The 2012 Baltimore Ravens, like millions of others around the world, were inspired by Muhammad Ali.
Ali, the greatest heavyweight champion of all time, died on Friday. He played a role in that Ravens team becoming champions. A day before the regular-season opener, coach John Harbaugh had Ali and Ali’s wife Lonnie surprise his team with a visit. Ali spent some time with the team that day, taking pictures and shaking hands. The next day the Ravens won their season opener, their first victory in a season that ended with a Super Bowl victory against the San Francisco 49ers.
Ali inspired the Ravens, and they had an effect on Ali as well. He watched and rooted for them all season. Ali’s daughter Laila tweeted a picture of her father wearing a Ray Lewis shirt on Super Bowl Sunday that season.
My dads health is normal! Here is a pic of him today! Thanks for all well wishes http://t.co/eJxKS6bE
— Laila Ali (@TheRealLailaAli) February 4, 2013
Baltimore's players and coaches reached the top of their profession that season, and many were well-known stars in their own right. But even they were in awe of “The Greatest.”
“When I saw him, I was just shocked,” Ravens fullback Vonta Leach told The New York Times. “Just to be able to shake his hand was awesome. Just spending a lot of his time with us, that was really special.”
This is all you need to know about Ali’s impact on people: Only 11 players on the 2012 Ravens were alive when Ali fought his last bout, against Trevor Berbick in 1981. Ray Lewis, the oldest player on that team, was just 6 years old when Ali retired for good. And yet the Ravens carried Ali’s visit all the way through their Super Bowl win.
"He molded a generation," Harbaugh said before Super Bowl XLVII. "He was courage for a generation. He changed the world, but not just in the ring. The ring was his platform to change the world. That's what he's been doing ever since, and I hope he molds a generation of us – your generation with courage as you go forward. Because it all comes from the heart — he cared about people."
Harbaugh had the Ravens adopt a rallying cry shortly after he became their coach: “What’s our name?” It was adapted from Ali’s famous fight against Ernie Terrell in 1967. Terrell referred to Ali as Cassius Clay before the fight, and Ali responded by pounding him in the ring and punctuating the beating by taunting Terrell and repeatedly asking him, “What’s my name?”
John Harbaugh’s father Jack often tells the story of the Terrell fight. In 2012, just before the season started, Jack Harbaugh was telling the Ravens the story when his son’s surprise guest showed up.
"My dad was in the middle of telling the story when Muhammad and Lonnie drove up in a golf cart, and the players went crazy, ‘The champ! It’s the champ!’” John Harbaugh said before Super Bowl XLVII. “We had a chance to get pictures. The really neat thing about Muhammad Ali is that he spent a lot of time with the kids. We had a lot of players' kids there and coaches’ kids were there and he spent a lot of time with them.”
The respect was mutual.
“We were totally taken,” Lonnie Ali said in an email to The New York Times in 2013. “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.”
Even in a season that ended with a Super Bowl title, meeting the great Ali seemed like a highlight for many of the Ravens. “I can't believe I had the honor of meeting this man,” receiver Torrey Smith, who played for the Ravens from 2011-14, tweeted on the day of Ali’s visit.
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) June 4, 2016
Podcast: Why Ali will always be the greatest
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