Before the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games began, Georgia State Trooper Johnnie B. Hall received the assignment of a lifetime. For an entire week, he had to escort Muhammad Ali, throughout Atlanta, protecting the champion at every step of the way and ensuring that the boxer, who’d been battling Parkinson’s disease by then for 12 years, didn’t drop the torch once it was handed to him by swimmer Janet Evans. That moment— which almost didn’t happen, as the Washington Post reports—remains one of the most iconic images in Olympic history.
Hall, now retired, recalled the week he spent with “The Greatest,” who on Friday night died at age 74 after being treated in Phoenix hospital for respiratory complications.
For a week, I was the only state trooper assigned to Muhammad Ali. I picked him up from the airport. You wouldn’t believe the amount of people that were there. He always had time to stop, for just a few minutes, to chatterbox with them. My job was to make sure nobody hurt him. Usually, someone like that, they don’t care about law enforcement. He was very, very nice. We had a good relationship. He was living at the Peachtree Hotel on Peachtree Street. I had a room adjoined to his—so that, if he needed anything that night, I could be reached. During the Olympics, he had to be in a certain place at a certain time. I’d tell him: “We’ve got 20 minutes. It’ll take us 10 minutes to get there. We need to go.” He never said a word about it. He just called me “Little Champ.”
The [opening] day started around 5 a.m. I had to go in advance to go look at the stadium to make sure I had a way in and a way out. Then I drove back to the hotel. I got him a nap. At around 5:30, 6 o’clock that afternoon, he got dressed. I said, “Muhammad, you’ve got to light the Olympic torch between 8:30 and 9 o’clock.” When we got to the Olympic stadium that afternoon, I cracked my black Suburban’s window down, and there was that chant: Ali! Ali! Ali! It was awesome. But I thought we were going to get mobbed. I said, “If you don’t mind letting me in, and if people want to talk, or take pictures, we’ll do it afterwards. They understood my job.
My job was to stay with him until he lit the Olympic torch. With that Parkinson’s disease he had, I told [the officials], “I ain’t sure he can hold that [torch].” But they said, “Give him a shot.” I was about 10 feet away from him because, if something happened, I was on top of it to make sure it was lit. It took him a little bit longer to walk up there. But he knew what he had to do. He didn’t have any problems. He lit the Olympic torch. It was unbelievable.
I’ve never dreamed of anything like that. The next morning, I called my family and told them about Muhammad Ali. I worked so many details in 31 years. I was on Jimmy Carter’s security detail when he was running for president. This Olympic detail with Muhammad Ali is tops. It’s history. My grandkids can someday go back and look and it.