'Memories of an Icon'

I'm re-posting my first-person Ali tribute here because I realize some folks couldn't get past The Virginian-Pilot's paywall. Thanks for looking. -JH

My kids, Caylee, let, and Ethan Skype with Ali last Christmas

My kids, Caylee, let, and Ethan Skype with Ali last Christmas

I had no idea who Muhammad Ali was, no idea why enormous crowds gathered as I tagged along with my dad and Ali to various events.

To me, he was my dad’s friend. He was a back-seat passenger as I learned to drive. He was a guest at our farm who slept on a couch in the den. He was a guy who joined us for family dinner.

Ignorance was bliss on my part because Ali and I had many fun moments. Had I known of his legend, our relationship may not have been as organic.

My dad was Muhammad Ali’s attorney, agent and confidant for nearly three decades. My father died 11 years ago, so over time, our families’ communication waned. He’d call on some holidays and the kids would occasionally Skype him, but for the most part, my memories come from a time when I didn’t know who he actually was.

Ali’s death brought back a rush of those memories.

We have a family farm in Afton, just outside Charlottesville, and Ali visited often. The farm is where I learned to drive. My dad had an old Jeep Wagoneer with the type of wood paneling that would make Clark Griswold smile.

I remember, like it was yesterday, driving that hideous hunk of steel all over the wide-open farm landscape, gunning the accelerator like any reasonable kid would do. In the back seat was The Greatest, bobbing back and forth like a rag doll but giggling all the while.

While flopping around the back seat as we traversed the bumpy ground and to my dad’s exclamation of “we’re going to die!”, I vividly remember Ali calmly saying in his soft but raspy voice: “Not today. Not today. Keep going, Jason!” The Champ loved to have a good time.

A few years before, at that very farm, Ali was once again spending the night. It’s a modest place, and the accommodations aren’t becoming of a global icon. Ali decided to sleep on the couch in the den because he had phone calls to make and didn’t want to disturb anyone. I remember retreating upstairs for the night.

At some point, Ali had become uncomfortable on the couch. When I woke up the next morning, there he was next to me in the queen-size bed. As I opened my eyes, he too opened his. I’ll never forget waking up with him eye to eye.

In true Ali fashion, even at first light, he looked right at me while both of our heads were still on their respective pillows and said, “What’s for breakfast?”

I finally realized the level of his celebrity when we had a big family dinner at the Omni Hotel downtown – it’s now the Sheraton Waterside Hotel. Ali was battling a sore throat and when it came time to order, I remember the nervous waiter trembling ever so slightly. Ali being Ali decided to write down on the tablecloth what he wanted.

As we were walking out after dinner, my dad, my brothers, Ali and I all looked back to see what the loud commotion was about. It was the entire restaurant wait staff playing tug of war with the tablecloth. Ali had also autographed it.

What can you say about an icon that hasn’t already been said? The last few days have been an emotional roller coaster, not just because of Ali’s death, but because it’s also brought back a lot of memories of my dad. I’m just thankful that I was too young to realize how famous my dad’s friend was.