In “Nobody Else is Jim Brown,” sportswriter Ralph Wiley constructs a profile of perhaps the greatest football player in NFL history, a man so legendary that the word legend actually applies. Written for ESPN’s Page 2, the piece shows Wiley at his best. It’s a day in the life writ large, more like a Life in the Life, rendered in electric, addictive language.

Long before I first read his take on Jim Brown, I knew Wiley was a sports reporter, a damn good one, whose work I’d wander into from time to time in Sports Illustrated. It wasn’t until I first read “Why Black People Tend to Shout” that I began to appreciate him as not just a journalist but a writer.

Yet before I came to know Ralph Wiley’s work well – in fact, from the first time I read his stories – there was something familiar about him. I just couldn’t figure out what it was.

Wiley writes as if he’s recounting a story that just happened, and he really wants to make sure you understand it. He wraps himself into his pieces at the right junctures, especially in navigating – and describing – the tentative negotiations of first encounters. It’s a doom-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach-but-suck-it-up-buttercup kind of thing, even for Wiley, who had been around his share of incredible and impossible people:

Heckfire, Jim Brown even intimidated me, when I first met him at Rockefeller Center, in 1989. Jim fixed me with a level gaze and that granite mug and wanted to know, “What’s your story, little (expletive)?” In order to thaw out my suddenly frozen intestines, I said, “Well, what kind of story would you like to hear, Jim?”

Jim smiled that little half-smile and laughed that slow but sincere laugh: “Heh-heh-heh.” I joined in. His laugh always implied real amusement, not fake butt-kissing. He is complex, though; you never really knew what exactly was so funny to him.

Here’s where things start to sound familiar, and I hear echoes of Eddie’s Barbershop. Eddie’s was a clip joint a couple of blocks from my grandmother’s house in South Minneapolis, the place where, between middle and high school, I sacrificed my head to the god of bad ’90s haircuts. Eddie’s was forever packed. That meant, regardless of the day or time, you had to wait, and waiting meant spending time amongst men, some who professed great things, others who spun fishing line and called it silk.

Eddie’s was where fables unfolded, debates were settled and chops were ruthlessly busted, the place where tales of friends, neighbors or even Jim Brown were crafted and passed along.

Wiley reveals himself as a barbershop storyteller when he pits Jim Brown against not just his peers and contemporaries, but the generations that followed him. There’s Franco Harris, Bill Russell, Eric Dickerson, Michael Jordan. Even Muhammad Ali! And by a large margin Brown has no equal, save, of course, in Wiley’s estimation, John Henry, a man against whom others were destined to be measured:

Jim Brown was John Henry in the live, hard flesh, John Henry in full football pads, only instead of being a Steel-drivin’ man, he was a Pill-haulin’, Stiff-jabbin’, Ground-shakin’, Trail-blazin’ man.

He not only intimidated opponents on the gridiron of the NFL – the Sam Huffs, Gino Marchettis, and Night Train Lanes (Frank Gifford breaks into an epic song until this day if you so much as mention the name Jim Brown). Even his teammates like Bobby Mitchell and Paul Warfield, were intimidated by him, as were all NFL players. Well, maybe not Chuck Bednarik. You’d have to ask Chuck. He’d be the only one, and these were tough, tough guys.

Jim Brown even had Muhammad Ali looking around for him and his approval, wondering what he thought of him. John Henry, in the guise of Jim Brown, was intimidating even to the giants.

Jim Brown, in Wiley’s telling, is not just a man, he’s a monument among action figures, which is why the tone of the piece, a histo-mytho-epic-ballad-meets-BS-session, feels so right. Wiley sets it up as a tale: Jim Brown as an imperfect hero beset by trials won and demons (of the inner type) to vanquish. It would be easy to sing nothing but praises, which can sometimes be the case with legends. But Wiley doesn’t spare Brown criticism, for his relationships with women and his children, or his misguided attempts to “scold” (Wiley’s words) other black athletes for not following his example.

In “Nobody Else is Jim Brown” Wiley recaptures that spirited barbershop storytelling, a kind that celebrates the exploits of heroes, bums, hecklers and hustlers; a kind that is unmistakable and undeniably fun to read; a kind that combines argument and tribute into a new kind of folklore.

Justin Ellis (@Justinnxt) is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where he writes about the future of the news business.

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, check out the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.

Most popular stories from Nieman Storyboard

Show comments / Leave a comment