In 1976, during my senior year in high school, I was leading the school’s annual charity auction. One of the sports-related items that I wanted to obtain was a pair of boxing gloves signed by Mr. Muhammad Ali.
Through many telephone calls, I eventually spoke with his secretary and explained what I was trying to do; the answer was yes. While I was on the telephone with her, Mr. Ali entered the office and the secretary asked if I wanted to speak with him… Incredible. I said who I was and thanked him for helping the auction; I don’t remember what he said in response. His office sent the signed gloves.
In April 1976, My father and I attended the title boxing fight between Mr. Ali and Mr. Jimmy Young in Landover, Maryland. An assistant of Mr. Ali’s had made arrangements for my father and me to meet him; it did not happen. The tickets for the event were obtained by a gentleman (whose son and I attended the same school); the father would later become a United States Secretary of State…
Jump forward four years….
In 1980, I was working at the Carter/Mondale Re-Election Committee in Washington, DC, during my first semester at The George Washington University. (FYI- I would eventually work with Republicans too.)
As this was my first presidential campaign, I would spend as much time as possible at headquarters- looking for opportunities.
On 24 October 1980, a senior-level official at headquarters asked if I wanted to be involved with the Celebrity Office- escorting around Washington, DC, well-known individuals who supported President Carter. Of course I would….
My first assignment, because no one else could devote the time- two days, was to assist Mr. Muhammad Ali.
I arrived at the Capital Hilton on 16th Street, NW, in the afternoon of the first day and went to his room. I knocked on the door. His assistant answered. Mr. Ali was in dark slacks, but no shirt, relaxing on his bed.
That evening we went to an event and then returned to the hotel; I escorted him and his assistant to their room.
Then, it happened.
Mr. Ali said that he wanted to go running the next day; of course, I had no idea whatsoever if I could pull this off. He said to be at his room at 5:00 am; we would run for a “couple of hours.”
I departed his room and damn near fainted… I had to study; I had examinations… I did not run. I didn’t even jog. (I would learn the difference between running as a mere mortal defines the term and how a boxing heavyweight champion of the world defines the term.)
I contacted campaign headquarters to obtain advice; no one was available. It was evening. So, I commenced planning.
The route would be along the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial past the Thomas Jefferson Memorial to Hains Point, then the location of the famous sculpture by J. Seward Johnson, “The Awakening.” The return would be along Ohio Drive SW, crossing and returning along the Potomac River then to Independence Avenue and eventually to Constitution Avenue.
First, I contacted the Metropolitan Police Department to determine if an escort was available. Second, I contacted the United States Park Police to determine if an escort was available. Both said yes; they seemed as excited as I was.
I arrived to the Capital Hilton at 4:30 am; I did not want to be late. Officers and their vehicles from both police agencies were waiting for me.
I went to Mr. Ali’s room; he was ready. It was unbelievable… I was going running with Muhammad Ali.
The two of us got into one of the police cars and we went to the Lincoln Memorial. There was little traffic; and it was dark. We started running- with one vehicle in the front and two in trailing us. The Lincoln Memorial with Muhammad Ali… that seemed magical.
Now, after the first one-half mile, where I was on an incline and he was running above me, I was having issues keeping up with him… He was not fast, but he was consistent… No heavy breathing; he’d look at me every once in a while and motion with his hand to keep his pace. An hour past.
The sun began to rise and traffic began to increase… And there I was with Muhammad Ali about to be in the middle of morning rush-hour…
As the light began to be consistent, drivers began to see who was running on the grass along the roads and streets… horns started to be heard; shout-outs to “The Champ.” I got some energy.
The police vehicles turned-on their flashing lights, no sirens. All of a sudden, rush-hour became slow-hour and cars simple stopped, doors opened and people stared… Our three-car motorcade…
The run would last for two hours…. Eventually, the officers coaxed Mr. Ali into one of the vehicles and we returned to the hotel. I was so hyped on adrenaline that I could have run a marathon.
Later in the morning, I would escort him to Washington National Airport.
We were in the hotel elevator with a family- a young girl. Mr. Ali, known for magic tricks, made a noise with his fingers near the ear of the girl, who turned to see what it was. Mr. Ali looked ahead; the girl turned away. Then, he did it again; the girl looked up at him; he looked ahead. Then, he did it a third time; the girl looked up… he smiled and laughed. We all did.
At the airport, his assistant checked-in for this flight; the airport was buzzing with the news that Mr. Ali was there….
He handed me a piece of stationary from the Capital Hilton; he had written a note to me…
“To John from Muhammad Ali… The run was nice. Hope to run with you again some day. Oct 25 80.”
We all have memories… Mine, in this instance, was to share moments with a figure of history. A man who did not simply take up space on this planet. A man who may have been the most famous athletic the world has seen thus far… A man who made a difference.
Disclaimer: We selected this Op-Ed to be published in our opinion section as a contribution to public debate. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of its author(s) and/or the organization(s) they represent and do not reflect the views or the editorial line of Univision Noticias.