Irving Powless, 78, says it happened during a box lacrosse game a half-century ago
This is about Pecos Bill riding a mountain lion, about Arthur yanking that sword from the stone, about Davy Crockett killing a bear when he was only three. This is what Springsteen sang about in “Glory Days,” what kept Ripley in business all those years, what made Sidd Finch perhaps the most famous of all New York Mets.
This, folks, is an old-fashioned whopper.
Which is not to suggest that it isn’t true.
I read an article in the newspaper a few years ago that said Jim Brown was never knocked down in a lacrosse game,” Irving Powless declared the other day. “I’ve been thinking about that for a while and I want to straighten things out. It’s not correct. I knocked down Jim Brown in 1957.”
That is going back more than a half-century, sure, making for a trip that can produce a lot of dust on a memory. But Powless, the 78-year-old Onondaga chief, insists that his mind’s eye is clear and that he can see Brown flying, keister over tea kettle, even now.
And that, absolutely, would qualify as a “wow.” Planting the great Brown – arguably the fastest, strongest, toughest, most imposing lacrosse player in history . . . still – isn’t exactly baby Hercules reaching from his crib and strangling a couple of snakes. But it’s close.
Especially because Brown, now 72 but freshly graduated from Syracuse University on the occasion of Powless’ alleged magnificent feat, corroborated the chief’s story.
Kind of. Sort of.
“I don’t really remember,” said Brown in a recent telephone conversation. “Come on, man. Why should I remember being knocked down in a lacrosse game? It’s not like remembering being knocked out in a boxing match. I mean, people hit the ground a lot in lacrosse games.
“But I’m not taking anything away from him. If he threw a great block and knocked me down, that’s terrific. If he said it, it’s probably true. I’m not arguing here, understand? I’m just saying I don’t recall it. I don’t remember getting knocked down, but I do remember the game.”
Ah, the game.
As Powless tells it, his Onondagas had ventured up to SU during the summer of ’57 and invited Brown to play with them in a box-lacrosse match against the Mohawks, their Haudenosaunee brethren. And Brown, then a 21-year-old Orange All-American in both football and lacrosse and a sculpted athlete who was forever seeking another challenge happily accepted.
As Powless tells it, his Onondagas had ventured up to SU during the summer of ’57 and invited Brown to play with them in a box-lacrosse match against the Mohawks, their Haudenosaunee brethren. And Brown, then a 21-year-old Orange All-American in both football and lacrosse, happily accepted.
But a funny thing happened to the Mohawks on their way to the Onondaga Nation that day: They failed to show. And so, as hundreds of fans, a fair amount of them native kids, had descended upon the box to watch Brown, the Onondagas decided to divvy themselves up into two teams and have at it.
And, yes, with fate’s fingertips all over the affair, the 230-pound Brown wound up on one side while the 155-pound Powless was dispatched to the other. The big man’s dad, however, had never played professional lacrosse for the Syracuse Red Devils, as the little one’s had. And so, Brown chiseled and powerful, but not wise in the ways of the box game hadn’t been taught the wonders of the hip check.
“I was known for knocking people down,” said Powless. “My father was small, like me, but he was a tough guy. He showed me how to play lacrosse from the time I was a little boy. He told me how to administer the hip check and I perfected it, but I never tried to hurt anybody. We don’t play to hurt people. We play to entertain the Creator. So, when Jim Brown came at me, all I did was give him a check.”
And, Powless was asked, did that check entertain the Creator?
“Yes,” the chief answered. “I would say that it did.”
Well, of course. Jim Brown, after all, was a colossus and bound for the Cleveland Browns of the NFL. And Irving Powless was, as the chief recollects Brown calling him, “a mosquito.” And, according to the legend, on that splendid occasion back in 1957 (and with no Mohawks in sight), the mosquito won.
There was a fight for the ball in the corner, and Brown got it,” said Powless. “And then he headed down the field for the goal they were attacking. And there I was. In the middle of the box. In the middle of the field. I was the only one between him and our goal. And here he came, full speed.
“Now, you’ve got to remember that I only came up to somewhere around Brown’s chest. And his thighs were as big as my waist. He had 24-inch thighs, and I’m not kidding. But right as he got to me, I gave him a hip check and he went up in the air, did a flip and landed on his back. I saw the ball go rolling, so I went over, picked it up and passed it to one of my players. And off we went the other way.”
Pecos Bill? King Arthur? Davy Crockett? Nah, just Irving Powless. But he’d done something that nobody else supposedly ever did . . . and it had nothing to do with riding a mountain lion, yanking a sword from a stone or killing a bear when he was only three. He’d splatted the unsplatable Jim Brown, the majestic Jim Brown, in a lacrosse game.
Nothing was said, really, between us,” Powless recalled. “It was just part of the game. But afterwards, people were talking about it. They sure were.”
It turns out that more than a half-century later, one still is. And the subject of the tale, the possible tall tale, doesn’t mind.
“I don’t have any problem with Irving Powless telling that story,” said Jim Brown. “Because I can’t dispute it. Did he really knock me down? Who knows? It might have actually happened.”
Straight from the horse’s mouth.
Kind of. Sort of.
Bud Poliquin can be reached at 470-2213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.