Muhammad Ali Meets Westport Soccer

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.

Muhammad Ali and Pele: 2 of the greatest athletes of the 20th century.

Muhammad Ali and Pele: 2 of the greatest athletes of the 20th century.

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.

Muhammad Ali 2

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.

Muhammad Ali punch

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.

4 responses to “Muhammad Ali Meets Westport Soccer

  1. John Brandt

    I had a somewhat similar experience with the Champ. In the early 1970s, I was crossing 57th street in the middle of a crush of people. It never occurred to me that there was a reason for the crowd, other than it being New York at noon. Suddenly I walked into a wall of a man in a dark suit, head-on, my face in his chest. I was stunned and apologized. As I looked up, the man’s hands were on my shoulders steadying me. Our eyes met and it was the Champ. “Watch where you’re going, now,” he said with a smile. “Yes sir,” I replied. And he was gone. I’ve been careful in crowds ever since.

  2. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    I didn’t realize that “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” was an Ali quote.
    I especially like “It isn’t the mountains ahead that wear you down. It’s the pebble in your shoe.”

    Nice story, memory, Dan.

  3. Adam Schwartz '75

    I met Muhammad Ali twice by chance since moving to Los Angeles in 1981. Once in the Men’s Room of a restaurant in Compton, CA prior to him meeting a Women’s Group in the banquet room. I had just finished lunch and was headed out. The other time is a much longer and better story! Both times were in the 1980’s. But the third time I saw him was the most spine tingling and memorable. I was at the Sports Arena watching Boxing at the 1984 Olympics. As with all Olympic Boxing events, there were three boxing rings set evenly in the middle of the arena. I was sitting about halfway up in between the right and middle rings. Great seats! I can’t remember the exact moment but sometime after the start of the first matches I noticed what I thought was a fight in the stands down to the right of me. A large amount of people were standing and making a commotion near one of the entrances to the arena. Within a few seconds I realized it wasn’t a fight or people arguing, it was a group of people entering the arena. As this group of people made their way further onto the main floor more people stood up like a wave. Suddenly, there he was. It was Muhammed Ali and his entourage making thier way to his seat right smack at half court, the 50 yard line, whatever you want to call the best seat in the house. Just as he stepped into the middle of the arena and everyone figured out who it was, the arena exploded with “Ali, Ali, Ali” chants. By the time he got to his seat, the entire arena, maybe 17,000 people were chanting “ALI” as loud as they could! It was one of the most amazing moments I had ever experienced in my life! Even the referees and boxing athletes in the three rings stopped what they were doing and came to the nearside ropes to greet him. I’m telling you, to this day it was the most spine tingling, most amazing public moment I had ever been part of in my life. And what’s interesting is, at that moment the overwhelming thought and feeling I had was that I knew the arena was full of people from all over the world, not just Americans, and I got shivers seeing what affect this man had on people from all over the world. It wasn’t just Americans that resonated with this man. It took a full second for me to realize Muhammed Ali really was the most popular man on the face of the earth and I was there witnessing something great! I’ll NEVER forget that moment in time…

  4. Michael Pettee

    My reference point to Muhammad Ali is a little different: In 1985 I was to take a long train trip south from Cairo. I got to the station and all the tickets were sold out, but four Egyptian teenage boys helped me get on the train without a ticket and the five of us crammed into a seat for two and became close friends for the twelve-hour trip. At the start of the trip I spoke no Arabic and they spoke no English so we taught one another bits of our cultures and languages using hand signs and little thumbnail drawings. The four of them knew just one English word. The single English word they knew was “clai.” These four teenage Egyptian boys could not believe that I did not know this word, clai, that surely everyone in the world knew this word, and knew this man. You know, “clai.” I could not for the life of me figure out what they were talking about until about eight hours into the trip it hit me: Clay. Cassius Clay. Clai was Clay and he was the largest of heroes to these teenage boys. It was how I learned that Muhammad Ali was perhaps the single most famous, most widely recognized and respected person in the world.