During Myles Garrett’s toughest workouts, his mind wanders back to an event that took place more than 40 years ago. When the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft struggles to knock out the final rep of an especially grueling set, he powers through with the help of three words: Ali boma ye.
“It’s from when Muhammad Ali was facing George Foreman in ‘The Rumble in the Jungle,’” Garrett explained at a recent photo shoot in Berea, Ohio, the home of Garrett’s new team, the Cleveland Browns. “It’s a little chant that always gets in my head when things are getting tough.”
That the triumphs of Ali, who’s widely regarded as one of the—if not the—greatest heavyweight boxer ever, would continue to have such an impact on athletes of today shows how the fighter’s legacy lives on, even as the one-year anniversary of his death approaches.
Ali passed away on June 3, 2016. He fought in his last professional boxing match on Dec. 11, 1981—more than 14 years before Garrett was born. Yet the Browns’ 21-year-old rookie defensive end says that Ali, more than anyone, represents the type of athlete he wants to be.
“He was so passionate,” Garrett said. “Not only in the ring, but with helping others. He was a big brother figure to people on the street and a helping hand, not only in his community but everywhere else. There are even stories of him talking people off of ledges.”
Which, by the way, is true. On Jan. 19, 1981, Ali talked a man out of jumping off the ninth floor of a building in Los Angeles. Ali also traveled extensively to support children in need and people in developing countries and war zones. For his work, the United Nations named him a “Messenger of Peace” in 1998.
Garrett’s admiration of the boxer dates back to the 2006 documentary Ali Rap, which he watched with his grandmother. “She put it on the TV in her room, and I went in and just watched,” Garrett recalled. “They spoke about him and his poetry, but also about him as a boxer and him as a man. And I was just so enthralled with how he stayed true to himself.”
The phrase Garrett has taken as his workout mantra—Ali boma ye—dates back to Ali’s 1974 championship fight against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali was an underdog to the hard-punching Foreman, who was 7 years younger, undefeated in his professional career and the undisputed world heavyweight champion. But the crowd took Ali as their favorite, shouting the phrase that means “Ali, kill him” in Lingala, their native language. Ali persevered through eight rounds of punishment from Foreman before he sent the younger, bigger boxer to the canvas with a left-right combo.
“You know he was tired,” Garrett said of Ali in the fight. “He was up against the ropes. But he ended up surviving another round, and another round, and another round, to win. He kept on taking blows from maybe the hardest puncher of all time. If he can do that and put a whole country on his back, then I can do another rep. I can run another 40 yards. I can make another tackle. I can make another play. That chant makes me push a little more—it gives me another burst of energy to keep on going.”
Like Ali, Garrett aspires to have an impact on and off the field. He wants to set sack records and win titles—not just one, he says, but three—for the team that drafted him. He says all of the things you like to hear from a player so talented that he was taken with the first overall pick in the NFL Draft. But he stresses that football is just one piece of a bigger life the big man wants to lead.
“Football is what I do, it’s my job, it’s what I love. But I’m a man first,” Garrett said. What he wants as much if not more? “[To be] a great person—someone who can be respected just walking down the street, not for his athletic play, but for what he’s done in the community.”
Someone, basically, like the Champ was, when he walked the Earth. “[Ali] was there for anybody who needed it,” Garrett said. “And that’s the [type of] person who I aspire to be.”
Garrett’s interview took place at a photo shoot for Eastbay. You can sign up to receive Eastbay catalogs here.