Shortly after returning from Zaire and his “Rumble in the Jungle” knockout of George Foreman in 1974, Muhammad Ali flew to Kansas City for an exhibition at Kemper Arena.
Ali, who died June 3, always knew how to seize a scene, and this was no exception.
And not just because he called out the “one-horse town” for failing to fill “this little chicken coop.”
Legendary Chiefs coach Hank Stram, whose team was 3-6 in what became his last season, was vigorously booed when he was introduced to a sparse crowd of about 3,000.
Never miss a local story.
So during a break, Ali took the microphone, looked up to Stram’s suite and played to the crowd:
“Hank Stram, I’m going to put a curse on you,” Ali said, waving his hand over the crowd as if to make it official, according to a report by The Associated Press at the time. “From now on, you’ll never win another football game until I OK it.”
As it happened, he OK’d it seconds later.
“I take it back: Hank Stram’s a good man,” he suddenly added. “The Chiefs will do all right in Denver Monday night. They’ll win.”
So it was that the Chiefs rebounded from losing six out of eight games with a 42-34 win at Denver.
But the Stram call-out had been a sham all along.
The victory, in fact, was delivered in the wake of Ali giving the team a pep talk after Stram’s son Dale had picked him up in the Stram family Buick Estate Wagon at Kansas City International and driven him to Arrowhead Stadium.
“I had this 8-track tape of Cat Stevens (who would later convert to Islam), and he was listening to that and said, ‘I really like this,’ ” Dale Stram recalled in a phone conversation Tuesday. “I said, ‘Here, Champ,’ and gave it to him.”
Practice was on when they arrived at the stadium.
But as soon as Ali walked on the field, Stram said, “practice was over.”
“He spoke to the team about believing in yourself and shocking the world,” Stram said.
All of this was because of an abiding friendship between Hank Stram and Ali that had its origins in the year Stram spent coaching at the University of Miami.
That was 1959, a year or so before Ali moved there to train with Angelo Dundee.
Stram, a major boxing fan, had become friends with Dundee before he left for the job that would make him famous as an innovator and showman of some renown himself: head coach of the Dallas Texans, who after three seasons became the Kansas City Chiefs.
Between Stram’s friendship with Dundee and friendship with influential Chiefs scout Lloyd Wells, who became affiliated with Ali’s entourage, the relationship between Ali and Stram grew to be substantial.
It was enough so that Ali sent Stram a telegram when he was fired on Dec. 27, 1974 — after Ali’s spells, alas, weren’t enough to save his job.
It was enough so that Stram was ringside in Madison Square Garden for the “Fight of the Century” between Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971.
And enough so that that same year Ali visited the Stram family home at the corner of Delmar and Somerset in Prairie Village.
Dale Stram couldn’t recall the reasons Ali had come to town, but he remembered calling his friends and urging them to visit “because you’re not going to believe who’s coming over here.”
As excited as most were for the visit, Hank Stram’s mother and Dale’s grandmother, Nellie, was skeptical of “that loudmouth.”
Still, she made her fabled seven-layer cake with chocolate and white icing and sprinkles on top.
And the two swooned over each other, Dale Stram recalled, with the help of that cake.
“The second he came in and saw that and tasted it, they just fell in love with each other,” he said. “He just melted her heart (and said) ‘I want you to come up and cook at my training camp.’ ”
The family was living in New Orleans in 1978 when Ali was preparing to take on Leon Spinks in his second fight of the year there, a fight Dale Stram would enjoy ringside next to John Travolta, among others.
But the real highlight of that time was before the fight, after Wells called Dale Stram and said, “Why don’t you come and hang out with us?”
For two weeks, he did just that.
From photo ops about town to training sessions to just chilling in his hotel room at the Hilton, Dale Stram was around Ali much of the time.
What perhaps struck him most was seeing the lengths to which Ali, known for his bluster, was going to psychologically heal himself for the rematch after losing to Spinks.
“After he was beaten by Spinks, the media jumped all over him: ‘He no longer had the heart or the skills or the desire or the ability to win, he really needs to quit,’ ” Stram recalled the media saying. “So every single day when he got into the ring, he talked to himself: ‘I’m a young man. I’m a champion. I have the heart of a champion. I hit hard. I’m fast. I’m a baaaad man.’
“He was talking to himself the whole time, every second, even as (sparring partners) are throwing punches at him. He had to hypnotize himself to believe that what everyone was telling him was not the truth. It really was one of the most incredible learning experiences of my life.”
When Stram reflects on time spent with Ali, which also included once watching with his father and Ali a replay of his 1964 fight with Sonny Liston, he thinks of Ali’s charisma and generosity of spirit.
He remembers being in New Orleans with him when Ali came face to face with a 5-year-old boy riding on the shoulders of the boy’s father.
“His eyes lit up, and he grabbed the little boy and said, ‘Do you know who I am? I’m the greatest of all times!’ ” Stram recalled, still dazzled by how childlike and kind and warm Ali could be.
Stram also remains amazed by something Ali was not: much of an athlete beyond boxing.
He remembers seeing him approaching free weights at Arrowhead in 1974 and having not the slightest idea of what to do with them.
And he remembers Ali approaching one Chiefs player (perhaps Willie Lanier or Bobby Bell) and saying, “You’re a biiiig man, you want to rassle?” … and the player immediately subduing Ali.
Of course, that could have been just for show, as so much was with Ali, who found a friend and relative NFL counterpart in Hank Stram, who died in 2005.
That was the end of one era in the Stram family, and Ali’s death one of another sort.
“It just kind of ages you,” Dale Stram said, “when your heroes pass away.”