The Volunteer Champ, Muhammad Ali

Hanging on the wall of Hard Knox restaurant San Francisco

From 1983 to 1993, I taught Bible to teenaged felons housed at the San Francisco juvenile hall. Until then, I never knew sixteen-year-olds committed murder or rape. And all the young men I met looked so innocent, or at the most, like a room full of candy thieves.

Teaching teenaged felons with lives on hold due to youthful anger, ignorance and mistakes was a challenge but also a lot of fun. However, what made me good at what I did was in part due to a stabbing I witnessed away from the facility and a special moment I missed out on when Muhammad Ali came up to the SF juvenile hall.

A street fight where one man stabbed another inspired me to never give up on anyone. Blood, gushed out of the victim’s upper thigh as if it were water gushing from a fire hydrant. A quick thinking bystander immediately began first aid. However, the paramedics saved the victim because they kept feeling a very faint heartbeat.

Metaphorically, I became a paramedic for some severely injured teens. By telling true stories from my own life’s experiences it enabled me to detect a spiritual pulse more easily. Eventually, I began to see with my own eyes some practicing what I preached; love, hope and respect towards one another before they were sent away.

But my friends Mike and Greg contributed to me missing out on one real special moment because they stayed ready to inspire.

I think it was in the early 1990s but definitely a “Monday Night Football!” was involved. I used “The Game” to talk myself into being too tired to volunteer that night and stayed home to watch a football game.

My church brother Greg Baskin, a boxing fan, told another brother in the church, Mike Gopaul, that he was going to San Jose that same Monday to see Muhammad Ali. That gave Mike, who worked at the facility where I volunteered an idea. He offered to tag along with Greg, with the intent of asking Ali to take part, in a video aimed at encouraging the kids at the San Francisco juvenile hall.

Now at the event, Mike and Greg waited patiently. Then one of them slipped Ali a note that read, “The Kids at the San Francisco juvenile hall could really use a lift.”

Ali, who was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, read the note. He then leaned over to his driver and said, “Get the car.”

The Champ proceeded to follow Mike and Greg 40 miles back to San Francisco and up to the juvenile hall. With video camera rolling, they all entered the building. Mike is shouting from behind his camera, “I got The Champ with me, I got The Champ with me!” I was told that staff instantly turned into wide-eyed children themselves.

Breaking all security protocol, Ali was escorted up to each of the six units; five housed boys and one for girls. The Champ visited everyone. He shook hands with staff, encouraged all the kids, including shadowboxing with some housed in my, maximum-security unit.

The following evening, several of the teens shared with me their special moment. “Fresh Dan”, a 17-year-old award winning thespian, always put on an act for attention. That night however, Dan was reenacting by putting up his dukes, giving me his big neon smile and describing how he shadowboxed with “The Champ” the night before.

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