NEW ORLEANS — Jim and John Harbaugh compete on many levels, most notably as coaches of opposing teams in Sunday’s Super Bowl. But when it comes to inspirational visits, John seems to have the upper hand.
After all, the Ravens have had Muhammad Ali in their corner.
Before their season opener in September, John Harbaugh, Baltimore’s coach, arranged for Ali to make a surprise visit to the Ravens’ practice. Ali spent about an hour with the players and some of their children, and he posed for pictures and shook some hands. Two days later, Ali watched the Ravens beat the Cincinnati Bengals.
Although Ali was with the Ravens only briefly, the players continued to talk about his visit during the season.
“Any time you get support from someone like that, it definitely means a lot,” Jack Cornell, an offensive lineman on the Ravens’ practice squad, said. “For him to stand up and do the things he did, it really took sports and this country to another level.”
Ali and his wife, Lonnie, struck by the team’s passion and energy, have continued to follow the Ravens.
“We were totally taken,” Lonnie Ali said in an email. “It wasn’t one thing but everything about the Ravens that impressed us, starting with the coach. They are a family, and we felt like family. We became fans.”
The Alis even sent Harbaugh a text message before the Ravens beat the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game that said they were proud of the team. In the note, Muhammad Ali also said, “If I had wings, I’d be there with you.”
Harbaugh invited the Alis to New Orleans to watch the Super Bowl this Sunday, Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne said, but they decided to watch the game at home in Arizona instead.
“I’ll be shouting and screaming and acting like a crazy fan rooting for the Ravens,” Lonnie Ali wrote. “Muhammad will be doing his usual thing: watching quietly and intently and hopefully praying when I ask him.”
Muhammad Ali is no stranger to Jim and John Harbaugh. Their father, Jack, used to watch boxing on television with their grandfather. It was then that “it all came together how Muhammad Ali, he used boxing as a platform for love, especially with children, especially with the downtrodden and people who were at a little bit of a disadvantage,” Jack Harbaugh said Wednesday. “He became my hero.”
When his sons were young, Jack used to recount Ali’s title bout against Ernie Terrell in 1967. Like Floyd Patterson before him, Terrell called Ali by his given name, Cassius Clay, even after Ali had changed it to reflect his devotion to Islam.
As he hit Terrell during the lopsided bout, an angry Ali yelled, “What’s my name?”
About a dozen years ago, Jack Harbaugh started incorporating the story into motivational speeches he gave to different teams, including those coached by his sons. In 2008, John’s first year as the coach of the Ravens, Jack came to talk. As a coda, he told the players that no one knew their name and that they would have to win to earn their rivals’ respect. During team huddles thereafter, John Harbaugh would yell, “What’s my name?” The players would respond, “Baltimore Ravens,” three times.
The story caught on. The Ravens’ marketing staff promoted the line, and fans started wearing T-shirts that bore the phrase “What’s my name?”
When Jack addressed the team in September, John arranged for Ali – who was in Baltimore to promote his charity – to drive onto the field in a golf cart just as his father was reaching a crescendo. As the golf cart approached, the players realized who was in it. When Ali arrived, he nodded for Jack to finish the story.
“When I saw him, I was just shocked,” Vonta Leach, a Ravens fullback, said of Ali. “Just to be able to shake his hand was awesome. Just spending a lot of his time with us, that was really special.”