There's the funeral service today for the man who called himself "The Greatest," Muhammad Ali.
Since his death a week ago today, presidents, kings and queens from around the world, heads of state, religious leaders and the elite of the sports world have saluted Ali, who visited the Ravens at the dawn of our 2012 Super Bowl season.
"Float like a butterfly
Sting like a bee
The hands can't hit
What the eyes can't see."
At a press conference in New Orleans before our Super Bowl victory over the 49ers three and a half years ago, John Harbaugh was asked about Ali's visit earlier that season. "Ali molded a generation. He was courage for a generation. He changed the world, not just in the ring," the Ravens' head coach said. "The ring was his platform to change the world. He spoke to our players without [actually] speaking. His presence was powerful. They knew, maybe from their fathers or grandfathers, his impact … He's my father's hero."
On the sunny field of the Under Armour Performance Center this past Monday, John's father Jack repeated the story of the Ali/Ernie Terrell fight to the 2016 Ravens that he told to the 2008 and 2012 Ravens.
First, some background that some of you know.
Jack told his children about Ali/Terrell when they were kids. The theme of Jack's message is that you don't receive respect without earning respect.
John, the Ravens' new head coach, asked his father to share the story that first season. We were coming off of a 5-11, 2007 campaign, and John wanted his Dad to help inspire the Ravens. Jack is among the best storytellers, and he was spectacular when he told the Ravens about the saga of that 1967 Ali/Terrell fight.
In 1967, Ali had recently changed his name from what he called his "slave name" – Cassius Clay – to Muhammad Ali. In pre-fight press sessions, Terrell, who stood 6-foot-7 and owned a heavyweight championship, refused to call Ali by his new name. Ali said, "When I whup you, I'll make you say my name in the center of the ring." The fight lasted 15 rounds, only because Ali carried Terrell while yelling "What's my name?" when they clinched.
As Jack said, "Ali demanded respect and took it."
Jack tells the story masterfully, and he did so in 2008, creating a mantra we carried for the rest of that season. Our battle cry became "What's Our Name!" After games and some practices, the team would come into a tight huddle, and three times, someone would yell: "What's Our Name?" and the thunderous chorus from the players was: "Ravens."
Shirts were made. The fans had fun with it. And, we earned respect that year, producing one of the top turnarounds in NFL history – reversing the record from the previous season to 11-5. We then won two playoff games on the road – at Miami and at AFC No. 1 seed Tennessee – before losing at Pittsburgh in the AFC title contest.
"If you were surprised when Nixon resigned,
Just watch what happens when I whup Foreman's behind."
Jump to the Sunday morning before our 2012 season opener against the Bengals. (We ripped Cincy, 44-13, in that Monday nighter.) We had arranged for Ali, who was in Baltimore for a charity appearance, to surprise the team. When John asked his father to tell the Ali/Terrell story again after the "walk-through" practice that Sunday, John did not mention that the former heavyweight champion would be there.
There was Jack, almost in a frenzy, telling the story: "Ali kept stinging Terrell with jabs and rights … whap, whap … He taunted Terrell, 'Say my name. What's my name?'" Ray Lewis, Anquan Boldin, Terrell Suggs, Joe Flacco, all of the Ravens, listened intently.
As Jack neared the end of the tale, Ali appeared in the distance, riding in a golf cart. "I noticed some of the players looking behind me, but I kept going," the elder Harbaugh remembered. "Then, a couple of the players whispered to each other, 'There's the champ. Is that the champ? That is the champ.' When I turned, there was the great Muhammad Ali. I finished the story and said something like, 'And here is that champion here with us today. It was a special, memorable moment."
All of the players wanted to meet Ali, who was struggling to move and talk at that time. They were excited, and you could sense that Ali enjoyed the attention. He was with a nurse and his wife, Lonnie, who was most gracious and kind to all of the Ravens. On days before games, we let players bring their families, or friends visiting from out of town, to the facility. Ali was especially tender and loving with each child he met.
Ali Was One Of My Heroes
That morning was special for me. In college, I had a Sports Illustrated cover featuring Ali on my wall. It was the days of revolution across the country. Students were marching to give minorities equal rights, and there were just as many anti-Vietnam protests. My oldest brother was killed in Vietnam, and I participated in a number of the anti-war movements.
"Man, I got no quarrel with them Viet Cong."
Ali was not the universally-popular figure then that he later became. Many despised him for changing his name and proclaiming injustices to minorities. The Vietnam War split the country, and, when Ali refused induction to the U.S. Army as a conscientious objector, he was convicted as a draft dodger, stripped of his boxing title and prohibited from fighting for three and a half years – in the prime of his athletic career.
After Ali's 1967 conviction was overturned unanimously by the Supreme Court, the great fighter returned to the ring in 1970, knocking out Jerry Quarry, a tough Irishman with an iron chin in his first bout and then "KO"ing Oscar Bonavena.
Then came the first Ali/Joe Frazier battle. Held in March 1971, the fight was shown in closed circuit at movie theaters across the country. I took all the spending money I had – $10 – and watched this spectacle at a downtown Milwaukee theater. There was no way my man Ali would lose. He was decked in the 14th by one of the hardest lefts anyone has ever seen. He bounced up at the count of three, but lost the fight by judge's decision. My friends and I were devastated.
Move to 1974, and George Forman was now the heavyweight champion after literally bouncing the undefeated Frazier across the ring with his thunderous blows, knocking out "Smokin' Joe" in the second round. That set up the "Rumble in the Jungle" between Foreman and Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire. I literally yelled at my TV for Ali to "Get off the ropes." I thought Ali's new "rope-a-dope" style was going to get him cut in half.
Until the eighth round … Ali came off the ropes to knock out the heavily-favored Foreman.
So, there was Ali in his cart on our practice field. I waited until all of the Ravens players and coaches had their pictures taken with this legend. I then approached, put my hand on his right forearm and whispered in his ear, "Muhammad, you helped stop a war when I was young. Thank you."
Ali's head turned slowly, he smiled and mumbled what I believe was "My man." His wife Lonnie looked at me. "That made him happy," she said.
Talk with you soon. Long live legends and the memories they create.