Water pump decked Muhammad Ali in Summit County, Colorado
June 7, 2016
It was a routine Thursday on April 14, 1983 at The Summit Sentinel offices in Dillon, Colorado, where I served as editor, when my phone rang about 8:30 a.m.
"Muhammad Ali is at the Silverthorne Chevron," the caller said and then hung up.
Celebrity sightings in the Colorado ski resorts are a routine thing, and most tips never pan out. I was on deadline, so I was about to dismiss the tip as another misleading adventure.
But the gas station was five minutes away, so I grabbed my camera and headed toward Interstate 70. At most, I'd lose 15 minutes.
“That’s the closest you will ever get to laying a hand on me.”Muhammad Ali to mechanic Kieth Bouma
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This was an old-style station, one rarely found anymore. It had a small customer reception area and two garage service bays. The parking lot was vacant, and there was no activity anywhere — not what you might expect if Ali was around.
An attendant greeted me in the customer area, and I sheepishly said, "This may sound stupid, but is Muhammad Ali here?"
He pointed to the service bay where I found "The Champ," his secretary and a mechanic. A short time earlier, a water pump had decked Ali's Stutz Bearcat.
The subdued Ali was gracious and approachable, but his speech was slow, quiet and deliberate.
It was evident Ali already was suffering the effects of his long boxing career. His last fight had been just a bit over two years earlier when he had lost to Trevor Berbick on Dec. 11, 1981. Previously, he had taken a beating when he lost to Larry Holmes on Oct. 2, 1980.
Prior to that fight, people already were concerned about his health.
I asked whether he had seen Holmes lately, and he said he had not.
"How does he look?" he asked. "Is he getting old and slow?"
About a year after his automotive break-down in Silverthorne, he would be diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, believed to be caused by the blows he took during his fight career. It eventually claimed his life several days ago.
But that day, Ali still could move like lightning, and he perked up when, at my urging, he began to have a mock fight with the mechanic, Keith Bouma, so I could get pictures for a news story.
As Bouma posed with his fist next to Ali's cheek and later playfully sparred with him, Ali said, "That's the closest you will ever get to laying a hand on me."
He later gave all of us a quick lesson on how to "head-slap" someone.
Once Ali realized he would be in Silverthorne a while, he agreed to head over to Summit High School in nearby Frisco where several hundred students quickly gathered in a gymnasium for an impromptu session where they talked with the champ about life, love and mainly fortune.
They gasped when he pulled out a roll of hundred-dollar bills and feigned tossing them into the crowd. Later, a number of young people would get autographs.
Ali said he had a special feeling in his heart for young people, and he said he was organizing a 15-nation tour with about 300 children to "express our concern for hunger, prejudice and the possibility of a nuclear holocaust." He had offered up $1 million to cover expenses but needed someone to donate a jumbo jet.
I don't know if that trip ever occurred.
When Ali returned to the service station and prepared to hit the road again, he said, "The way things are going, I'll only get another 300 miles before I'll have to pull over again." He inquired about service stations near Vail and Glenwood Springs, graciously thanked us all and headed for Los Angeles.
Brad Johnson is a real estate appraiser in Watertown, South Dakota and a weekly opinion columnist for the Watertown Public Opinion. He worked for The Summit Sentinel, the forerunner of the Summit Daily News, from 1981-1986.
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