden came home on the evening of May 19, the news caused him to have to sit down. His friend, Jim Brown, was dead.
Yes, that Jim Brown — perhaps the greatest NFL player of all time who retired early and became a fixture in Hollywood. But he was more than an athlete and actor, according to Gladden.
“I met Jim in the early ’90s when I was working at UCLA,” he said. Gladden was an adviser to fraternities and sororities at the University of California at Los Angeles.
That was when Brown worked with an organization called Amer-I-Can to address street violence in America’s inner cities.
“I met Jim at a speaking engagement and took a picture with him,” said Gladden, who had played football at Asheboro High School and Virginia State University. “He invited me to take students to the program. I took (UCLA) students every week to his house.”
The students would have the run of the Brown house, including the pool, which had a fabulous view from the hills above downtown LA.
“He gave me a brochure that had steps to take to increase peace between gang members,” Gladden said. “He had gang members in his house. Everybody respected him and there were no problems.”
Gladden said there were often famous people in Brown’s home but they all went by their first names so that everyone was on the same level.
One of those celebrities was a rapper named Big Daddy Kane, who befriended Gladden.
“He wore a purple leather suit,” Gladden said. “He performed at one of my step shows at Pauley Pavilion.”
But it was Brown who was the center of attention.
“Jim was an amazing man and I liked to call him my friend,” Gladden said. “Remarkable people came to his home to mingle with the students.”
Gladden’s students spent a few hours each week at the Brown home for about a year. “I tried to take students from organizations I advised,” he said. “I also took two of my nephews.
“Jim was like a gentle giant, calm and soft-spoken,” Gladden said.
While the students were enjoying the swimming pool, Gladden and Brown would sit back and talk. “I asked him if he missed the NFL. He said no, he got out before he got hurt.
“He asked me where I was from and I told him I was from a small town in North Carolina. He asked me how I got into advising.
“He told me he was proud of what I was doing and to keep up the good work,” Gladden said.
“I put him on a level with (Muhammed) Ali,” who Gladden was also acquainted with. “Ali was first, then Jim. He was just as kind and just as nice.”
Gladden added, “He never got credit for bringing peace between the Bloods and the Cripps,” two gangs who had been at war against each other.
So it’s no wonder that Gladden had to sit down when he learned of Brown’s death at the age of 87. “I didn’t know he had been that ill.”
But Gladden can rest, remembering those times some 30 years ago sitting beside the pool carrying on a conversation with one of the NFL’s all-time greats.