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Not always a hero, Muhammad Ali inspired a generation

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Muhammad Ali sat in the front row and stared out the window during takeoff. His handler/guard sat in the aisle seat to Ali's left. It seemed as if the entire aircraft was humming with excitement as news spread that the most fam...

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Muhammad Ali fights Henry Cooper at Wembley Stadium in London, Britain June 18, 1963. (Photo by Action Images / MSI/File Photo)

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Muhammad Ali sat in the front row and stared out the window during takeoff. His handler/guard sat in the aisle seat to Ali’s left. It seemed as if the entire aircraft was humming with excitement as news spread that the most famous man in the world was on board.
We were all headed to Chicago, and I was sitting across from Ali’s caretaker. And I was in awe.
This was some time ago, and Ali was going through a particularly tough stretch with the Parkinson’s that eventually would claim his life. As nervous passengers made their way to the front cabin, they were stopped by the caretaker just as they were about to lean in and request an autograph. He asked them instead to write down their names and then stop back just before landing. Ali would have an autograph for them.
The aircraft settled in at cruising altitude and the champ was handed his briefcase from the overhead bin. Slowly, determinedly, he snapped the buttons to open it. Ali spent the rest of the one-hour flight signing religious pamphlets entitled “Introducing Islam.” He never spoke a word, he fumbled his pen several times. Maybe, maybe he managed to sign 10 or so.
He was beautiful and proud and almost helpless. Ali would snap back from this setback. Several times during his later years he seemed on the verge of fading away from us, only to rebound and become his glib, mischievous, wise old self. On this day, I was heartbroken watching him, yet could not turn away.
It’s difficult to explain what Muhammad Ali meant to a generation during a time when up was down and down was up and we had Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, John Lennon and Haight-Ashbury. Heck, it’s difficult to explain the times themselves, never mind this most charismatic of figures.
What our children and grandchildren know of him is what they have seen on old film clips and what they have read in 140 characters or less. And there has been a lot of revisionist history since the late 1960s/early 1970s. Muhammad Ali eventually became a beloved figure worldwide. In his prime, he might have been the most reviled man on earth.
In an era where racial epithets were almost common in Middle America, Ali took more abuse than anyone. Oh no, he wasn’t a hero to everyone back then. Why would he be? He was black, he converted to Islam, he was surrounded by mysterious “militants,” he was outspoken, he was disdainful of white attitudes and - here’s the kicker - he was the most anti-establishment person to ever come along.
We were among those who loved him. Well, we being young people - rebellious high school and college kids with long hair and guitars. Ali would get on TV and castigate the President of the United States! And as most white Americans pined for someone to knock this loudmouth through the ropes, Ali kept frustrating them by taking care of business in the ring. He did so with a cockiness never before seen.
The only thing that could stop him was the establishment, and even that was only temporary. When Ali, citing religious belief, refused induction into the Armed Forces during the height of the Vietnam War, he galvanized two generations - one for him, one against. Prime years were wasted as he wasn’t allowed to fight while appealing his conviction.
Back then, there was no cable TV, never mind pay per view. Instead, we’d see replays on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” maybe a week later, often with Ali doing commentary on his own fight. So on fight night, we would listen to the radio for round-by-round updates. Announcers would read the dispatches from the wire services: “Ali came out dancing as Frazier swung wildly …”
It doesn’t sound like much today, but it was really exciting at the time. Anyway, a group of us always got together to listen and root for Ali. I guess that was part of our being rebellious. We couldn’t wait until the next day so we could ask every over-30 person we knew: “How about that Ali?”
As we touched down in Chicago and stood up, I wanted to say something to him but didn’t know how. What if he couldn’t understand me? What if his caretaker pushed me away?
And at that moment, just as we had stepped into the aisle, Ali stuck out his hand. He smiled. He knew! He always knows! The words poured out as I called him champ and told him how great he looked. He still had my hand and pulled me in close. “Thank you,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “Thank you very much.”
Just before we stepped off, he slowly turned back to me and sort of muttered: “Old George doing pretty good.”
I nodded but wasn’t sure what he meant. It hit me later. He intuitively knew I was part of the Ali Generation. He’s seen guys like me a million times. He was referring to George Foreman, a key figure in our shared memories who still was fighting well into his 40s at the time. It was such a perfect thing to say …
R.I.P. to a man who always will be The Greatest.

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