Former Football Stars Reflect on Influence of Ali for African- Americans from Maine

By Warner, Pete | Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME), June 6, 2016 | Go to article overview

Former Football Stars Reflect on Influence of Ali for African- Americans from Maine


Warner, Pete, Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME)


Jimmy Nelson of Bangor and Ralph Payne of Orrington grew up in a tiny minority during the 1960s.

They were among a small number of African-Americans attending and competing in athletics at Maine high schools.

In those days, perhaps the most visible and charismatic black athlete in the United States was boxer Cassius Clay, the man who emerged as a controversial world figure as Muhammad Ali.

Ali, who died Friday at 74, played a part in both men's lives.

Ali was cocky, brash and outspoken. His demeanor did not resonate with either of the former eastern Maine football stars.

"I didn't like the guy at first. I thought, someone needs to shut this guy up," said Nelson, who was a 1965 Bangor High graduate. "I was a Joe Frazier fan. I wanted him to get beat so bad."

Payne, known for showering his coaches and teammates with praise rather than toot his own horn, had a similar reaction to Ali.

"When he first started out, his boasting I didn't like at all, and I was rooting for him to be beaten," agreed Payne, who graduated from Brewer in 1971.

However, it was Ali's boisterous nature that helped keep the spotlight not only on boxing but on racial inequality and the anti- war movement during the Vietnam conflict.

Payne was not in favor of America's involvement in the war, especially after seeing Ali stand up to the government by refusing his Army induction in 1967. He saw reports of the summit in Cleveland at which Ali convinced the likes of Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, not to support the war effort.

Payne wound up serving in the National Guard but appreciated having Ali as a spokesman willing to voice the anti-war sentiment on behalf of all those who did not support the war.

"He affected me by saying don't be afraid to stand out and stand up in what you believe, no matter what the cost," Payne said.

Payne and Nelson conceded that Ali's efforts in working toward equal rights for black citizens stood out, even though their own experiences were far different than those of many African- Americans, especially in the south. …

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