Muhammad Ali visits kids at San Francisco Juvenile Hall

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by Allen Jones

From 1983 to 1993, I taught Bible to teenaged felons housed at San Francisco Juvenile Hall. Until then, I never knew 16-year-olds committed murder or rape. And all the young men I met looked so innocent or, at the most, like a room full of candy thieves.

All his life, Muhammad Ali made time to lift the spirits of young people, stopping often to spar playfully with them, making them feel like champs. Here he is on Canal Street in New Orleans on July 31, 1978. – Photo: AP
All his life, Muhammad Ali made time to lift the spirits of young people, stopping often to spar playfully with them, making them feel like champs. Here he is on Canal Street in New Orleans on July 31, 1978. – Photo: AP

Teaching teenaged felons with lives on hold due to youthful anger, ignorance and mistakes was a challenge but also a lot of fun. However, what made me good at what I did was in part due to a stabbing I witnessed away from the facility and a special moment I missed out on when Muhammad Ali came up to the SF Juvenile Hall.

A street fight where I witnessed one man stab another inspired me to never give up on anyone. Blood gushed out of the victim’s upper thigh as if it were water gushing from a fire hydrant. A quick thinking bystander immediately began first aid. I learned later that the paramedics saved the victim because they kept feeling a very faint heartbeat as they worked on what I thought was a lost cause.

Metaphorically, I became a paramedic for the severely injured teens that I would minister to. Telling true stories from my own life’s experiences enabled me to detect a spiritual pulse more easily. Eventually, I began to see with my own eyes some practicing what I preached – love, hope and respect towards one another – before they were sent away by order of the court.

I think it was in the early 1990s but definitely Monday Night Football was involved. I used “The Game” to talk myself into being too tired to volunteer that night and stayed home to watch a football game.

Metaphorically, I became a paramedic for the severely injured teens that I would minister to. Telling true stories from my own life’s experiences enabled me to detect a spiritual pulse more easily.

My friend, Greg, a boxing fan, told another friend, Mike, he was going to San Jose that same Monday to see Muhammad Ali. That gave Mike, who worked at the facility where I volunteered, an idea. He offered to tag along with Greg with the intent of asking Ali to take part in a video aimed at encouraging the kids at San Francisco Juvenile Hall.

At the event, Mike and Greg waited patiently. Then one of them slipped Ali a note that read, “The kids at San Francisco Juvenile Hall could really use a lift.”

Ali, who was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, read the note. He then leaned over to his driver and said, “Get the car.”

The Champ proceeded to follow Mike and Greg 40 miles back to San Francisco and up to the juvenile hall. With video camera rolling, they all entered the building. Mike is shouting from behind his camera, “I got The Champ with me, I got The Champ with me!” I was told that staff instantly turned into wide-eyed children themselves.

Breaking all security protocol, Ali was escorted up to each of the six units; five housed boys and one for girls. The Champ visited everyone. He shook hands with staff, encouraged all the kids, including shadowboxing with some housed in my maximum-security unit.

The Champ visited everyone. He shook hands with staff, encouraged all the kids, including shadowboxing with some housed in my maximum-security unit.

The following evening, several of the teens shared with me their special moment. Fresh Dan, a 17-year-old award-winning thespian, always put on an act for attention. That night, however, Dan was reenacting by putting up his dukes, giving me his big neon smile and describing how he shadowboxed with The Champ the night before.

San Francisco writer Allen Jones, author of “Case Game: Activating the Activist,” can be reached at (415) 756-7733 or jones-allen@att.net. Visit his website, at http://casegame.squarespace.com.

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