Years ago Muhammad Ali came to visit Starr Commonwealth, a school for troubled boys where I was teaching at the time. Despite occasionally becoming tired, he spent all day at our school. He took the time to personally meet and shake hands with every single child and staff member there, myself included.
He wasn’t speaking much by then, but his showmanship was on full display. He’d play box with the kids and flash those furious eyes with a gentle jab. He’d learned a magic trick that makes it appear you’re levitating an inch or two from the floor. He loved performing it again and again.
When it was my turn to shake his hand it was an experience unlike any other. His handshake was as firm as a vice and his well muscled hand wrapped around mine like a catcher’s mitt. I remember thinking his opponents must have felt they were bashed with a sledgehammer. Yet at the same time there was a genuineness and presentness to his handshake. I was one of hundreds there that day, but for the moment he gave me his complete attention- his grip remaining as fixed as his gentle gaze. You can’t shake someone’s hand the way he shook mine without being entirely present for them.
That, of course, was the point. To bring happiness and joy to as many people as he could- no matter how much his illness might challenge him.
It’s not exactly accurate to say I shook hands with Muhammad Ali. No. I MET Muhammad Ali and spent a wonderful moment with him.
What a outstanding life he lived. What courage to take on the most challenging of competitors, to stand up for your beliefs no matter the cost, and to face illness with grace and dignity.
He was, truly, the greatest.
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