Is it possible to have a friend you’ve never met? It is and I do. His name is Woody Woodburn. He is a newspaper columnist and author who lives in Ventura, California. I read his books and he reads my Monday Musings. We “met” because we both have long running streaks. Mine is longer, but Woody runs a few more miles — over 5,000 last year.
I just finished his latest book, which I highly recommend, Strawberries in Wintertime. So when I heard the news Friday evening that Mohammad Ali had died, I remembered one of my favorite parts of that book.
It was 20 years ago, the year Mohammad Ali lit the Olympic Flame in Atlanta. “The Greatest”, who was moving pretty slowly, was signing autographs at the Anaheim Convention Center. Woody took his then six-year-old son, Greggie to meet him. I’ll let Woody tell his own story.
“Hi, Little Man,” Ali whispered, spreading his arms wide open. The six-year-old Little Man, who back then was quite shy, instantly stepped forward and was wrapped in a clinch. Goodness it was cool. But it turned out that the real Kodak moment was yet to come.
After a standing eight count, or maybe even a full ten seconds, Ali freed the Little Man and then held his right palm out in the universal “give me five” position. The boy, who at that age smacked hands hard enough to shatter metatarsals, gently slapped Ali’s extended palm before then holding out his own tiny palm for The Champ to return the gesture.
Ali took a swipe . . .
. . . and missed.
At the very last instant, the Little Man, as he loved to do, pulled his hand away like a matador’s red cap teasing a bull. “Too slow,” the Little Man whispered, his two front teeth causing the words to lisp slightly. Like, “tooooth lowww.” Like Ali’s own soft voice now lisps slightly. And like two six-year-olds, they laughed together at the prank.
While still roaring in delight, Ali once again opened his arms and my son once again stepped into them, except this time the shy boy squeezed back, and tightly, as though he were hugging his dear Grandpa. Ali’s eyes caught mine and I swear to this day they twinkled.
It was an end-of-a-movie fade-out and roll-the-credits hug. A full thirty-second hug. A worth-the-hour-and-a-half-drive-in-Southern-California-gridlocked-freeway-traffic hug. A hug from “The Greatest” that the Little Man, now a six-foot-three-tall man, still remembers warmly, and surely will until he is an old man.
I have two posters in the area of our garage where I lace up my running shoes each morning, one on the wall and one on the ceiling. The one on the wall says, “The race is not only to the swift but to those who keep on running.” The one on the ceiling has Mohammed Ali standing over his vanquished foe, Sonny Liston. The caption is, “Impossible is Nothing.”