Excerpt from my book Street Cop
In 1996, I got a phone call from a close friend. Officer Hal and I had worked together on and off for years. He was currently assigned to the Motors Squad. These are the officers that ride those big police motorcycles. Their primary responsibility was traffic enforcement. They ran radar all day and issued citations in various areas in an effort to reduce traffic accidents. No one that I know of has ever accused our agency of running a speed trap. There is so much traffic in Gwinnett County and so many people speeding, officers seldom write a speeding ticket for any less than fifteen miles over the speed limit.
Motor officers did have a number of other responsibilities. One of the biggest was that of providing motorcycle escorts for VIPs, funerals, and the occasional parade. On the day that I got the phone call, I was off. Hal greeted me with his standard, “Hey, boy! What are you doing?”
I told him that I was off and did not have much going on. He said, “Put your uniform on and drive down to Richard’s Middle School. I have somebody I want you to meet.”
For me to get dressed in uniform and to go somewhere on an off day would generally mean that I would be working a part time job and getting paid very well. I asked Hal who it was that he wanted me to meet.
Hal said, “Hey, if you’re too busy, that’s ok. I’ll just tell him that you couldn’t make it.”
My curiosity was really aroused. “You have to tell me who it is, Hal,” I told him. “You know I’m not going to drive across the county if I don’t know what you are talking about.” In reality, I would only have to drive about four miles, but that was beside the point. Hal hooked me. “Do you want to meet Muhammad Ali?” he asked.
I didn’t ask for any more details. I just said, “I’ll be right there,” and hung up. I put on my uniform, jumped in my police car and was at the school within twenty minutes of Hal’s call. I have been a boxing fan all my life. I was about thirteen years old when I first saw the “Thrilla in Manila” replayed on network television. This heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was one of the greatest boxing matches in history. When I saw this fight, I became not only a boxing fan, but also a Muhammad Ali fan. The “Thrilla in Manila” was the last great fight that Ali had. He only fought for a few more years so I became a fan late. All of his fights have been replayed on television and you can watch them today on the internet or buy them on DVD.
To have a chance to meet Ali was an honor that I was not about to miss. I actually had a few of my Christian friends criticize me later because I mentioned that I had met Ali. “He is a radical Black Muslim. Why would you want to meet someone like that?” I was asked.
My answer was not very profound. “He is also one of, if not the greatest boxers ever. He is one of the most gifted athletes in history. Maybe I should, but I really don’t care about his religious beliefs. Like all of us, Ali will have to answer to God one day. I am not his judge.”
When I pulled my police car into the parking lot of the Richard’s Middle School, I saw that the Motors Unit had their motorcycles parked in a line and the officers were standing beside their bikes as if they were waiting on something. I parked and found Officer Hal. “Hey buddy!” he said. “He will be here in just a little while. Just act like you are with us.”
While we were waiting, Hal filled me in. Ali was in Atlanta with author Thomas Hauser. Hauser and Ali had just released a book that they had co-authored about Ali’s life. They were making appearances and promoting the book. I was a little puzzled about why they were at a middle school. Hal said that the only two stops in Atlanta that they were making were at an intercity school in Atlanta proper and a stop at a suburban middle school, Richard’s in Gwinnett County.
Hauser is a prolific writer, mostly in the area of sports. He has actually written several books about Ali and a number of others about boxing in general. One of the best books that I ever read about boxing was Hauser’s, The Black Lights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing.
After waiting for just a few minutes, a large charter bus pulled up. I recognized Thomas Hauser as he got off. The next person off the bus was Pete Van Wieren. Van Wieren was a well known personality in Atlanta.For thirty two years, he was one of the voices of the Atlanta Braves. He provided commentary on radio and television. Hauser and Van Wieren both stood in front of the bus and waited for everyone else to exit it.
The Motors Unit was at the school as an honor guard for Ali. When the meeting at the school was finished, the Motors Unit would then escort the bus on their way out of town. When Ali stepped off the bus, he immediately walked over to the line of police officers standing beside their motorcycles. Ali walked slowly and deliberately, a result of the Parkinson’s Disease that was wracking his body. He started at the end of the line of officers and worked his way down it, shaking hands with each officer.
I was on the far end of the line standing next to Hal. When Ali got to me and shook my hand, I said, “Nice to meet you, Champ.” Ali stopped, still holding my hand, and leaned towards me. He talks in a raspy whisper, again the result of the Parkinson’s Disease. As he leaned towards me, he whispered, “What did you call me?”
I said, “I called you ‘Champ.’”
At that Ali’s eyes twinkled and he let go of my hand. He said, “Ah, I thought you called me a ‘chump.’”
School officials then escorted the entourage into the school. There was going to be a school assembly in Ali’s honor. He was ushered into a room backstage until it was time to start. They wanted two officers to stay with Ali at all times. Somehow, Hal and I got chosen for this honor. While we were waiting, we took the opportunity to get our picture made with the Champ. I wonder how many thousands of times Ali has had his picture taken with complete strangers. I still have that photo on my desk.
Ali’s wife was part of the entourage. We found out that she actually speaks for him at these events. It was interesting to watch Ali and his wife as we were backstage. She and the school officials chatted. I was talking to Hal when I heard something buzzing in my ear. It sounded like a mosquito. I turned to swat at it and saw that the Champ was standing behind me. He could rub his fingers together so that they made a buzzing sound. When he saw that he had “gotten” me, his eyes twinkled again and he smiled. It is a shame that I never got to meet him when he was in his prime. There is no doubt that he would have been the life of any party.
When the time came for the assembly, Ali was led into the auditorium. Hal and I stayed close to the front, near the stage. There were several hundred middle schoolers in the assembly but they were all very well behaved. The assembly consisted of Pete Van Wieren speaking for a few minutes and then introducing Thomas Hauser. Hauser then discussed the book that he and Ali had co-authored. The title was, Muhammad Ali in Perspective
After Hauser finished, he introduced Ali and his wife. She walked over to the podium and Ali stayed seated on the stage. She talked for a couple of minutes about Ali’s life and the challenges that he faced with Parkinson’s Disease. She opened the meeting for questions. They had a microphone set up down front. The only question that I remember was one from a young man who asked Ali, “What was your toughest fight?”Ali’s wife leaned over him and he whispered his answer in her ear. She laughed and straightened up. She addressed the student, “He says that his first wife gave him his toughest fight.”
When the meeting ended, we escorted the Champ out of the assembly hall and back to the bus. I am still not quite sure why they chose to have Muhammad Ali appear at a middle school. I doubt any of those kids had ever even seen replays of Ali’s fights or had any idea what a great fighter and personality he had been. At the same time, I was thrilled and honored to have had the opportunity to meet the Champ.
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If you liked this story, check out my book Street Cop and read some other great true-life police stories!