NEW YORK — MOST linebackers caught a glimpse of legendary running back Jim Brown as he ran over them.
Now Brown is spending a significant amount of his time helping other people pick themselves up off the ground.
Brown is the founder and president of the Amer-I-Can organization, a program that teaches life-management skills to ex-offenders, and gang members in 12 states. Brown, who now wears a multicolored kufa instead of a helmet, says he would rather be singled out for the contribution he is making off the field. He founded the Los Angeles-based group in 1988.
''To many people,'' Brown says, ''I am just No. 44 or No. 32,'' his jersey numbers at Syracuse (N.Y.) University and the Cleveland Browns, respectively. ''They refuse to understand it is the intellect ... that is most important to me. I am more interested in education and intellect than I am in sports.''
In California alone, more than 16,000 inmates have completed his program, which combines positive thinking with a 60-hour curriculum that helps students control their emotions, solve problems, and learn financial independence.
''I was highly impressed with him and his program,'' says Francis Scott Small, supervisor of correctional education programs for the California Department of Corrections. ''The inmates related to him and the program because he was able to sit down and talk to them. He even had them over to his house.''
One of the products of Brown's ambitious campaign is Shahid Watson, whose mother, father, and brother had AIDS and died. ''He told me I was brilliant when I was struggling, and kids need to hear that from a strong father figure,'' says Mr. Watson, now the executive director of The Amer-I-Can Academy, Inc., of Trenton, N.J., a ''franchise'' of Brown's organization. ''Jim is a deeply spiritual man who has an understanding of what it means to be excellent and not just average,'' he says.
At Watson's academy, students can develop their resumes, learn how to complete their high school degrees, and set goals for the future. Brown says Amer-I-Can is as cathartic to him as it is to others.
''It is very rewarding to me when I can turn one of their lives around,'' says Brown, who still looks as if he could knock down a linebacker. ''I think we have a lot more work to do, however, because everything isn't working in our society.''
It was Brown's formidable skill on the gridiron, however, that brought him to last month's National Football Foundation dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria to honor his 1995 induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Some college football followers say his induction, coming 38 years after his graduation from Syracuse (N.Y.) University - ''in four years with a business degree,'' he notes - is long overdue.
''There has been a perception out there that Jim is an outspoken playboy,'' says Jake Crouthamel, director of athletics at Syracuse University, ''and that is not representative of him as a person.'' Crouthamel led the campaign to induct Brown into the Hall. ''People need to get behind his facade and get to the substance.''
Brown seemed not overly concerned with the slight, saying he considered himself only a ''borderline player'' in college. In fact, Brown says he is just as proud of receiving one of five student-athlete Silver Anniversary Awards in 1982 from the NCAA.
''I didn't sit around waiting to get into the College Hall of Fame, but I think that it is great to go in with one of my all-time idols, Paul Robeson,'' says Brown of the Rutgers University star (1915-1918). Robeson, who went on to musical fame, was not inducted until last year in part because of his outspoken criticism of the American government.
Even though Brown retired before the age of Super Bowls and megamillion-dollar salaries, he is still linked to the dominant Cleveland teams of the 1950s and '60s. He is a paid consultant to the Browns and its longtime owner Art Modell. While Brown is not pleased with Modell's decision to move the team to Baltimore, he says he realizes that pro football is becoming more and more of a business to team owners.
''The die was cast when Al Davis moved the Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles'' in 1982, he says. ''Owners like Modell may want to maintain sentiment, but it's not on the top of their list of priorities. I can't say it's wrong, because what they are doing is not only legal, it's the American way.''
After his nine-year playing career, Brown spent a decade acting in lowbrow action-adventure movies like ''The Dirty Dozen'' (1967) and ''Slaughter'' (1972) and getting into trouble with the law. In 1968, police claimed he threw model Eva Bohn-Chin off a balcony in Los Angeles. Brown denies it, and no formal charges of attempted murder were filed, but his image was badly damaged.
Brown has since expressed remorse for his treatment of some women in the past. Two decades of behind-the-scenes work later, he has emerged as a role model and mentor to thousands involved in his programs nationwide.
Watson says he has received constant support from Brown since he started up the Trenton academy, which now serves 18 adult and juvenile correctional facilities in the state.
Although Watson sees Brown as a businessman and activist, he remembers what Brown used to do for a living. ''Jim handed the ball off to me,'' he says, ''and I plan on not fumbling it.''