NEW ORLEANS -- Last September, the Baltimore Ravens received a surprise visitor to their facility in the person of Muhammad Ali, whose specific inspiration to the team was recalled that day by Jack Harbaugh, father of Ravens head coach John and San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim.
“Well, the germination of the ‘What’s my name?’ goes back to -- we were probably seven years old when we first heard the story, and that’s Jack Harbaugh telling the story," John Harbaugh told me on Monday. "I think it was the Ernie Terrell fight, when Muhammad Ali had just changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, and it was about respect. We were blessed to have [Ali's wife] Lonnie [Williams] and Muhammad to our training camp, it was actually the day right before we played the Cincinnati Bengals in the opener, and they visited our players and spent time with our players.
"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!’ We had a chance to get pictures. The really neat thing about Muhammad Ali’s that he spent a lot of time with the kids. We had a lot of player’s kids there and coaches kids were there and he spent a lot of time with them. So that’s kind of where it comes from.”
Jack Harbaugh has a long history with Ali as an inspiration, and he recalled the story of how Ali beat Ernie Terrell to a pulp in Feb., 1967, after Terrell wouldn't call Ali by the name he had chosen, changing it from Cassius Clay following his conversion to Islam.
"Boom! What's my name? Boom! What's my name? Terrell couldn't defend himself anymore -- all he could do was put his gloves up to his face," Jack Harbaugh remembered. "Both eyes were cut -- a cut here, and a cut here. His left eye was completely closed by the end of the eighth round. The right eye was closing. At the end of the fight, Terrell said this: 'I couldn't see anymore. I saw three Muhammad Alis. I didn't know what was coming.' But he knew this -- BOOM! That was right on his nose.
"The fight lasted 15 rounds. You know why it lasted 15 rounds? That's how long Muhammad wanted it to last. He said to the world, 'What's my name?' It became a battle cry in our family. We would talk to John and Jim and [sister] Joani ... 'What's my name? Respect! That's what we're looking for in this world.
"So when I tell you this, I humbly say that this man right here is my hero. This man has molded not only myself, but my family, and all the teams that I have coached. Every team I've coached has heard the Muhammad Ali story. I love this man."
The elder Harbaugh then introduced Ali to a thunderous response from the Ravens' players. "What's our name?" became the Ravens' battle cry, and they rode it all the way to the Super Bowl.
"He molded a generation," John Harbaugh said that day. "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."
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If you want to see Ali barking at Terrell and whacking him up but good, here's a bit of the fight.