Muhammad Ali died this week. And although he may be gone, he will never be forgotten, especially by me. Here’s why…
In 1982, just out of university and working my first job, I saw a newspaper article that The Champ was in Atlanta and speaking at a corporate meeting. What you may not know about me is that since I was 17 years old or so I began collecting the autographs of the athletes on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine. I did this because it gave me an opportunity to meet some of the men and women I had idolized growing up and get a feeling for what they were really like. If you have a favorite athlete I have probably met them. When I stopped collecting I had close to 200 signed magazines. Muhammad Ali held the record for the most SI Covers at 40, until being eclipsed by Michael Jordan (50). In 1999, Sports Illustrated named Muhammad Ali, the Sportsman of the Century.
As I sat there looking at his picture in the Atlanta paper I knew I needed to take action if I ever wanted to meet one of the top sports figures in the world, so I picked up the phone and called the hotel where the meeting he was speaking at was being held. When the hotel operator answered I asked if they had a Mr. Muhammad Ali registered there. She said yes and asked if I would like her to ring his room. She did, The Champ answered and I had my chance to present my case.
My knees were shaking, but thankfully my voice remained calm. I told Mr. Ali that I was a big fan and saw that he was in town and wondered if I could meet him and get his autograph on my magazine. Why he didn’t immediately hang up I would not learn for a few hours, instead he told me his agenda and that he would be returning to the hotel at 3pm and if I wanted to come then, that’s when he would be there. I hung up the phone and thought I was going to be sick.
I ran home to grab whatever SI’s I had with him on the cover and headed to downtown Atlanta and the Hyatt Regency hotel. Once in the lobby I found a place to plant myself and keep watch until The Champ Arrived. At about 2:45pm I noticed one of the local Atlanta news stations sports guy, Ken Huber strolling through the lobby with a camera guy and a producer in tow. They went to the elevator and headed upstairs. Fortunately the Hyatt has glass elevator that can be viewed all the way to the top floors. I made a mental note of what floor they went to.
As the clock neared 3pm I became concerned that Mr. Ali would be hurrying to a planned interview with the sports anchor and I would miss out completely, so I jumped on the elevator and headed up to where the TV folks had gone. Sure enough, there they were waiting in the hallway outside a suite. I asked if they were there for Ali and they confirmed that they were. I asked if they minded if I waited too. Mr. Huber said I could but that it would be a waste of time because they had a scheduled meeting with The Champ and he would not have time for me. I waited.
While waiting, I was looking down the 23 floors into the lobby below when I saw a crowd of people moving slowly toward the elevators where I had just been. Yep, it was The Champ and he was hugging people, kissing babies and signing autographs. And here I am 23 floors up watching my chances vanish. I then watched as he came up the glass elevator and get off on the floor where I was standing outside his suite.
As Mr. Ali approached the 4 of us standing at his door, he shook Ken Huber’s hand and then went into the suite. The producer followed quickly leaving the poor camera guy with all his equipment. I reached down, grabbed two lighting kits and told him I had it, let’s go! We strolled into the suite where Mr. Ali and Ken Huber were getting situated on the sofa. The camera man and I set up the gear. Then I move back against the wall to watch the show and wait for my chance. I was also hoping not to be asked who the heck I was and then get invited to leave.
The interview started and everything was pretty calm until Mr. Huber asked Mr. Ali why people had such affection for him? Ali pointed at me and asked me how long I had known him? I said I had known him all my life. Huber turned to look at who Ali was speaking with. I so wanted to say, “Looks like my chances were better than you thought,” but decided he was the one guy in the room who knew I didn’t belong and could easily have me tossed. Next Huber asked Ali if he could explain such popularity even after being out of boxing for so long? Once again The Champ looks at me and asked me how old I was. When I told him he looked at Huber, who was looking at me again with concern in his eyes, and said, “When this young man was 7 years old I beat Sonny Liston; when he was 15 I became heavyweight champion of the world. People have grown up with me. There has never been a time when they can remember not hearing about Muhammad Ali.”
The interview came to an end, and the TV crew left the room. I hadn’t really noticed, mainly because I was involved in the interview, but over the 20 minutes of the interview most of the 20 plus people who were there when it started were gone. Now it was just me, The Champ and one of his managers. I approached The Champ and told him I had called earlier about meeting and getting him to sign my Sports Illustrated magazines. He warmly shook my hand and invited me to sit with him at the conference table. As he signed each one he opened the magazine to the story about him and pointed to each picture telling me what was going on when that was taken. There was even one picture with the manager in it and the manager yelled out, “Hey, that’s me!” I said, “Sign it!”, and Ali said, “Yeah, sign it!”, so he did.
I thanked The Champ and his manager and saw myself to the door. I probably didn’t need the elevator right then, I’m pretty sure I could have floated the 23 floors back to the lobby. I mentioned earlier that I didn’t know right away why he didn’t hang up on me when I called. Here’s what I learned. For as big a star as he was on the world’s stage, he was an even bigger man on the inside. It’s a lesson I have always remembered. No matter how big you are on the outside, be bigger still on the inside. He could have crushed my spirt that day, but instead he lifted me up.
The world will miss Muhammad Ali and so will I.
Epilogue: I was approached by an author who was compiling a book on sports autographs. He asked me if I would contribute a few of my 200 adventures. The Muhammad Ali story was the first of 11 stories that were included in his book, “Sign This #2”.