FLORHAM PARK, N.J.—Growing up in an Elizabeth, N.J. housing project in the ’60s and ’70s, Jets coach Todd Bowles found inspiration in the late boxer Muhammad Ali.
“Great man, without even talking about the boxing aspect,” Bowles said. “What he stood for, what he believed in, what he went through to help Americans to get where they are today is unbelievable.”
Bowles admired Ali for taking unpopular stands and dealing with the heat that followed. The coach didn’t name them, but two high-profile stands Ali took were eschewing his slave name (Cassius Clay—actually the name of an abolitionist) and refusing to serve in the unpopular Vietnam War. For refusing to serve in Vietnam, Ali was denied a boxing license in every state from March 1967 to October 1970, losing prime boxing years of 25 to 28.
“He did what a lot people thought they wanted to do or a lot of people thought about doing, he just did it naturally, [now] everyone is praising him, they wanted to crucify back then,” Bowles said. “For a guy to stand up, and stand up for what he believed in, especially willing to go to jail and do all those things at the top, pinnacle of where he was in sports, and to step down like that is very rare. He did it.”
The Jets coach feels Ali helped his self-esteem growing up in the ghetto.
“As a young man growing up, [he] taught me a lot as far as respecting myself and understanding what I needed to do growing up as a man,” Bowles said.
And Bowles believes that Ali helped him get to where he is today, one of just 32 NFL head coaches.
“He stood up and stood his ground, and that paved the way for a lot of people in sports and in life, especially me,” Bowles said.