There are athletes who transcend their own sport, and then there are athletes who transcend all sports to be something more important, someone greater in terms of reflecting the consciousness of an era. Such a man was Muhammad Ali.
As I heard the news today of Ali's death, I began thinking of all the lessons we can each learn from his life and his legacy. Ali came of age in a nation that was grappling with the struggle for Civil Rights. In an age where the "model" black American athlete was Jackie Robinson, society told athletes to be seen and not heard. But there was too much important that needed to be said for icons to be merely voiceless faces. Eloquent speakers and writers like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X had shown that those who were facing injustice can and should speak.
And so the young Ali found his voice, and in using his voice he found a most unusual partner and foil with which to share his banter, an aging Jewish lawyer-turned-sportscaster named Howard Cosell. In an age that had seen old hatreds between the spiritual sons of Isaac and sons of Ishmael flare into violent conflict, the young black boxer who had embraced Islam and the old white Jewish curmudgeon of just how beautiful and how funny diversity could be.
And while Cosell may have helped provide a wider outlet for Ali's voice, his words and his message didn't need anyone else's help to touch lives, move hearts, and transform the way an entire society looked at its athletic heroes.
I was thinking of putting together a post of a few of the quotes from Ali that meant the most to me, but across the Internet people have already done a ton of that today, so I'll just link out to a few and close with a single quote that sums up something that I think can inspire anyone.
One of my favorite Ali quotes is about a word that you hear all too often, and it's a word I've tried to avoid myself. But it wasn't until I read Ali's quote that I realized why I hated that word so much: "Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing."
Ali challenged much of what "polite society" thought was impossible--from speaking out against bigotry and racism and war and injustice to shameless self-promotion--and he deserved every accolade he received. He was, in his own words, "The Greatest," and the world is a better place for him having lived among the rest of us. Rest in peace, champ. You will be missed.
Links to Great Quotes and Tribute Compilations
What is your favorite Muhammad Ali quote? What will you remember most about him? Let me know in the comments below.