Harvey Levine/FOS

How Muhammad Ali Shaped Joe Paterno's View Of The Vietnam War

Penn State's Hall of Fame coach respected the boxing legend more for a stance he took outside of the ring than for what he did inside of it.

On Sept. 20, 1997, two sporting icons crossed paths on the field at old Cardinal Stadium in Louisville.

Joe Paterno was there, getting ready for his Penn State football team to take on hometown Louisville in a game the Nittany Lions would win, 57-21. 

And so was former three-time heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali, a Louisville native who was honored on the field prior to the game and then conducted the coin flip.

If there was any interaction between the two living legends, it was brief. As far as we can tell, there are no photos of the two men together prior to the game — something that seems unthinkable in this day and age.

But years earlier, in Thomas Hauser’s outstanding 1991 book, “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times,” Paterno revealed his deep respect for Ali — and it was more for what he did outside of the ring than inside of it.

In fact, Paterno said his own opinions about the draft and the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War were shaped and even drastically changed by Ali’s 1967 decision to refuse induction into the Army.

With Ali’s passing Friday, we thought Penn State fans might be interested to know how he had impacted the Nittany Lions’ Hall of Fame coach, who died in 2012.

Here is what Paterno told Hauser in 1991:

“Ali was important. I think every black person who’s able to overcome the problems that surround them as he did and serve as a role model is important. Kids today are in desperate need of role models who not only succeed in the sports world, but once they’ve done that, have the ability of a Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali to change social attitudes of black and white Americans, and make blacks understand that they don’t necessarily have to do what whites want them to do to be respected. 

“And Ali achieved that. I always admired him as an athlete, but I think the stand he took on the draft was what spoke about him. That he had the courage to jeopardize his career and accept all the implications of his position showed a great man of principle.

“The world was different then. And it’s hard for some to remember the — ‘despair’ might be too strong a word, but the fear in young people over what was going on. I had a friend, a bright young man I admired greatly, who’d covered our team for the student newspaper here at Penn State. Then he’d become the editor of the paper, and gone into the service after college. One day he came back to visit and had a long talk with me about deserting. He wanted to know how I’d react. And I said, ‘Well, as far as our personal relationship is concerned, it would have no effect on me.’ 

“And he did desert. He went up to Canada, and wrote me every once in a while. And when he did that, and when Ali took his stand, it made me wonder. What the devil is going on? I started thinking about what was going on in Vietnam. Now, if I’d been drafted, I probably would have gone because of my traditions, but that’s doesn’t mean I would have been right to go. And the truth is, I started to become very sympathetic to people like Ali and that young man.

“I began to understand that they had very good reasons for what they were doing. I began to see Vietnam as a white man’s war in the sense that it was being fought by blacks, but in support of a white colonial mentality. I began to think that the war was very wrong.”

It should be noted that Paterno himself was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1945, shortly before the end of World War II. He served in Fort Dix, N.J., and Korea before receiving an honorable discharge and enrolling at Brown in 1946.

Paterno was born Dec. 21, 1926 in Brooklyn, making him about 15 years older than Ali (who was born Jan. 17, 1942 in Louisville). Paterno was beginning his second year as the head coach at Penn State when Ali refused to be inducted into the Army in 1967.

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