Muhammad Ali’s life was remembered by millions over the weekend and among them were some of the best players in NFL history recounting the influence “The Greatest” had on their lives.
The boxing legend died on Friday from respiratory issues after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. But long before the Parkinson’s set in, the man that floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee was both controversial and influential.
His inspiration jabbed far outside of the ring. He changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali when he became a Muslim.
“Ali was a friend of mine and very outspoken, a very courageous young man and heavyweight champion of the world, and became a black Muslim, which was taboo,” said Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, who became prominent outside of football as Ali did the same outside of the boxing ring.
The greatest firestorm in Ali’s life, at least from the public’s perspective, began when he became a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War after being drafted into the Armed Forces. Brown gathered some of the top black athletes in the world to question Ali at a public meeting on his beliefs in relation his stringent objection to the war. Believing that Ali was earnest in his convictions, Brown supported Ali’s stance.
“Hopefully that would have some effect on how the government viewed him,” Brown said. “Ultimately, he beat the case, they dropped it and it was just a wonderful thing to think back on because it was young men taking a risk to do what we thought was right.”
Ali was the first three-time world heavyweight champion, elected to the boxing Hall of Fame in 1986, named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated in 1999 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
“Most people adjust to oppression. Some people resent it but do nothing about it. But he resisted it,” Rev. Jesse Jackson told NFL Network.
Jackson said Ali made the most as a boxer but lost the most because of his beliefs.
“In many ways, he was not controversial; the system was controversial,” Jackson said. “To have a racially segregated system on top of democracy, the system was controversial. He was just defiant to a system that didn’t make sense.”
That belief ingratiated Ali to other successful athletes of that time and well beyond.
“He was a great man,” former defensive tackle Rosey Grier told NFL Network this weekend in a series of interviews about Ali. “He leaves behind a great history of a man who took his liberty and freedom and democracy and everything that he thought was right.”
Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris met Ali three times, the first when Harris was a student at Penn State and Ali was giving a speech on campus.
“Me and couple of friends, we just waited and eventually he came out and we just said hi to the champ. One of my buddies said, ‘Hey, champ, let me see …” and before he got the word out, Ali broke into his shuffle and just started boxing,” Harris said. “It was so incredible.”
Another Hall of Fame running back, Marshall Faulk, met Ali several times and said he was in awe when Ali knew who he was and called him “a bad boy” with his moves on the football field.
“It’s icon status and what he meant to people like myself. We idolized him, and let’s be honest, we idolized him for things that he stood for,” Faulk said. “… Very smart man, understood other sports and a lot of people gravitated toward him.”
Ali was full of fight, both in the ring and standing for his beliefs outside of the ropes. He tortured opponents before and during fights, and caused a world in upheaval to consider multiple perspectives.
While Ali died at 74, his influence lives on.
“He loved the world so much and things he did,” Harris said, “he left us a better world.”
NFL NETWORK VIDEOS ON ALI
JIM BROWN RECALLS THE TIMES
FRANCO HARRIS REMEMBERS THE MEETINGS
REV. JESSE JACKSON ON SOCIETIAL INFLUENCE
ROSEY GRIER ON THE LEGACY
MARSHALL FAULK ON THE ICON
HOW ALI MOLDED THE HARBAUGHS
LYLE ALZADO’S JOURNEY INTO THE RING
A TRIBUTE TO ALI