I saw the meaning in the boxing gloves and a small bag of marbles, but the Little Red Riding Hood doll left on Muhammad Ali’s grave left me puzzled.
So did the pink steering wheel cover. A John Deere ribbon.
And two matching smiley face coffee mugs.
As I stood in a room surrounded by five years worth of trinkets left at Louisville’s favorite son’s grave, his impact on the world lived on through piles of handwritten letters, amateur artwork and an impressive collection of international items. The Kentucky boxer gained worldwide fame as much for his athletic ability as his gentle approach to life, and that's evident in many of the things that visitors have left behind.
Not every token left on the grave is so telling. Half of the memorials in any other circumstance would readily be considered junk.
But that variety and that clear pull for visitors to leave something behind was so present in the randomness of the display in front of me.
It was powerful, and that obvious admiration hit me like a jab to the gut.
Five years ago, after a long battle with Parkinson's disease, Ali was laid to rest in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery, and since then, the grave has become a pilgrimage point of sorts for his many admirers and fans.
The staff at the cemetery says that often people take Ubers straight from Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport to the grave. Sometimes these visitors don't speak an iota of English, but once they get out the word "Muhammad" or "Ali," the cemetery staff directs them carefully to his plot near the Scattering Garden on the south side of the idyllic graveyard.
The boxing legend and Louisville native was buried on a small hill adorned with flowers and shaded by a magnolia tree. Inside his casket, he rests on his side, facing the east, a nod to his devotion to the Islamic faith.
Meanwhile, on the ground above him, people from all over the world come to pay their respects and many choose to leave a token or a piece of themselves behind.
This ritual has created an impressive, bizarre, private collection over the years.
In honor of the fifth anniversary of his death, the experts at Cave Hill Cemetery and the Muhammad Ali Center gave me an exclusive look at everything that has been left behind. There are no immediate plans to display the massive collection, but for the past five years, with the exception of live flowers, the cemetery has kept and carefully stored everything Ali's adoring public has brought to his final resting place.
With a little help from Gwen Mooney, president and CEO of the cemetery, and Jeanie Kahnke, senior director of public relations and external affairs for the Muhammad Ali Center, I spent an afternoon deciphering the symbolism and the love in the hundreds of tributes.
To the untrained eye, it looked like a table at a flea market.
To the three of us? It was a treasure trove of emotional devotion to "The Greatest," and yet, also a tangled mystery.
The collection, which is usually stored away in a climate-controlled room at the cemetery, was spread out along the board room table. Each workday, head gardener Danny Key starts his shift at Ali’s grave. He polishes the stones and blows the droppings away from that nearby magnolia tree. Then he picks up whatever trinket may have been left behind from the day before.
In the early days after the funeral, he found objects and notes on the grave almost daily.
That's waned some, but it's still a consistent part of his job.
On the morning I followed Key out to the gravesite, at first glance it looked as though no one had visited Ali. Then I spotted a wilted red rose beneath the bush. A blue guitar pick sat among a handful of pocket change inside a vessel meant for flowers.
I thought, perhaps, someone had brought a guitar, played the champion a song, and left the pick as a tribute. I'd never know for sure.
A few feet away, atop the long flat stone were four coins from Thailand.
Someone, likely, had traveled halfway around the world, more than 8,000 miles, to honor the beloved boxer.
I wondered what it was about Ali that brought that person and those coins all the way to Kentucky to visit his grave.
I hadn't, but I also wondered whether I should have brought something to leave for Ali, too.
I was searching for answers, but the more I dug into the collection, the more questions I had.
Key explained that recently, he found a large black boxing glove at the site. When I felt it later, the inside was still damp from the rain that must have hit it overnight.
Once someone left a full-size rocking chair, Key told me. An empty chair is a common symbol of death that's meant to illustrate the loss of a loved one, but there's no telling how or why someone left it at Cave Hill for The Greatest.
Another time, Key found a large wooden train the size of a bread box. That one genuinely surprised him.
“I think it really meant something to somebody,” he told me, recalling the train.
Unless there’s a note, though, all you can do is guess.
