Athletes put neutrality aside to witness history
Today's athletes have typically avoided getting involved in politics
But many headed to Washington to attend President Obama's Inauguration
Among them: Magic Johnson, Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown
WASHINGTON -- Standing mere feet from where Barack Obama would soon be inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States, Don King took off his oversized winter coat and beanie to reveal a red, white and blue painted jean jacket covered in political pins. Not even the 20-degree temperature could temper boxing's most infamous promoter.
"Only in America," he proclaimed, repeating his signature phrase, which he had shouted so many times before but had new meaning on this day.
"In 1974 I had signed the two biggest athletes in the world (Muhammad Ali and George Foreman) and I couldn't put them on in my country because of racism," said King, who was invited to the Inauguration by Harry Reid, the senate majority leader from Nevada. "In 1975 I signed Joe Frazier and Ali, and I had to go to Manila and make it the "Thrilla in Manila" to put it on. I never thought I would see this day in my lifetime."
King, whose jacket had pins of both George W. Bush and Obama, was reminiscent of many of his post-fight press conferences where he aligned himself with the winner no matter who he may have supported coming in.
"I am a Republicrat," he said. "I support America and whoever is best for America. I supported and love George Walker Bush because he supported us and put blacks in a position of power, but he's moving on and I support Barack Obama. He's the president for all Americans."
As King spoke, Magic Johnson walked along the platform -- the one Obama would later march down -- shortly before the ceremony got underway. Johnson gazed at the hundreds of thousands of people that had jammed the National Mall to witness history. "Incredible," he said as he soaked in the scene and shook his head alongside John Kerry. "That's unbelievable."
Nearby Kevin Johnson, who had battled Johnson for years as a point guard with the Phoenix Suns and who was recently elected mayor of Sacramento, took his seat among Washington's elite, smiling as he looked at the crowd around him. "Forty-five years ago, Martin Luther King gave his 'I have a dream' speech," he said. "The dream is now being realized with Barack Obama."
There were dozens of other athletes sprinkled around the Capitol as well, from Ali, who sat on stage for the ceremony along with his wife Lonnie ("He wouldn't have missed this for the world," she said), to San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, who came to Washington with San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis and several other friends from Maryland. "I paid a pretty good amount [for the tickets] to witness history," said Merriman, "but I had to be a part of it."
While Obama may have endeared himself to sports fans with his love of basketball and his staunch support of a college football playoff, the impact he's had on the usually apolitical athletes of today's generation was apparent.
"This is the first time in my life that I've ever been political about anything," admitted Kansas City Chief tight end Tony Gonzalez, who had campaigned for Obama. "It's the first time that I said I have a voice and that I should go out and stand up for what I believe in. Seeing someone like Barack and meeting him and reading his book, I thought he was the best person to lead our country."
Gonzalez spoke at the Latino Inaugural Ball, where he introduced Jennifer Lopez at Union Station before leaving Washington prior to Inauguration day to be with his 8-month-old daughter Malia.
"It's great and exciting that she'll be a part of this new world," Gonzaglez said. "It's something my wife and I can point to and say 'this is what you can do and this is what you can accomplish.' Anything is possible now."
Obama was even able to get Tiger Woods, who's avoided politics like he has bogies, to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the opening ceremonies Sunday. While his speech focused on the military, he had previously called Obama's election, "incredible," adding, "He represents America.
"He's multiracial. I was hoping it would happen in my lifetime. My father was hoping it would happen in his lifetime, but he didn't get to see it. I'm lucky enough to have seen a person of color in the White House."
It was a common theme among the athletes who descended upon Washington. They had come to see history being made in person. Hall of fame running back Jim Brown, who was one of the most politically active athletes of his generation, attended -- not for political reasons, but for its historical significance. Having lived through segregation and continually fighting racism his entire life, Brown was nearly speechless after watching Obama being sworn in.
"We have come a long ways," said Brown. "America has now broken a racial barrier by having a black man in the highest office."
After the Inauguration, as celebrities such as Sean "Diddy" Combs, Jay-Z and Beyoncé passed by, King was still smiling as he clinched an American flag in each hand and raised his arms.
"I believed but I never thought he'd get elected, not this quick," he said of Obama. "Anybody who tells you different is telling you a lie. I was hoping and praying that this would happen. Not just for Barack, but America. Where else could a day like this happen?"
As King would say, "Only in America."
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