My G.O.A.T.

April Wilson (Woodard) Muhammad Ali, Dr. Harrison B Wilson jr.

Many don't get a chance to meet their idols, much less interview them. Three times, at different stages of my life, I crossed paths with "The Greatest," Muhammad Ali. 

First, in Tennessee, my dad had invited him to a fundraiser for Fisk University. At the world-famous Grand Ole Opry, at around three years old, there I sat, like a princess, the envy of the world in Ali's lap, my Dad looking on beside him.

Dad had the same plan to bring Muhammad Ali to Norfolk State University, where he was president.  I distinctly recall, after a long day, of events on campus, picking up the phone in the kitchen and hearing a distinct voice, "This is Muhammad Ali, The Champ. Is your Mama cookin'? I thought it was a prank at first, but then I obliged, "Yes, she is."  Ali then invited himself over to dinner.  The boxer had already fulfilled his commitments to the university but was still in town waiting for his flight and wanted some home-cooked food. My mom had whipped up some South Carolina-style fixin's: collard greens, fried chicken, sweet potatoes and corn bread. I waited anxiously, gazing out the window for his limo to pull up in the driveway. Ali sat at the head of the table, I was at the other end. I just remember his liking the food and asking, after he was done, "Was there pork in the greens?" My mother said no, she had tossed out the pork from the bowl.  

As he left, a picture was snapped of the four of us at the dinner table. The Greatest told me to listen to my parents and "be great," or something like that.  I was 12. I was afraid I would be late for dance rehearsal, so I didn't realize the magnitude of what had just happened. I got that message when I was much older.
Ali at Dinner in Virginia on NSU Campus

Fast forward to my days as a correspondent on "Inside Edition."  I had gathered all my photos, scanned them and sent multiple requests to Ali's people, hoping they would grant me an interview. I never, ever got even a response.

Then, of course, on a day when my makeup was light and my hair was in a bun, not camera-ready, my managing editor, Esther Pessin, asked, "Hey, April, do you wanna interview Muhammad Ali?" 

"Do I? Have you seen my collection of pictures with me and The Champ? I've been trying to get him for years!" I fluffed out the hair, added makeup and headed across town. 

Ali was promoting a new book, and it was a press junket -- a lot of interviews with various news outlets back to back for hours.

When my turn came up, I gave him a great big hug and showed him my pictures. Although he couldn't speak well, I understood him completely in his broken sentences. As he gazed at the photos, his eye's grew the size of sauce pans, kind of like when he would trash talk back in the day. Ali said, "You?" I explained yes, and told the story of how I sat on his lap for the whole show with my father beside him in the pin-striped suit. That look was hot in the late '70s. Then, I reminded him about his call to me during his Virginia visit at Norfolk State and how he invited himself to dinner. The Champ nodded. 

Just as I became worried that the interview, which was on video, wasn't going too well with such little dialog, he says, "Married?" I nod yes and smiled, his eyes rolled with a look of disappointment.  Ali was always a big flirt, and he loved the ladies. 

That was the end of the interview. I got maybe three words out of him, but it was enough to last a lifetime. We embraced before I left him, and our eyes smiled at one another. That was in the late '90s 

As I learned of his illness earlier this week, I kept asking my husband if he had seen the news about Ali's status. The last time I asked was Friday night. I woke to the news Saturday feeling sad, but it wasn't long before I realized how blessed I was, having not only met him once but three times and, as an adult, getting to interview him -- a highlight in my career. 

For me, Muhammad Ali was all those things people are saying about him: fearless, a fighter in every aspect, and a man who demanded respect, then showed you why you should give it to him. He set the standard for athletes who do more than just their sport but who make a difference in the world around them. Ali made many persons of color, stand up a little bit straighter and hold ours heads high when the world would have us believe we were not worthy.

More than that, I felt a kindred spirit, a paternal bond, a spark in his eye that will forever burn in my heart for The Champ -- The Greatest of All Time.

-April Woodard
Assistant Professor of Journalism Hampton University
TV Personality




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5 comments:

TPACNYC said...

Very nicely put April! 🙂

Joifulone said...

Beautiful

Kim Turner said...

Beautifully written and beautiful memories. Thanks for sharing!

Kim Turner said...

Beautifully written and beautiful memories. Thanks for sharing!

Kim Turner said...

Beautifully written and beautiful memories. Thanks for sharing!

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