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It was the absolute best
Thirty-nine years later, Camdens Donte Grant fondly recalls the day he met Muhammad Ali
A FIVE-YEAR-OLD Donte Grant is held by the late Muhammad Ali in this photo from their 1977 meeting inside the chambers of then-South Carolina Governor James Burrows Edwards. - photo by Photo courtesy of Viola Engram-Blanding

This was going to be a big day for Donte Shane Grant. The Camden resident, however, would not understand how special it was until later in his life.

Grant’s mother, Viola Engram-Blanding, dressed her then-5-year-old son to impress as you would in going to an important event. On this occasion in 1977, young Donte was heading to spend part of  the day with his aunt, Grace Engram, who was then an administrative assistant to the late South Carolina Governor James Burrows Edwards.

A trip to the state capitol, nonetheless to the Governor’s office, is something you can tell your friends about for years to come, even though the shine will wear off with the passing of time.  This, however, was bigger than just a face-to-face with the top official in the Palmetto State. 

On that morning, Donte Grant stared greatness in the eye but only with a little help for waiting to meet the youngster was Muhammad Ali, who was in Columbia to visit Edwards.

Ali spent what Grant estimated to be between a half-hour to 40 minutes talking to his young visitor. That figure was, approximately, more time than half of Ali’s 56 victims lasted in the ring with the legendary figure who passed away last Friday night at the age of 74 and whose funeral was Thursday in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Ky. Today’s memorial service is expected to draw more than 15,000 fans, religious and world leaders, dignitaries and celebrities to the city’s KFC Yum! Center.

While admitting he does not remember everything from that day, the now-43-year-old Grant was told beforehand enough about Ali that he knew this was not something which a five-year-old experiences on a regular basis.

“I remember that my aunt took me over there and when (Ali) came in the room, I was excited,” said Grant, a 1991 graduate of Camden High School.

The one thing which Grant does remember is how big the 6-foot-3 Ali looked to him and how this was hardly your serious visit to the Governor’s chambers. “I remember that he was a real big guy, that he smiled a lot and that he talked a lot of trash. 

“After you see somebody, get to know them a little and see them in the boxing ring you realize that he has a strong impact on the sport of boxing. I watched all his fights.”

Ali had fun with Grant, asking the youngster where was his wife before telling him who he was and that he was the heavyweight champion of the world. Ali, Grant said, was in a playful mood, a side which the world would witness during his frequent television appearances in the weeks leading up to a fight or, in times in-between bouts. In both instances, Muhammad Ali was a person in demand and who seemed to make time for all who asked of it from him.

By 1977, Ali was a household name. This, after all, was 13 years after Ali, then known by his birth name of Cassius Clay, shocked the world by knocking out the reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in the seventh round of their fight in Miami Beach. At the time, Clay was 22 and when Liston failed to answer the bell to start the seventh round, Clay jumped onto the ropes which enclosed the ring while shouting, “I am the greatest” to the stunned crowd.

The year 1977 was also one in which Ali retained both his WBA and WBC world heavyweight title belts after having defeated Alfredo Evangelista by unanimous decision on May 16 of that year before scoring a unanimous decision victory over Earnie Shavers at Madison Square Garden in New York a little more than four months later.

It can be argued that there was no more recognizable athlete in the world than the man who was entertaining Grant that morning in Columbia.

From that day forward, Donte Grant made it a point to watch the rest of Ali’s fights. The boxer made just four more appearances in the ring in the following four years. He lost three of these with his final victory coming when he avenged an earlier loss to Leon Spinks by getting the WBA title back with a unanimous decision victory at the Superdome in New Orleans on Sept. 15, 1978.

Ali’s career in the ring ended unceremoniously as he lost his last two bouts to Larry Holmes in 1980 before Trevor Berbick outpointed Ali in a unanimous decision win on Dec. 11, 1981 in the Bahamas to cap a 56-5 professional career for Ali who won the light heavyweight title for the United States at the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome.

The Ali legend grew by leaps and bounds in the years following his retirement from the ring. Three years after hanging up his gloves, Ali contracted Parkinson’s disease. In 1996, a trembling Ali returned to the world’s collective consciousness when he lit the torch to signal the start of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta in an emotional scene which all but overshadowed the  following 14 days of athletic competition.

For 32 years, Ali fought the disease with dignity and grace. Despite the visible shaking, Ali continued to make public appearances. He had never given in to an opponent inside the ring and he was not about to hit the mat for his toughest opponent.

Even though the world knew of Ali’s condition, it did not make it easier for Grant to take when he heard the news the passing of his hero seven nights ago.

“Really, I was shocked,” he said. “It was real shocking. “It’s hard to believe that he passed away. Everybody dies but it’s hard to believe when certain people pass away.” 

Grant said that having had the opportunity to meet and, in one way, get to spend a few minutes with such a legendary figure made coming to grips with Ali’s death harder to take.

Before Ali and Grant parted ways that day in Columbia, the champ posed for pictures and then signed a photo of himself for the youngster which Grant still has today. To say the photo is a prized possession would be a drastic understatement.

When people stop by Grant’s house, the framed picture of Ali and the signed photo to Grant stop visitors in their tracks.

“I tell them that I took a picture with Muhammad Ali when I was a kid and they will say, ‘You didn’t get a picture taken with Muhammad Ali,’” Grant said of the reaction he oftentimes will get from people. “Then, I’ll show them the picture and they’ll say, ‘Man, that’s Muhammad Ali.’ They can’t believe it.” 

That is nearly the same reaction Donte Grant had when he heard the news as to Ali’s passing. It brought him back to that day some 39 years ago in the Governor’s chambers. Now, he said, it all seemed surreal and time went by in a flash but it did leave a lasting memory for him and the day he met the man who was simply known as “The Greatest.”

“That day meant everything to me,” he said of what that meeting with the late Muhammad Ali means to him to this day. “It was the best … it was the absolute best.”