Published June 15, 2016

Ali was a hero for his life beyond the boxing ringBill and Ali 1986

By Bill Vogrin

It was one of the highlights of my career and life to twice meet a true hero and inspiration: Muhammad Ali.

My first interview with Ali was on June 6, 1987, when he was visiting the governor of Kansas. I was a Statehouse reporter for The Associated Press and I managed to spend about 30 minutes talking privately with Ali before he met the governor.

Ali was in the news at the time because he had just returned from Mexico where he had taken experimental treatments for his Parkinson’s syndrome.

I was awestruck, not by his boxing accomplishments or his massive celebrity, but because of his achievements as a human being.

Ali is a hero of mine. His courage was incredible. I remember watching the abuse he took for changing his name, his religion and daring to refuse to fight in Vietnam as a conscientious objector.

He risked his career, sacrificed millions in earnings and jeopardized his very life by taking supremely unpopular positions and standing by them.

In 1986, I found him humble, authentic and sincere.

“Once, I was the greatest champion in the world,” he whispered to me that day. “Now, I’m just a broken-down old bum.”

He brought tears to my eyes because the pain was so obvious in his eyes.

Bill and Muhammad Ali 060687 1He drooled constantly from the effects of medication and his voice was barely audible. He leaned in close to me to talk. Instead of signing autographs, he handed out printed cards with verses of scripture and his autograph.

Despite his obvious pain, he still flashed his famous smile when the cameras arrived. When the governor came in, Ali really lit up. He even turned to me and threw a combination of punches at me. I jumped and he laughed.

I also remember his hands. When I shook his, it was like a child shaking an adult’s hand. His hands were the size of catcher’s mitts. And still powerful.

The next time I saw him was in August 1989. I was a roving correspondent for the AP by then, reporting to the Chicago bureau. I heard Ali was in Macomb, Ill., helping his 19-year-old twin daughters move into a dorm at Western Illinois University.

It was quite a scene by the time I got there in early afternoon. Macomb is a county seat with a courthouse and classic small town square in the middle of its business district.

I arrived to find a huge crowd in this otherwise quiet town of about 20,000. Despite stifling heat, there were people in a line that wrapped around the square.

Bill and Muhammad Ali 060687 2At the front of the line was Ali, standing on a corner in his short-sleeved, white dress shirt. He was patiently greeting people, one-by-one, handing out his signature cards and scripture verses from the Koran.

Paul Astrouski, owner of Journey Comics for 30 years in Macomb, recalled the visit recently for

“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen on the square,” Astrouski said. “His daughters worked at the cake shop on the corner . . .  he was in there and took a stroll around the square and kids started seeing him and the word spread. He was out there almost all afternoon.”

Astrouski, who moved to town in 1965, described Ali’s visit as “easily” the most excited he’s ever seen Macomb.

“It wasn’t so much what they were saying, but that they were so excited,”  Astrouski said. “They were so excited to see Muhammad Ali. It was something they never expected to see in Macomb, and they loved it.”

They loved him, I think, because they saw in him some of the same traits I saw.

Sure, he was a flawed man, like all of us. But I consider him the transformative person of my lifetime.

So many people achieve fame for no good reason and do no good with it.

Ali gained notoriety as a gifted athlete with a magnetic personality. People loved or hated his brash and boastful nature. Most admired his eloquence  and there was no denying his powerful charm. Sure he was a relentless self-promoter, who leveraged all his wits to sell boxing tickets and himself.

But he also used his gifts to fight for civil rights, equality, respect and religious freedom. And to the very end of his life he preached love.

Imagine that.

I remember leaving our interview in 1986 sad because Ali was clearly suffering and struggling.

Seeing him standing in the hot sun in Macomb only reinforced my opinion of his true character, of the strength of his conviction to be a force for good, to lift up others and to love his fellow man.

And I’ve admired his willingness to persevere through his illness, to stand before the world in 1996 in Atlanta at the opening of the Olympic Games, his arms shaking as he held the torch.

Would I want the world to see me unable to control my limbs? Especially if I’d been so outspoken in my youth about my pretty appearance and greatness? Could I set aside my ego to be an example of strength and courage to others who are suffering and inspire them to fight on?

Ali did.

Rest in peace, Muhammad.

Bill and Muhammad Ali