Friday, June 10, 2016

When I met Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali)

When I met Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali)

On live and love after 50

By Tom P Blake                             June 10, 2016

Today, June 10, 2016, Muhammad Ali was laid to rest. Our country lost a legend. I had the pleasure of meeting him when his name was Cassius Clay. The occasion was the 1960 Rome Olympic Games where he won the light-heavyweight gold medal in boxing.

That summer of 1960, I traveled for 85 days throughout Europe with four other guys. We slept in a VW bus, which we had picked up at the VW factory in Hannover, Germany. We spent the last 17 days of the trip living at a campground outside of Rome, driving into the city each day to take in the Olympic Games.

I was 20, and kept a dairy of the trip. After seeing Cassius Clay box in a preliminary round, I wrote in the diary, “Clay is quite promising,” perhaps the biggest understatement of my life.

The four of us got tickets to the September 5 boxing finals at the Pallazo della Sport and watched along with 16,000 others as Henry Crooke, Wilbert McClure and 18-year-old Cassius Clay won gold medals for the USA.

One of the four men riding in our bus, Mike Natelson, was a swimmer for The University of Michigan. Mike and I had been classmates and swimming teammates at Jackson High School, Jackson, Michigan.

A few of Mike’s University of Michigan teammates were on the USA Olympic swimming team. So, we got to interact with them often at the Rome Olympic Village and at some restaurants near to the Village. After the games were over, if USA team athletes wanted to stay in Europe to travel, they were allowed to sell their tickets on the Pam Am charter back to the USA.

For the four of us, our scheduled return flight was on a KLM 707 from Amsterdam. But, we wanted to stay at the games as long as we could. To drive to Amsterdam would take three days. So, we scrounged our money together and bought four seats on the Olympic charter for $120 a ticket from some of the athletes.

The charter plane was not a jet, but a 4-engine job. It took forever to get to the states. Mike Natelson slept on the floor of the plane a good share of the time. We made a refueling stop in London.

We met Cassius Clay on the charter flight. My memory of him was that he was talking a lot and was very ebullient. He was happy to meet and talk to anybody and everybody on the flight.

My seatmate on the flight was Donna de Verona, a 13-year old swimmer who had made the team as an alternate. In London at the duty free shop, she wanted to buy a bottle of booze for her father as a gift and she asked me what to buy. I told her Beefeater’s Gin. Sadly, she dropped the bottle on the concourse when we got to the states. In the Olympic games four years later, she won two gold medals and became very well known as a sports commentator and athlete.

The scene I remember the most about Clay was when the plane landed in Boston, where we went through customs. Cassius was wearing his gold medal around his neck, as were all the athletes who had won medals were encouraged to do. When he opened his suitcase for the customs agent to inspect it, he put the medal right on the top of his clothes so the agent would see that first. The agent waived him through immediately. As I recall, he raised his fist in triumph as if he had just won a boxing match.

Of course, none of us had any idea of how famous Cassius, who, of course, changed his name to Muhammed Ali, would become or how significant he would be in American history.

Fifty-six years later, I am grateful for having had that experience in my life. 

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