That old man was Muhammad Ali. He was shakier, more hunched and more frail than I had remembered seeing him when he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta in '96. He looked so much more fragile than I ever thought The Greatest could be that I didn't even recognize him fully until after he had sat down and a late boarder sat in the seats behind me and said, in absolute shock, "I just saw Muhammad Ali."
But, in between the moment Muhammad Ali stood near me and when he sat down, he did the sweetest thing.
He had a wonderful little smirk on his face and you could feel kinetic energy radiate from him, especially from his eyes. Those eyes sparked as they looked throughout the cabin and found two little kids (much too young to really know or understand who this man was). His smirk grew to a smile as he walked over to them, bent down and pulled out a little foam ball and did slight of hand tricks for them. He never said a word as he performed his magic. The movement was shaky, but he could still do the slight of hand and his eyes were filled with a love and happiness that danced every time the kids giggled.
Then, Muhammad Ali, the greatest heavyweight champion of the world, stood back up, shakily walked to his seat and we all flew to New York City. I saw him once more after we got off the plane at JFK, being helped onto one of those airport golf carts and being driven away after shakily signing autographs.
He was a truly special man. I respect him greatly as a champion who stood up for what he believed in, who accepted whatever punishment came his way for those beliefs no matter how harsh and whose love for children was so strong that he could not help but fight through the debilitating affects of Parkinsons (to his body and his persona) to share some of that love and wonder with two random kids on a plane headed from Chicago to New York City.