Once, when I was 10 years old, I met Muhammad Ali.
I remember he was making an appearance at Burdines department store in Miami, and he was signing autographs. My mother encouraged me to go up to him. I did — but not without lots of trepidation.
When I was a kid, I was painfully shy. I barely talked to people I knew, let alone people I didn’t. I’m pretty sure I had some form of depression or anxiety even then, but when I was little, they didn’t call it that. They just called it being very, very shy.
So I went up to Muhammad Ali — and said absolutely nothing. I just handed him a piece of paper to sign. I wouldn’t even tell him my name when he asked me what it was. So he looked and me and said, “Okay kid. You’re the quiet type. I get it. But if I’m going to sign this for you, you can AT LEAST give me a smile. I KNOW you can smile, kid.”
As he said this, he looked me square in the eyes. He was calm, but there was a hint of the bravado that made him such an icon. To me, one of Ali’s great gifts was that his bravado was not off-putting. In fact, it was infectious — at least to me.
All I know is that when Ali told me to smile, I literally felt my face light up. The Greatest smiled right back at me. The store might have been filled with people wanting his autograph. But at that moment, it was as if I was the only one in the room with him.
I don’t remember if I at least thanked Ali. I hope I did. But I kept that autograph for many years. And I’ll remember my brief moment with the Greatest for as long as I live.