So I spent much of the next two hours at the cemetery staring at the collection spread out on that conference room table and guessing what these trinkets meant with a little help from Mooney and Kahnke.
First I noticed the elephants. There were more than a half-dozen of them, and Kahnke believed they were meant to honor the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle. That historic fight pitted the undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman against challenger Ali, the former heavyweight champion, in Kinshasa, Zaire, in front of a crowd of 60,000 people.
Then I saw the butterfly and the bee motifs, a nod to Ali’s famous quote “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” They were toys, car decorations and even a hand-decorated fly swatter that looked like a honeycomb.
When I picked up a bag of marbles, Kahnke explained that Ali used to play the game as a child in Louisville, and one of his fans must have known that. We looked in the card attached and saw a rain-smudged note that mentioned his mother in between the blurs.
I moved over to the coins, and I flipped several of them over in my hand. Leaving coins behind on gravestones is a common practice that spans many cultures. The gesture can mean preparing someone for the afterlife or even just a simple "hello" or "I was here."
I saw markings in foreign languages that I could only halfway guess at their origin. Money pieces featuring the head of Queen Elizabeth II dominated the collection, but there were also others with unrecognizable symbols from far more distant lands.
The message in the money was simple. People had come to Louisville from all over the world to pay their respects.
You could see that in the numerous flags that had been left behind, too. One, nearly the size of that conference table, carried a message in marker along the top “FROM THE PEOPLE OF WALES WE LOVE ALI.”
But side-by-side with all this heartfelt symbolism was a sense of impulse. That pink steering wheel cover, for one, had likely been left behind by someone who wished they’d brought something along to leave but hadn’t.
I thought the same might be true for two snowman ornaments, a Louisville City FC soccer club scarf, a pair of aviator sunglasses with a note taped on that said “The Crawfords were here 6/21/16” and a lone silver hoop earring.
Had someone left that earring behind and kept its mate, so they’d always have a link to Ali? There was no way to know.
Next, I reached for a first-place medal from a 2016 Trampoline National Championship in Knoxville. The three of us wondered out loud whether this was left by an athlete who admired Ali. Or perhaps, it had come from a parent who’d lost the child that won it. Either way, someone had parted with an award that likely took years of practice to earn. Someone wanted to pass that piece of their own legacy on to Ali’s memory, himself an Olympic Gold Medal winner.
Finally, I turned to the end of the table where Mooney and her team had stored all the letters, photographs and newspaper clippings in plastic bags.
With these, I didn’t have to speculate how much Ali meant to his public.
I could see it in black and white.
“Thank you for your inspiration,” Brad Williams wrote in a card. “I would not be as good of a man without you. I came 4,000 miles to pay my respects + help carry your legacy on.”
“Rest in peace to ‘the greatest ever,’” another card read. “Your courage, energy, compassion and pretty face inspired millions.”
“Champs die, but legends live,” wrote someone named Stewart, who’d cut out about a dozen magazine photos of Ali.
Just before we finished up at that table and prepared to leave for the afternoon, Kahnke let out a small, excited gasp.
“I found a pearl,” she said eagerly, holding up a faded, battered boxing glove.
We’d spent so much time going through the objects and speculating about each piece that we didn’t realize someone had tucked a small piece of paper inside that old glove. I touched that glove at least twice without realizing it had something to say.
“A young boy, born in 1957, was inspired to live a life of earnest zeal by a dynamic boxing hero,” the note read. “These are his gloves of those early years, left for that hero. 7/27/2016”
Those gloves had their own story to tell about "The Greatest."
Honestly, every object on that table did.
And seeing that note inside that 50+-year-old glove only added to the wonder and emotion of all the trinkets in front of us that we didn’t fully understand.
'ROSES AND REMEMBRANCE FOR MUHAMMAD: A COMMUNITY INVITATION TO CAVE HILL'
WHAT: Visitors will be allowed to visit the grave of Muhammad Ali to pay their respects. The cemetery will have roses for visitors to put on his grave or keep.
WHERE: Cave Hill Cemetery, 701 Baxter Ave.
WHEN: June 3, 12-3 p.m.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Muhammad Ali gravesite in Louisville collects mementos from fans