It true! 20 years ago today, I watched Super Bowl XXXIV with “The Greatest” himself. Here’s how it all went down. It was January 2000, we had just survived the Y2K scare and now it was Superbowl weekend in Atlanta, Georgia with the Rams about to face off against the Titans. I was working as a detective in the Robbery/Homicide Unit and it was shaping up to be an interesting start to the new millennium. It was a big weekend for Atlanta as fans and celebrities descended on the city. On top of that, it was snowing in Hotlanta and Ray Lewis from the Baltimore Ravens was mixed up in a double murder while in town for the big game.
My brother, an Atlanta Police officer, gave me a call just before the weekend and asked if I wanted to drive some celebrities around for the next few days. There was a whole group of them in town for the game and my brother was helping manage their transportation. Weather was bad and they needed drivers who were experienced and could navigate the city streets. I was up for some adventure, so I agreed, and soon found myself calling the Georgian Terrace, a luxury Midtown hotel, home base for the next few days. The Georgian Terrace lobby quickly became a who’s who of pro athletes, TV personalities and movie stars. It was here in the lobby, where I first met Mohammad Ali. There was a small group of police officers working this effort and one of them pulled me over to meet the Icon himself. Ali knew we were all cops, even though we were not in uniform. He was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and spoke no words, but there was warmth in his face and a genuine kindness about his presence. Unlike some famous encounters, I could tell his eyes were looking at me and not beyond me. I’ve met a lot of famous people in my time, but I always remembered this one vividly, there was just something about him. After a quick photo op, he was off to his destination.
“Don’t count the days, make the days count.“Mohammad Ali
Soon I learned I would be driving Halle Berry around for the weekend…tough life right? I was not disappointed in the least bit with this assignment. However, something prevented her from arriving on time and I was reassigned to a famous duo consisting of TV host Daisy Fuentes and Supermodel Niki Taylor. You are not going to find any adversity lessons in this part of the article. My brother was also having a rough go at it, as he had the unfortunate task of driving for Carmen Electra. All sarcasm aside, these three ladies had so much more going on beyond their obvious beauty; they were very funny, down to earth, considerate and kind people. Most of the celebrities based at the Georgian Terrace were following the same schedule of events as they were part of a overarching charity effort. So, I actually ran into my brother at our first destination early in the weekend. On top of that, Daisy, Niki and Carmen decided they all wanted to keep each other’s company, so my brother and I were essentially attached at the hip for the remainder of this journey.
Ultimately, Super Bowl Sunday rolled around and it was time to drive our new friends to the Georgia Dome. I had planned on remaining with the car in the parking lot but Daisy and Niki would not have any of this. We had established a great rapport over the last few days and they ended up being some of my most favorite famous people I’ve met to date. They twisted my arm (yeah right) and I accepted the invitation to accompany them to the WebMD skybox inside the Georgia Dome. It was here I would run into Mohammad Ali again. I actually saw him earlier, a second time, in the hotel lobby prior to game day. On that occasion, we were standing across from each other, maybe 15 feet away, each of us with our own groups of people. As we were involved in separate discussions, I looked in his direction and it seemed like he was looking at me. I started to have some internal dialog, “Is he looking at me? Why would he be looking at me? Nay, he’s not looking at me”. Then the Champ raised his fist in my direction and started to shake it like I’ve seen him do during TV interviews. For an awkward few moments, he shook his fist while looking in my direction and I didn’t know if he was looking at me or someone else. Like an idiot, I did the old scan behind me to see if there was someone famous there. Finally, some guy in his group yelled at me, “He’s talking to you man!” The people in both groups started to laugh and someone in my group put there hand on my shoulder and said, “Ali’s ready to rumble”. I always wondered why Ali did that, but it was obvious to me, it was a well-intended and light-hearted gesture from him to me. More later on my thoughts about this encounter.
