By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (June 5, 2016) — A young Jeffrey “Chili” Alexander was just happy to take a free trip to Galveston.
He had no idea a weekend-long trip for a college student government convention would lead to him hanging out with iconic boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
Ali finally succumbed to Parkinson’s Disease Friday evening. The three-time world heavyweight champ and long time civil rights and Parkinson’s activist was 74.
“It was 1985 and I was at Cisco Junior College,” begins Alexander, a sergeant in his 24th year of service with the Tarleton State University Police Department. “We just happened to be staying at the same hotel where they were honoring Jack Johnson.”
Johnson, known as The Galveston Giant, was another iconic figure who fought in 123 professional bouts in the early 1900s.
Boxing, during Alexander’s youth, was more mainstream than it is today. Chili grew up in Brady, Texas watching Cassius Clay – later Muhammad Ali – fight to win, maintain or recapture his heavyweight championships.
“My dad would sit in his arm chair and fight along with them,” Alexander recalls with a laugh. “He would be ducking and dodging and throwing punches from right there while yelling at the TV, and we would all be in the living room watching with him.”
Alexander was enamored with the sport as a young man. Enough so that he almost skipped on college to try and become a boxer.
“I guess I was so in awe of him because I was so close to becoming a boxer myself. A buddy of mine had a boxing gym. I had applied to TCU and my grades weren’t good enough, so I was about to sign up the next Monday at his gym,” Alexander explained. “But then I heard registration was still open at Cisco Junior College, and that’s how I ended up being in college and eventually becoming a police officer. If not, who knows what would have happened.”
What did happen is Alexander becoming involved in student government at CJC, and ending up in Galveston, where he and a buddy named Joe – Chili has since forgotten his last name – soon forgot the purpose of their trip.
“We were walking through the lobby and Ali was in the restaurant signing autographs,” Chili recalls. “We were watching him and suddenly he looks up at me and drops the pen. He tells someone, ‘That guy looks like Joe Frazier,’ then he comes walking toward me playing, jabbing at the air.”
And Chili Alexander – as anyone who knows him to this day will attest – was just crazy enough to mock punch right back at the fighter widely recognized as the greatest boxer – and perhaps most iconic sports figure – of all time.
“I just played along with it. I started jabbing at the air, too, then I leaned against a wall and said, ‘Rope-a-dope, rope-a-dope,’ and he tapped his fists against my head real fast, it was pretty cool,” Alexander recalls. “I told my buddy Joe (Chili does remember Joe being from Menard, Texas), to hell with the damn convention, we’re here with a superstar! So we grabbed his luggage and carried it up to his room for him.”
Where they found Villanova and Georgetown playing for the college basketball championship on the television.
“The game was coming on, so we ended up just sitting there watching the game in his room,” Alexander said. “It was just Ali, one of his guys, and us.”
The Tarleton police officer doesn’t recall Ali showing even a smidgeon of the larger-than-life ego he was known for displaying when predicting knockouts of opponents and proclaiming himself to be the greatest, and of course, the prettiest, boxer in the world.
“I don’t even remember if we really had a specific conversation, it was just guys watching a game,” Chili recalls. “That was the best part – it wasn’t like he was on a pedestal or anything, he was just hanging out with us.”
One specific Chili does recall was Ali doing magic tricks.
“He did a lot of them, like he showed us how he ‘floated in the air,’ stuff like that.”
Alexander remembers how awestruck he was by the champ.
“I was just in awe of how big he was. We were just so little, so small compared to him,” Chili said. “I had never been around a celebrity, but that weekend we were around a lot of them. They were actually all down to earth. They never acted too good for us regardless how we were dressed or where we were from.”
Chili and his buddy, Joe, had other cool opportunities during their weekend with the stars.
“We were out on a balcony and right inside they were getting ready for a press conference with Sugar Ray Leonard,” Chili recalls. “One of the speakers was standing beside us and when he went in we just followed them in and said, ‘Press, Press,’ and everyone moved out of our way and let us sit right on the front row, and we were just right there. I couldn’t believe it.”
They were even invited to the ceremony honoring Johnson, the reason all the superstars had converged on the southeast Texas coast.
“We were standing outside watching all the superstars go in, and we’re just in shorts and cutoffs,” Chili explains. “Ali’s wife comes out with their little boy and says, ‘You can come on in if you want, they don’t care how you’re dressed,’ so it was on from there. It was cool sitting in there in the presence of all those superstars. You see things like that on TV, but you never realize what it’s like actually being there.”
A couple days later, before departing Galveston, Chili was wandering through the lobby of the San Luis and was startled by a soft sound just behind him.
“Ali snuck up behind me and did something with his hand, rubbing his fingers together, and when I turned around because it startled me, he’s standing there, and he leans in and says, ‘That’s what a butterfly sounds like.’”
Fortunately for Chili, the champ stopped short of showing him how he could ‘sting like a bee.’
Three decades later, Chili and his wife, Shelly, just celebrated the high school graduation of one son, Noble, Stephenville High School Class of 2016, while their eldest son, Creed, is a student at Texas Tech. While life has moved on and Chili has enjoyed a long career in law enforcement, he has forever remained influenced by Ali.
“What’s crazy is me and a buddy were just talking about Muhammad Ali on the phone the day before he died. We were talking about how great he was and me getting to meet him,” Chili said. “The next night I heard he was gone. It’s crazy.”
Not as crazy as a weekend in Galveston in 1985.
When a young man from Brady, supposedly on hand for a student government convention, instead spent the weekend hanging with superstars.
Including arguably the most iconic sports giant the world has ever known.
“I’ll never forget that weekend,” Chili said. “I’ll never forget that when the cameras were off and nobody was watching, Ali was just like the rest of us, just hanging out with the guys enjoying life.”