What better way to wind up the 13th summer training camp Monday (Aug. 17) for the NFL Cincinnati Bengals than to have “The Greatest,” three-time World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali, show up for a big jolt of inspiration just before the final horn.
Ali – through Greg Roberts, President/CEO of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville – got word to President Bill Crouch that he’d like to pay a visit to Georgetown College and take in some of the filming of Bengals camp for the HBO documentary series “Hard Knocks.” The timing couldn’t have been better as Brian Evans, director of the College’s Office of Diversity, and Dr. Crouch are developing a partnership with the Ali Center that will create greater access to higher education for African American males.
En route to the Thomas & King Conference Center, Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr in 1942), made a brief, but significant stop by the GC football Tigers practice. That the boxing legend perseveres with Parkinson’s disease only added to the moment. “What a great honor it was for Muhammad Ali to surprise us during these very tough two-a-days…so appropriate,” said Georgetown coach Bill Cronin, appreciative of what “The Greatest” might mean to his players. “To achieve greatness and be a champion, you have to have a work ethic (like his). He was the best-ever…no question.”
When the Ali Center entourage and Dr. Crouch arrived at Toyota Stadium, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis had arranged for his offense to run five final interesting plays just for their special guest, who was in a golf cart at the other end of the field and accompanied by the media. His Bengals – and most of the fans who’d stuck around till the end – had no idea of the uplifting moment about to unfold.
Lewis then had his team gather around at mid-field as the cart moved closer. The spreading looks of recognition and smiles were priceless. Spontaneous applause was followed by some adoring chants of “Ali! Ali!” And, soon the boxing legend was surrounded by beaming Bengals, who were cherishing the moment.
Coach Lewis thanked Ali for coming and said “it’s incredible what he has meant for boxing and all sports” before hoping aloud that his Bengals would draw inspiration for the season ahead. Lewis also suggested his team – a disappointing 4-11-1 a year ago – might find more meaning in their current “Fight Back” slogan after this memorable visit.
But it was Ali Center Vice President John Ramsey, relaying something Ali – invoking names of some of his biggest foes – whispered to him on the way to Georgetown, who had the line that drew laughter and that the players needed to hear: “Forget about Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston…If they think anyone’s gonna beat (dem) Bengals, you can forgeddabout-it.”
You can also bet “Hard Knocks” (Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on HBO) has captured this and more on an upcoming episode – “most likely” the August 26 show, according to producer Steve Trout of NFL Films. The series doesn’t end until September 9, the Wednesday before the opening weekend of the 2009 NFL regular season, so obviously Muhammad Ali’s semi-surprise visit had a big impact.
Said Trout, as everyone vacated the field, “I know I’ll never forget this day.”