The death yesterday of Muhammad Ali at age 74 brought to mind my most memorable encounter with the legendary heavyweight champ. Not surprisingly for me — but certainly for Ali — it involves soccer.
On October 1, 1977 Pele played his last game. The exhibition match at Giants Stadium — between his current Cosmos team and the famous Brazilian Santos club from the bulk of his career — drew a sellout crowd of 77,000. It was televised worldwide by ABC.
I was just out of college, starting my coaching career. My Westport Soccer Association U-12 team was invited to perform on the field, during pre-game ceremonies. (Our thick and strong Westport-Cosmos connections extended all the way to the highest levels.)
It was a wild day, filled with highlights. But one of the most memorable came in the tunnel underneath the stadium, as we waited to jog on the field.
Golf carts rolled by, with every celebrity imaginable. Here was Frank Gifford and (Westport’s) Jim McKay. There was President Carter’s son.
But the only one our players cared about was Muhammad Ali.
Two days earlier, he’d fought Earnie Shavers in a brutal Madison Square Garden bout. Ali’s face was bruised, and he wore big sunglasses. He was clearly not someone to mess with.
That hardly stopped Philip Dalmage. One of 2 African American players on our team, he had the courage and innocence of a 12-year-old to yell out, “Hey, Ali!”
The champ stopped. He was a couple of feet away from our young player. The 2 looked at each other.
Ali’s hands were at his sides. Then, suddenly — so quickly I still cannot believe it happened — those same hands were on Philip’s head, tousling his hair.
“Hey, brother,” Ali said. And then — poof! — he moved on.
We have all heard how quick he was. Ali’s fast hands were one of the secrets to his success.
But “quick” does not describe what I saw. One moment those lightning hands were one place. The next — without me seeing them move — they were somewhere else entirely. It was one of the most subtle — and amazing — things I have ever witnessed.
Muhammad Ali will be remembered for many things. He was as important a man outside the ring as he was in it.
But among everything he accomplished, that moment in the Giants Stadium tunnel will stay with me forever. Nearly 40 years later, I’m still awed by what I saw.
Or — really — never saw.