Of the hundreds of events I’ve covered over the years, not many stick with me. Fewer still I told my dad about.
One was the day I spent following Muhammad Ali. It was March 1993, and he was touring high schools in the small city of Wilson in eastern North Carolina.
Parkinson’s disease had already taken its toll on Ali, then 51. He slurred his words, and most of the time, he moved haltingly. His hands, and sometimes his entire body, trembled.
But when he heard the crowds cheering and chanting his name, his eyes brightened and his step quickened. He shadow-boxed with students, and even showed off his trademark move – shuffling his feet and biting his lower lip. “Stay in school and be no fool,” he told the teens.
He mugged for the cameras, did sleight-of-hand tricks and when a pretty waitress kissed him on the cheek, he stumbled backwards in mock surprise. Giddy adults acted like little kids, posing for photos. Local leaders who sponsored the visit called it the greatest day they could remember.
It was heartbreaking and inspiring, all at the same time. That weekend when my parents called, I told my father all about it. The three-time heavyweight boxing champ was one of his few sports heroes, so it was one of those times I felt closest to my dad.
Seeing other sports figures come and go in the nearly quarter century since that day, Ali’s singular place in history becomes clearer.
He risked his popularity to speak out on race and religious freedom and to join the Nation of Islam. He was suspended from boxing for 3 1/2 years and faced possible prison time when he refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War.
Yes, the 1960s were a different time in America. Still, it’s rare indeed for a champion to walk away from fame and fortune at the peak of a career to uphold a principle.
Just try to think of a recent example.
The closest may be NFL player Pat Tillman. After 9/11, he turned down a multimillion-dollar contract extension from the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army Rangers. He was killed in 2004 in Afghanistan by friendly fire. He’s a hero, but he wasn’t really a star.
Not to put Steph Curry or LeBron James on the spot, but can you imagine either of them taking up any cause that would seriously jeopardize their brands? Me neither.
Nowadays, big-time pro athletes – including those who tweeted out tributes after Ali’s death Friday – are far more about endorsements than social conscience. And some of the best known – Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods – turned out to have feet of clay.
While Ali had his human frailties, he towers over those on today’s scene. So when the Summer Olympics returned to America in 1996, it absolutely had to be Ali to take the flame from swimmer Janet Evans and light the cauldron in Atlanta.
That unforgettable moment gave us chills. There are very few who can do that, either. It’s another mark of Ali’s greatness.