By Will Burchfield
Twitter: Burchie_Kid

In the wake of Muhammad Ali’s death, a number of public figures – in sports, and otherwise – have shared their remembrances of “The People’s Champion.” On Thursday afternoon, Lions’ head coach Jim Caldwell added to the choir.

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Joe Paterno and Muhammad Ali were in Harrisburg, Penn. for a joint book signing. Paterno, the late Penn State University football coach and a quasi-folk hero in those parts, had attracted a number of fans to his table. But the line to meet Ali was four or five times longer.

“So in Paterno’s way of speaking,” Caldwell recalled, raising his voice to a falsetto tone, “he says, ‘Hey Muhammad, how come your line is about four times longer than my line?’”

Ali looked over at Paterno and replied, “Joe, that’s because you ain’t whooped nobody!”

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Caldwell’s story, delivered flawlessly, drew heavy laughter from the reporters on hand. For all the legendary tales about Ali, here was one that hadn’t yet been told. And with two iconic sports figures as its main characters, it’s certainly hard to top.

Caldwell also spoke of Ali’s impact beyond the ring, commending the boxer for inspiring change.

“You have to think: it was the early ‘60s and during that time there was a lot of racial tension all across the country and he was kind of one of those guys that stood up and really was contrary to the system in some ways.

“But he’s one of those guys that you follow early on and you admire. Maybe one of the greatest athletes of all time and obviously, quite a philanthropist, and not only that an activist as well,” Caldwell said.

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When it comes to measuring the popularity of a famous figure, it is often most telling to stand one luminary next to another. Nowhere in the world was Paterno more beloved than the state of Pennsylvania – and Ali blew him away on his own turf.