As the strong guy in the ward's most effective mugging crew, Foreman had just accomplished a profitable takedown, and the gang was on its way to spend the spoils on wine when the sirens sounded. Perhaps it was just muggers' lore, but Foreman believed that Houston police traveled through the summer humidity with German shepherds in the backseat, sleeping on cakes of ice, until it was time to pursue, and eat, a mugger.
The young Foreman crawled under a house and worried that a carnivore even more vicious than himself would soon sniff him out. He knew his only chance (parable alert!) was to somehow either cross a body of water or be doused by one, thereby drowning his scent. He found a muddy pool of raw sewage from a burst pipe and rubbed it all over himself. "Stinky and ashamed, I wandered home, telling myself, I'm no thief, I'm not a bandit. And I never stole again."
Baptism by effluence advanced him from the criminal ranks but did not make him that nice a guy. "Oh, I was a dangerous fella, all right," Foreman says. "It wasn't no act. If some wealthy guy drove by in a limo and gave me a finger, I'd find him." Further refinements in character came sporadically: A public service announcement by Jim Brown lured Foreman into the Job Corps, which led him to trainer Doc Broadus, who led him to the Olympics, which deposited him on America's doorstep, which led to the heavyweight championship of the world, which led to humiliation in Zaire, which eventually led to his ministry...and so on.
But was he ever really changed? Or did he only acquire better clothes and manners? Is this new life of his just the same kind of marketing campaign that allowed a novelty act to become champion again, rich again?
"If it's an act," suggests HBO colleague Merchant, who watched Foreman in his thuggish first career and then has sat beside him during his gentler reformation, "then it's a damn good act." Merchant, like everybody else in boxing, was skeptical of the new Foreman but has come to respect his self-improvement as genuine. Not necessarily organic, because Merchant still sees flashes of anger from the big fellow, but willfully obtained, as the man determinedly followed a manual for higher purpose. Watching Foreman tamp down his worst instincts, as he only partially does in some broadcasts, is all the more impressive. Perhaps it's all as forced as his smile, which only means his goodness is deliberate, not accidental at all.
Fellow broadcaster Jim Lampley has had isolated problems with Foreman too. "He's not a bully, physically," Lampley says. "There are unusual elements in dealing with him. I have no way of knowing what I'm going to get from George." But Lampley, too, observes the effort Foreman makes to achieve a higher level of humanity. After one blowup—which is not the norm, by the way, in the HBO dynamic—Foreman gave Lampley a watch (Foreman collects vintage watches with the same passion as automobiles) and returned with a reinforced camaraderie.
But Foreman is not really of their world, anyway (and may become less of it; Foreman says he will have a reduced role under terms of his next HBO contract, which begins next year). When he is on the road on assignment, he usually disappears into the company of one of his five sons, who comes along as a traveling secretary. Lampley has shared only one breakfast with Foreman in all their years as colleagues. Nor does Foreman enjoy the traditional duties of research—he once asked Lampley on-air how to pronounce a fighter's name—and instead relies on a quirky spontaneity that is either charming or maddening. In HBO's upper ranks they say "that's George being George," and it usually makes for good television.
Foreman has a higher calling, and it's not just to service to his church (which required him to fly red-eyes on Saturday nights after fights to make the first service, until he bought his own jet). Wherever he goes, people reach out to him, as if in his congenial hulk he is the last goodness you can actually touch. He signs every autograph, poses for every picture, hugs every old lady.
Sometimes more is required. At a recent fight in Connecticut he was told about a man whose dying wish was to meet him. Do you say no, so you can get together with a colleague? Much more frustrating: Recently a note was dropped in the mailbox at his church requesting help with a young man's tuition. When Foreman finally got the message—how long had it sat in that mailbox?—the young man had been arrested and sent to jail. "I get to a lot," he says, "but nothing bothers you like the one you missed."
But even that's not what keeps him awake nights. (He schedules all appointments past noon.) Those are just opportunities, one or another of them missed, maybe, but most satisfied. It's the life of atonement required for past brutalities, none of which can really be redressed.