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.“Mohammad Ali
Now, back to Super Bowl Sunday. Once I entered the WebMD skybox, I not only spotted Ali, but there were tons of celebrities inside along with an impressive food spread to boot. Throughout the night, I switched between watching the game and talking to Howie Long (one of my Oakland Raider favorites), Doug Flutie (Heisman Trophy winner & Pro Quarterback), Corey Everson (6 time Ms. Olympia), Edward James Olmos (Actor, Director and Lt. Castillo from Miami Vice!) and others. However, I couldn’t get over the fact that I was literally watching the Super Bowl with Mohammad Ali. In the end, the Rams were crowned champions and the crazy weekend soon ended.
Many years later, when my son turned 4 years old, I started to train him in boxing, wrestling and Muay Thai. He is 11 now and we have been sparring and training partners since. When he was in 2nd grade, he had to do a school project on a historic person that he admired. He chose Mohammad Ali. Soon, I learned the story of how Ali got his start in boxing. I was surprised to learn that when Ali was just 12 years old living in Kentucky, his bicycle was stolen. He walked up to a police officer named Joe Martin, and began to tell him what happened. Ali (then named Cassius Clay) told the cop, that he wanted to “whup up” on the thief.
The officer reportedly replied, “Well, you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people”. And just like that, a boxing legend was born. The police officer, a boxer himself, soon began to mentor and train Ali. Martin led Ali to his first win as an amateur boxer and the rest, as they say, is history. I can’t help but wonder if the warmth and kindness I experienced from Mohammad Ali 20 years ago was influenced by the friendship between a police officer and a 12-year-old kid. I’d like to think so.
Ali and Martin’s story really resonated with me. When I was a young rookie policeman working the streets of Decatur and Southeast Atlanta, I was serving a predominately black community. For a lot of young kids growing up there, they were surrounded by a slew of negativity and big risks. I had some great veteran officers who taught me to never miss a chance to befriend a kid or make a positive impression. One of these officers was an older guy named Robert P. (aka Bob). Bob was one cool cat; he had a particular style about him. It didn’t hurt his persona that he looked like actor Charles Bronson. Between 911 calls, Bob could often be found talking to kids in the streets or apartment complexes. Additionally, he was a very good magician and would keep an audience with his slight of hand. I tried learning some magic tricks for my own street repertoire, but I was probably a better jester than magician. That aside, I would regularly stop during patrol and talk to kids around my territory. Sometimes I would get out of my patrol car and let a group of kids crawl around the inside, playing with the lights and siren. This was how I grew up around police, and one of the reasons I wanted to become a cop.
Two experiences I will never forget was when I drove a 7 year old girl to Child Services after removing her from her abusive home. As we walked up the path to the child services building, she grabbed my hand. She didn’t cry or say anything; she just held my hand as we walked in. I followed up with her for some time after that, visiting her at her new foster home. The second time, I was in one of the most notorious apartment complexes in Southeast Atlanta. For some time and following an incident where someone shot at a passing patrol car, we were not allowed to respond there with less than two officers. On one particular day, there were three of us walking around by the front entrance. I saw a young kid tossing a football around by himself. I walked towards him and gave the international hand signal to throw the ball. We spent the next 15 minutes throwing it back and forth. Suddenly a man walked from one of the apartment buildings and headed straight for me. He was probably in his 30s while I was around 26. He extended his hand and said, “I really appreciate you taking the time to do that, it means something”. Truer words were never spoken.
So, you may be asking yourself, “what’s the takeaway here CK?” Is it about Ali finding the silver lining to his bike being stolen or just your own walk down memory lane? Possibly both, or maybe…just maybe, its about how one kind gesture can have enough fuel and velocity to propel the unsuspecting recipient into a whole different atmosphere. Like Bob taking some time to remind kids that someone believes in them, or Daisy Fuentes inviting my Dad (her biggest fan) to have lunch with her (that really happened), or a Kentucky cop named Joe teaching a kid named Cassius how to box, or even an Iconic athlete gifting a young detective with a memory that he can still share 20 years later.